Thai-Indian designer Sukhbir “Sam” Sethi talks about people’s perception of his profession and explains why fashion design is actually a man’s world. BY REENA KARIM
At his recently opened design studio Suwannee on Sukhumvit Soi 24, Sam Sethi, shares that even though the realisation for his true passion came much later in his life, he has always had fashion in his blood.
“I realised [at age 7] that I had this flair for coordinating colours. My father had no idea what my talents were. My family was very conservative. They weren’t OK with me being so stylish.”
He recounts one such incident: “One year, we were in Chandigarh and our father took us to stitch our school uniforms and get some coloured clothes made. After the tailor had taken all the measurements, I remember telling him I wanted bell-bottoms. He said, ‘No, your father won’t agree.’ I said, ‘Never mind, he won’t notice. Just make me my bell-bottoms.’ When the clothes were ready, my father [scolded me].”
Being stylish also made him stand out at school. “I was always considered different among friends in college and school. I was always nicknamed. [But] it did not bother me. I just went with the flow. Back in college, if I started a trend, it would just go on. [I wore] khaddar kurtas and torn jeans with Kolhapuris and Gandhi bags.” At one point, he recalls having so many clothes that he had to organise a garage sale to get rid of them.
A Winding Path
Despite having a flair for fashion, studying design at that time was simply out of the question for Sam. So he pursued a career in medicine. “No one I knew in my generation went to study fashion designing. After boarding school, we were put into the textile business. For those who spoke English, parents opened up tailoring shops for them.”
These days, he tells me, it has become more acceptable to open up and show your talents. “[Back then], a person who would become a seamstress or a designer, was considered a different kind of person,” Sam recalls. “They [were] labelled as being too flamboyant. That stigma was always there. I remember in India, if the person had that flair, they would say ‘Yeh kya ladkiyon jaise kaam kar rahe ho.’”
After quitting his job at Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals in Thailand and a short stint at a self-owned stock trading company, Sam took his first step into fashion. He started designing neon t-shirts in bulk for an African buyer and did a range of sportswear for a Middle Eastern client. But it was a gig designing children’s wear for a chain of department stores in Dubai that sealed his fate in designing and got him started on a career that has spanned over two decades. In 2012, Sam changed directions and started designing womenswear, something that he had wanted to pursue for a long time.
The career switch wasn’t easy, he says. “To a large extent, I don’t think my extended family understands what I am doing. My father still looks at me thinking, What is he up to? What are his earnings, profits? But I think I have crossed all of that, and I don’t let it bother me.”
A Man’s World
It is widely acknowledged that men have dominated the fashion industry the world over, yet strangely, people still continue to associate the craft as a feminine pursuit. But Sam is of a different opinion. “I feel that the designing part of it is more of a man’s world. A man wants to see a woman beautiful, and he has his own conception of how to make her look beautiful. Men appreciate beauty in every kind. They go through the details. They like to see perfection. That’s why men are very successful as cooks, tailors, designers, hair stylists, even in art and decor.”
Browsing through the racks at his sun-drenched studio—and secretly wanting to try on some his exquisite pieces—I immediately pick up on the colour indigo in many of his garments. “I am very intrigued by the dye,” he says, almost reading my mind. “I feature it in all my collections.” I also notice stacks of unstitched fabrics in cabinets and plenty more in cartons on the floor. “I have this weakness for buying prints and [fabrics],” he admits. “Anything that catches my eye. It’s an addiction. I wish there was a rehab for this. My family wishes there was.” He goes on to share anecdotes of his over indulgences in stores in Sampheng and India.
We go through some of his newer pieces, and he tells me of his fondness for Thai patterns. He illustrates by drawing a kanoke motif and shows me how he likes to use them in his garments, infusing them with embroidery. “I have always loved everything Thai; I am fascinated by the culture, handicrafts, the music, fabrics…I am more Thai than Indian.” His daughter Swanti laughs, saying that he was Thai in his last life.
The Next Move
This year, he has some big plans and isn’t shy of sharing them with us. In April, he will be showcasing a collection at Ruam Chai Taan Phai AIDS Charity show, a foundation supported by Her Highness Princess Soamsawali. In 2013, he garnered much recognition for being the only Thai-Indian designer at the show. His one-of-a-kind silk creations also won him praises from the princess herself. Needless to say, he was invited to do a second show that same year. Sam gives me a sneak preview of his latest collection for the show titled Beautiful Kashmir. Through this range, Sam aims to bring Kashmiri embroidery into fashion. This season, though, he intends to stay away from silks, adding, “I want to show the beauty of the embroidery, not the fabric.”
But it’s not just womenswear that Sam wants to make his forte. Having designed recently for a groom and his father at an Indian wedding, he hints at a possible menswear range in the future. But he is also quick to add, “You need to be courageous enough to wear my menswear.”
Sam is also in talks with Aza and Ogaan [stores in India] to retail his brand in the motherland. Without holding back, he also shares his dream of running a restaurant-cum-boutique space, where he would do all the cooking—a place called Patio behind K Village has caught his eye.
Looking back, he wishes he had gotten into this line from the very beginning. “I would have been in a very different place now. I would have been in Milan, New York. I am coming in pretty late compared to others.” But the designer is obviously no stranger to adversity and scepticism. He has done an uphill climb before, and is confident he can do it again.
Published in Masala magazine February 2014