Visions From the East

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Fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul during Olympus Fashion Week 2005 in New York City

Growing up in Omaha, Neb., fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul always felt more American than Thai. Maybe that was because Panichgul, 29, spent most of his time listening to mellow '70s hits from the Carpenters like Top of the World and I Just Fall in Love Again, or maybe it was because he had more of an affinity for clean, American sportswear than he did for the more ornate styles that are popular in his native Bangkok.

"When I went back there for Christmas last year I noticed that everyone was listening to the Carpenters and Burt Bacharach too," he says, sitting in his loft-like showroom in Manhattan's trendy meat-packing district. Despite his fondness for Western things like '70s light music, Panichgul says his love of fashion, as well as his reserved, almost conservative sensibility, reflects his Eastern origins. "There is definitely an Asian influence in me; I just don't know where it's coming from."

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Panichgul (pronounced pan-itch-gal), a former fashion writer who designs under the name Thakoon, showed his first collection at the just concluded New York Fashion Week. He is one of four young Asian and Asian-American designers — including Jeffrey Chow, Derek Lam and Peter Som — who stole the spotlight under the tents in Manhattan's Bryant Park last week with quirky, quiet and sophisticated clothes.

While established fashion stars like Marc Jacobs were wowing the front row with Crayola-bright colors and funky fabric mixes — or, in the case of Narciso Rodriguez, all-white minimal looks — this new group steered clear of any blatant fashion trendiness. Instead, these designers infused their clothes with subtle dressmaking details and a ladylike ease. They also share openly commercial ambition. Though all of them have been in business for just a few seasons, they have attracted the attention of big department stores like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

You could call it an Asian invasion, except that none of these designers would classify his look in such confining geographic and cultural terms, even though each admits that his work is informed by his roots in unexpected ways. "I am not the type to splash dragons all over the clothes," says Som, 33, who grew up in San Francisco, the son of Hong Kong-born architects. Indeed, his clothes are more C.Z. Guest than Suzy Wong, yet he acknowledges that his clean lines and color sense are inspired by traditional Asian architecture and the vibrancy of Asian textiles.

Mostly, though, Som thinks that the current rash of Asian designers and design students in the U.S. is a generational phenomenon. "My parents had more pressure on them to become doctors or lawyers. With this generation there is an open-minded feeling in terms of what you can pursue as a career," he explains. So it is that many Asians, both here and abroad, are entering into fashion and design.

"It's certainly a phenomenon," says Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. "Many of the designers at [New York City's] Parsons School of Design, where I critique, are Asian." Gilhart says they have a different "demeanor" from extroverted fashion personalities like designer Zac Posen. "They're very serious," she says, "and much more internal."

According to Timothy Gunn, chair of fashion design at Parsons, a lot of Asians are coming to the U.S. to pursue fashion careers because there are so few fashion schools in countries like South Korea and Japan. In the Parsons fashion department alone, 40% of the students are Asian — mostly from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and now also China. "Within the next couple of seasons we'll be seeing even more Asian designers coming onto the scene," says Gunn. "This is a global time for fashion, and such cultural diversity adds a real design diversity. They have a very specific take on form and function and a unique sense of color."

There is also a cultural duality to the design aesthetic of the young Asian designers. Derek Lam, 38, who was born in the U.S. but has lived in Hong Kong, sees the influence of Asian propriety and restraint in his clothes. And even though he has worked for American sportswear giants like Michael Kors, he still refers to what he calls an Asian sense of rusticity, evident in the handiwork on a muslin cardigan or the Chinese floral block print on a shirt. In the spring collection he showed last week — his fourth — Lam brought out pastel chiffon tea dresses inspired by the 1930s. But while the silhouette was refined and sensual, many of the fabrics were handloomed linens and denims.

"Dressing well is something intrinsically important to Asians," he says. "I remember for my grandfather's 80th birthday, my mother sent me out to buy something nice to wear, and I came back with a pair of Matsuda shorts and a Yohji Yamamoto jacket, and she told me to get a suit instead. 'It's not about you,' she would say. She always said dressing well is about being polite in society. It's about respecting others."

That idea of society and politesse distinguishes the attitude of this generation of Asian designers. Whereas Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, who emerged on the Paris fashion scene in the early 1980s, were about pushing the boundaries of fashion and making radical statements on the runway — all black palettes, jackets with three sleeves — this new group looks generally to more classical and conservative muses. Panichgul is inspired by Cecil Beaton photographs. Chow — who showed bed jackets made of sequins stamped out of Coca-Cola cans and embroidered brocade coats inspired by Masai patterns — looks to such women as cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein. And Som, who showed gold velvet pedal pushers with delicately beaded chiffon blouses, is enamored of eccentric society women like Edith Sitwell.

"I like the duality of things — something Western with something Asian or African," says Chow, 36, who was born in Hong Kong and has worked for design houses like Perry Ellis and Pucci for more than 10 years. "That's very Hong Kong, where you have East and West co-existing. And you also have a very proper approach to fashion." So far, it's a look that seems to be catching on — at least for spring 2005.