Pim Sukhahuta wrinkles her nose and laughs. A high-profile play-off between the celebrity Hilton sisters wasn’t exactly how she wanted to break into the world of international fashion, she explains. But when Nicky Hilton and her famous sister Paris bought the same chambray buttoned dress, designed by Pim for the Sretsis label, the tabloids jumped on it.
“It was the breakthrough for us, in the US,” Pim says. “The competition in the newspapers was who wore it best. Paris Hilton is not my ideal customer, but she certainly gets a lot of publicity, so thank you.”
After years of fashion obsession, beginning when they played dress-ups as toddlers, three Thai sisters founded Sretsis (sisters spelled backwards) in 2002. Based in Bangkok, where it showed its new spring-summer collection on Monday, the label sells across the world, including in Australia, and Pim’s collections of saucy, frothy, fantasy clothes have caught the eye of legions of fashion buyers. Last year Beyonce Knowles was seen in a high-necked, sleeveless, very short, tiered Sretsis dress, exciting a lot of fashion blog comment. “Beyonce is not the kind of girl I imagined wearing my clothes, but she looked great,” Pim says.
The Sretsis collections morph retro with a new edge for the modern woman. “With each collection we try to give something new to our customers,” Pim says. “It’s classic but with a playful twist. I love vintage. I want to incorporate it with modern dynamic lifestyles, to make it now.”
Wearing a black satin dress encrusted with embroidery and beads around the neckline, Pim is also sporting a large, ornate and temporary tattoo on her inner arm. It’s Taiwanese, she says. She wore it to a rock concert and it’s proving remarkably long-lasting.
This same slightly anarchic mood runs through her designs. The new spring-summer Sretsis collection includes a black dress with delicate embroidery on the ruffled bodice. The eyebrow-raiser is in the ruffles; on one side they march upwards in narrow tiers and on the other side they march downwards. A gentle fawn silk organza creation, meanwhile, is embellished with slightly droopy hand-made silk roses – a Great Gatsby taste of times past – but it seems the dress may be almost transparent in certain light.
The collection, titled Make My Heart Melt, is strong on pastel colours and frills, high-waisted short satiny skirts and appliqued leggings with attitude. Polka dots on flounces, a tangerine horizontally striped mini-skirt, chambray overall shorts: the look is young, sassy and very feminine, all hallmarks of the sisters’ brand.
Pim, at 30, is the middle Sukhahuta sister. Kly, 32, is the eldest and in charge of marketing and promoting the Sretsis brand. Matina, 28, is the youngest, and her Matina Amanita jewellery weaves a glittering trail through the Sretsis collections.
Kly, clad in skinny black jeans, a thickly encrusted silver jacket and stratospheric heels, says the sisters want to do their bit to boost Bangkok’s reputation in international fashion circles.
“We want to make Bangkok more of a fashion city,” she says. “It’s better now, but in the past people thought that if they wanted to be really fashionable they had to wear an imported brand. Our first objective was to expand to the international market, but now that’s done, we want to make Thais believe in local brands.”
Still, Pim is adamant Sretsis is not just a Thai brand, it’s global. Sretsis models are almost never Thai; they’re usually willowy blondes. Certainly, Sretsis’s success in Thailand followed the label’s international plaudits.
“If you’re more established overseas, people accept you more here,” Pim says. “To begin with some people said the clothes were too avant-garde, but they’re just playful. Six or seven years ago, people [in Bangkok] didn’t enjoy dressing up in anything too out of the box.”
Trained at the Parsons school of design in New York, where she lived with her sisters for four years, Pim doesn’t mind challenging traditional ideas about Thai fashion. “Out of the box” is easy for a Thai designer who doesn’t really like Thai silk, the fabric that has become ubiquitous in Thai design. The shiny, slightly knobbly material turns Pim’s thoughts to old, high-society Thai matrons. She loves silk, it’s her favourite fabric, but she likes it supple and slithery. “I really wish the industry would be a little bit more creative,” she says. “It’s very difficult to work with those factories; they don’t want to change. It’s silk with a certain look; you immediately think of old ladies. I like working with silk chiffons, silk satins, mixing them with different textures.”
As well as designing the garments, Pim designs the textiles for her collections, choosing the prints and, in some cases, the embroidery. One collection had fabrics stencilled with ultraviolet pigment, so the designs could be seen only in sunlight.
Sretsis imports fabrics from Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as sourcing them locally, but all the garments are fashioned in Thailand. There are 25 seamstresses working in the Bangkok headquarters and they hand-finish many of the garments.
Pim was an intern with US designer Marc Jacobs, and she still feels his slightly off-the-wall influence in her designs.
“I admire him so much; his vision, what he’s done to the fashion industry; changing the way people look at things,” she says. “He can take a cheap thing and make it luxurious, he can make you see it in a different way. You don’t have to be rich to be luxurious, it’s about the aesthetics of beauty and how you enjoy it.”
Style is important, she says. A woman can be dirt poor and somehow twist inexpensive basics into a whole new look. And no one needs to stick to the rules. “It’s grunge girl and glamour girl to take what is beautiful and put it together with a sense of style. It’s glamour to take it and give it a new spin.”