Cracking Suvadee Phungbunphra's Fashion 'Pin' Code
The fourth of six siblings, Suvadee Puipunthavong Phungbunphra, founder of leading fashion brand distributor PP Group, says that growing up in the Puipunthavong household was always fun. “It was like having friends around all the time. We grew up as a close unit with a lot of love and we hardly ever fought,” the 45-year-old smiles. “I’m closest to my brother Orand, who is the fifth child and only boy. He later joined me at PP Group.”
Schooled at Mater Dei and then Chulalongkorn University, Pin—as she prefers—excelled in mathematics. “Numbers have always been my forte, which is why I chose to study economics as an undergraduate at Chula and as a master’s degree student at American University in Washington DC,” she says. Living in the states for several years presented an invaluable learning experience. “It’s a pity though that I went to Washington because many of my friends went there too. That may sound strange but it meant I was still hanging out with Thais overseas and didn’t really develop a network of foreign friends, which is something I regret.”
That isn’t to say Pin didn’t enjoy the experience. “There were five of us and we shared a house together, which was great fun. We all wanted part-time jobs for the cash and experience and when I was very young I had always loved role-playing as a cashier at a supermarket. So that’s what I did. I got a job at a Whole Foods supermarket working the cash register for US$7 an hour. I loved the beeps of the scanner,” she grins. “I was there for almost a year and in a way it compensated for my lack of foreign friends because I had to interact with all sorts of people every day. It improved my confidence and interpersonal skills.”
After attaining her master’s degree in 1999, Pin initially wanted to become a financial consultant or an investment banker. “Those were the popular choices at the time with us economics majors,” she explains. “I managed to find work at Booz Allen Hamilton, a big consulting company where I was an assistant to the investment team. I had to do all the small jobs nobody else wanted, but that taught me a great deal about being professional. I realised that if I wanted to be successful I had to understand all levels of the business. You’ve got to start from the ground up.”
At the age of 24 the young woman decided to move back to Thailand where a job in the fashion industry was in the offing. “A friend of mine told me that Louis Vuitton was looking for a person to fill the role of assistant to the general manager in Thailand. I was already interested in fashion and so I thought I would give it a try. I had no experience in the field but I wanted to know everything about it,” she says.
What followed was a four-year crash course in the apparel business, during which Pin also dipped a toe in public relations with Fendi, before she struck out on her own by opening PP Group. Her first role at her newly formed company was as brand manager of the Christian Lacroix and Emilio Pucci labels in Thailand. “I started PP Group in 2003 after the brands approached me to see if I was interested in becoming a distributor. Initially I thought it too big a project for a relatively inexperienced 28-year-old to handle, but it was such a good chance to really establish myself in the industry,” Pin explains. The fashion world in Thailand at the time was comparatively small and knowledge of distribution sources and deals only came about through word of mouth.
We were a very young business—but we asked for the chance to show them our capabilities and very soon they became confident in our abilities.
Under Pin’s leadership PP Group thrived and began to develop relationships with other luxury marques. “One of the fashion houses that really had us knocking on their door was Yves Saint Laurent,” she shares. “The sticking point with them was our perceived inexperience—we were a very young business—but we asked for the chance to show them our capabilities and very soon they became confident in our abilities. As a distributor we don’t just buy and resell, we’re not a trading company. We have to understand the ethos of each brand, its principles and the lifestyles of people who buy them. It is our job to take the brand and establish it physically in the market and mentally in the minds of the consuming public. We create long-term goals for each label and work with the owner to achieve them.”
Today the PP Group client roster includes household names in fashion like Givenchy, Longchamp, Loewe, Tory Burch and Roger Vivier. The business currently represents nine brands after the addition of uber street wear label Off White and Pin admits she is proud of how far the company has come. “I developed a passion for fashion and paired it with my love for business and finance. I created my ideal job if you like and I have never been bored doing it,” she laughs.
I’m also into Givenchy at the moment for their cool lines and strong silhouettes. You just feel empowered wearing Givenchy attire.
As one might expect being so invested in the fashion industry, over the years Pin has developed a shrewd eye for design and a personal dress sense that saw her lauded with Tatler Thailand’s Style Award in 2020. “I have always preferred elegantly simple and practical above fussy frills and frivolousness,” she smiles. “I worked out ages ago that you don’t really dress for anyone else, you dress for yourself. So wear what you like and hang convention! You have to love yourself and be yourself.” The executive says she is particularly enamoured of clothing by Loewe at the moment. “I love their attitude and style: not too much and no bling. I’m also into Givenchy at the moment for their cool lines and strong silhouettes. You just feel empowered wearing Givenchy attire.”
Two years after establishing PP Group, Pin met future husband Piti Phungbunphra at the Hi! Magazine launch party. Less than two years later, in 2007 their first son Prin was born. “It was then that brother Orand joined PP Group. He stepped in to help with the management while I was on maternity leave. Very much into fashion like me, he found the whole business really interesting and so stayed on after his three-month stint expired,” chuckles the mother of two, who welcomed younger son Pann to the family fold in 2009. “My boys are 13 and 11 now and both take after their father. I probably spend way too much time with them but I love them so. I take them to school every day and at the weekends I’m the typical soccer mum, driving them to football or basketball practice,” she laughs.
Despite her role at PP Group and her much-loved domestic obligations, Pin has still found time to start a new venture in Cafe Kitsune, which opened in September last year. “It is my first foray into the F&B industry and it came about after we launched the Off White brand. That experience made us realise that there were untapped opportunities in the youth market. I knew that the French-Japanese Café Kitsune outlets were popular with adolescents and young adults—the cafes also retail hip street wear—and so we called the Maison Kitsune people up and asked if they wanted to go into partnership.” The decision to open during the economic slow-down caused by the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t taken lightly and Pin adds, “It’s true we’ve held back a bit with promotion and the like but we are already looking at more outlets in anticipation of an economic upturn during 2021.”
For all her time spent in the fashion industry the lady admits she has very simple hobbies. “I just love hanging out with friends, working out to get rid of stress and cooking comfort foods. That said, sometimes I enjoy a crazy night out when it is needed,” she laughs. Being raised in an open-minded household she cites her mother as a personal inspiration. “She never does anything for herself, but for her family. And that’s how I want to be.”
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- Photography Chaiwat Kangsamrith
- Hair Pichit Poobanthat
- Make-Up Itthigorn Laksameechanporn
- Styling Prisana Kittichotikul