Punk shocker

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 August, 2006, 12:00am

In recent weeks, an icon of British punk fashion and attitude has been plastered on Bangkok billboards: Vivienne Westwood, a clothes designer still remembered for dressing the Sex Pistols. She has since made the leap from street outrage to haute couture, becoming a grand old dame of British fashion at the age of 65.

Her designs fetch high prices in the world's most fashionable cities, though rarely make a showing in Bangkok. But now you can take a tour through Westwood's rags-to-riches career at an exhibition at the Thailand Creative and Design Centre. The show is on loan from London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

The impressive design centre opened at the end of last year, on the top floor of the ritzy Emporium shopping mall. It's the brainchild of Pansak Vinyaratn, a senior policy adviser to the prime minister, and a tireless booster of Thailand's creative industries. He reckons that for Thailand to develop its economy, it must leverage its creative talent - to put a stamp on its products - or else risk being overtaken by other low-cost manufacturers.

At the show's opening, its curator said he wanted Thai artists and designers to reflect on their own traditions and find inspiration in Westwood, who rose from a working-class background. '[This is] an education programme, not a fashion show,' Mr Pansak told reporters.

Westwood's clothes are a long way from the sleek, tailored look favoured by Bangkok fashionistas. Tartan skirts, shiny corsets and ripped shirts show her journey from self-taught punk clothier to an established designer with an eccentric view of the world.

A pair of 25cm platform heels worn by supermodel Naomi Campbell - who fell while wearing them on a catwalk - are among the items on display.

The question is: how, exactly, does this bold approach sit with Thailand's own fashion and design industries? Westwood is first and foremost an iconoclast, as were the Sex Pistols as they snarled their way into the collective pop consciousness.

She rips tradition apart for inspiration, and isn't afraid to shock or offend - provided the end result has artistic merit.

It's a far cry from the trend among Thailand's well-heeled - to wear the same labels and styles as their peers, and woe betide anyone who dares to be different. This conformity is grounded in a conservative culture that prefers time-worn tradition to genuine innovation, unless it comes safely wrapped in a foreign brand with a status to match.

I'm also struck by the irony of showcasing a designer associated with the Sex Pistols and their bilious riposte to the British monarchy.

That's not a lesson that goes down well in royalist Thailand.