How Indigo Became The Cornerstone Of Philip Huang And Chomwan Weeraworawit's Sustainable Fashion Collections
Fashion designers have always been obsessed with youth. They parade teenage models down runways, favour millennials over boomers and fall all over themselves to court the latest fresh-faced Hollywood stars.
Not Philip Huang—his closest collaborators are grandmas.
“It was April 2015, and we went on this road trip to find the indigo grandmas,” recalls Huang. He had recently left his home in New York, where he had enjoyed a successful modelling career, to relocate to Bangkok with his wife, Chomwan Weeraworawit, a co-founder of creative consultancy Mysterious Ordinary and an expert on intellectual property in the textiles industry.
The couple had long been intrigued by how clothes and colours are made, having attended indigo dye-making workshops years earlier, and so were intrigued when they started hearing stories of communities in Thailand’s northeast province of Sakon Nakhon that specialised in making the pigment. “We didn’t have any [work] in mind when we went on the road trip; we were just curious about this blue colour and where it comes from—and I wanted to see more of the country,” says Huang. Adds Weeraworawit: “We did a bit of research, printed out a list of villages, and just dropped in on them—it’s about 13 hours’ drive from Bangkok.”
Across the Generations
As soon as they arrived, Huang and Weeraworawit fell in love with the place. They threw themselves into learning the techniques used by local craftspeople to make indigo and hand-spun silk and cotton, and they found themselves returning to Sakon Nakhon and the broader Isan region every few weeks to experiment with materials with anyone who would welcome their ideas, although that was not always the case.
“Villages are dyeing collectives, where there’s always a head grandmother,” says Weeraworawit. “We were very lucky to find one grandma who was really experimental in her own approach. In other villages, we’d suggest things like working with cashmere and they’d say, ‘We would never contaminate our batch with cashmere’. Whereas this grandma was like, ‘This feels nice, let’s try it.’” Within a year, the couple had founded their own label, called Philip Huang, and begun working on a collection made in collaboration with Sakon Nakhon’s grandmas. Huang designs the clothes, while Weeraworawit oversees branding and the creative direction of campaigns. In January 2017, the pair presented their first collection in New York.
From their very first trip to Sakon Nakhon, Huang and Weeraworawit were struck by the unconscious eco-friendliness of the grandmas’ methods. Indigo is a material that is crushed from leaves by hand, then added to a fermenting vat, where it develops into the deep blue dye. The process is painstaking and time-consuming, but also steeped in tradition that invites contemplation.
“There’s only so much you can push a vat,” says Huang. “It becomes exhausted, then you need to feed it [with ingredients like lime and tamarind], let it rest.” This means you can only produce a handful of clothes at a time, avoiding the waste that often occurs when clothes are manufactured on an industrial scale. Locally made fabrics in Sakon Nakhon are also sustainable. “Farmers wear hand-spun, hand-woven cotton out in the field—and they wanted to share with us these beautiful fabrics. All their clothing is made to last,” says Weeraworawit. “But the things we talk about—sustainability, passing on traditions down the generations—those are not hot topics to them. They’re thinking about survival.”
In his first four collections, Huang used these traditional Thai techniques and a palette of natural dyes to create unisex clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of New York, Paris or Milan. There were clean and simple pieces, such as oversized T-shirts and crew-neck sweaters made from Isan cotton, and also some that were elaborate, like Huang’s flowy, indigo-tie-dyed kimono-style jackets and ikat jumpsuits, each of which is made from a unique four-metre-long strip of patterned cloth.
Jumping Into Action
Now, the couple are looking to push the boundaries of the fabrics themselves. “Silk is often seen as a delicate material that can only be dry-cleaned and needs to be treated with care, but in my research, I found that it is actually one of the strongest fibres,” says Huang. “So I started to treat it in a rough way to see how durable it can be and it’s evolved into a puffer jacket where one side is silk and the other side is nylon. It’s tough—you can go skiing in it. Silk is a smart fabric, so will keep you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm.”
Huang has also begun sewing futuristic reflective piping into the seams of his ikat-patterned jumpsuits. “I was thinking, ‘If I was wearing this in New York, which functions would I need on this?’ I skateboard and ride bikes, so I wanted a piece that would work for that as well.”
This fusion of sportswear and traditional fabrics was partly inspired by the young villagers in Sakon Nakhon. “What you see all over the world, particularly in developing countries, is that craft is going away and being replaced by knock-off sportswear, lots of polyesters because that’s what kids want,” says Weeraworawit. “But instead of merging the two, which is what we’re trying to do, they see it as you either wear craft and handmade clothes, or you wear modern clothes. I think there’s room for both.”
The couple’s research suggests using indigo may improve sportswear: “Indigo actually provides natural UV protection and is antibacterial—some samurais in the past would wear indigo clothes under their armour because if they were wounded there was less chance of infection,” says Huang.
This mix of old traditions with modern lifestyles will feature in Huang’s next collection, Vision, which is being released this month. “This collection sums up everything we’ve been researching for the past four years,” says Weeraworawit. “Philip is really looking into other colours and ways of using things—like he was explaining with silk. People don’t do that here. Silk is something that you have to respect. So, for someone to come along and really just give it a beating and change it into something else, that shows there are alternative ways of approaching things, a way of combining things—we are hybrids of two things ourselves.”
Weeraworawit is Thai, grew up in London, studied in Paris and worked in New York, while Huang was born in the US to parents who’d emigrated from Taiwan. The couple have three children, who they’re raising in Bangkok. “In a way what we’ve created with the brand is an alternative way for us to be able to live,” says Weeraworawit, alluding to their past lives in New York, where she worked as a communications and branding consultant while Huang shot to fame as the first male model of Asian origin to by hired by brands such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. “Philip’s here in Thailand doing what he loves. We still get to travel. I still get to use the connections and relationships that I’ve made through Mysterious Ordinary over the years. They’re our collaborators.”
Through her projects with Mysterious Ordinary—which have ranged from organising film festivals to producing advertising campaigns for fashion brands—Weeraworawit has worked with leaders in the creative industries around the world, including actor Tilda Swinton, Palme d’Or-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Korakrit Arunanondchai, among many others. All of these friends, as well as the experiences Weeraworawit has shared with them, are inspiring the next step of the Philip Huang brand—the opening of its first store.
“It’s definitely going to be in Bangkok,” says Weeraworawit, who adds that they hope to open the space this summer. “There’s always an insane high season here when people from around the world come to visit us, but more and more it’s not just the high season—people are coming all year. And people want to visit studios and creative spaces—not just places in malls. So we want our contribution to be somewhere you can try on some clothes, maybe we could offer some semi-bespoke stuff, you can learn about the [dyeing] process and we could host pop-ups. I was just on the phone with [designer and actor] Waris Ahluwalia, who now makes teas—it would be a great place for him to do a pop-up.”
And of course, it will be a space for the indigo grandmas, too. “When we go to the villages in Sakon Nakhon, we go to the grandmas’ homes,” says Huang. “It will be nice to invite them to our store, to our home.”
See also: Creatively Speaking With Chomwan Weeraworawit Huang