Cover Story: Riding High With HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya
The old adage ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ could have been coined for Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya. The 32-year-old is the archetypal young person with ambition, drive, a zest for life and the determination to do something positive with it. Usually constantly on the move, for our appointment she is relaxed and comfortable in her Bougival home in the western suburbs of Paris. It is a city that the artistically inclined young woman knows well, having studied for a master’s degree in fashion design at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne following her bachelor of arts degree at Chulalongkorn University.
Her keen interest in the world of fashion, she believes, has been inherited from her grandmother, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother, whose intuitive, elegant and iconic sense of style—as is well documented—has had a significant impact on Thai culture and fashion. Another trait Princess Sirivannavari shares with her grandmother is a capacity for hard work. “I was taught to believe that success stems from discipline and perseverance and I’ve had some very experienced people to learn from, examples in my immediate family who demonstrated—and still do—that irrespective of your station in life, if you want to make a success of it, to contribute and be useful, then you must be prepared to work hard,” she says.
Following this mantra, after university the young princess became a trainee with leading fashion houses such as Dior, Armani and Salvatore Ferragamo. Then in 2005 her eponymous fashion brand Sirivannavari was born. Two years later she was invited by Pierre Balmain to present her collection at Paris Fashion Week, the first of many trips to the fashion capital’s glittering annual celebration of all things haute couture. In the intervening years she has showcased collections multiple times at the world’s most prestigious fashion events, becoming an internationally celebrated fashion designer recognised for her signature creativity. “This is something I am very passionate about,” she says. “Being able to share my designs with the world makes me happy. It is very satisfying when, after all the hard work, people like what you have created.”
As the maison’s founder and creative director, Princess Sirivannavari works extremely hard to fashion a unique blend of art and the finest quality of craftsmanship in each collection. Asymmetrical lines, deconstructed looks, graphic prints and avant-garde silhouettes are themes that run through her work. In 2017, her Horse, Helen and Henri collection enabled her to incorporate her love for poetry into a dreamy, romantic assortment of apparel. Going beyond showcasing her gifts as a designer, the launch of the line included an accompanying orchestral piece arranged by the princess herself, which incorporated the clack-clacking sound of a typewriter. “Adding the sound of the typewriter helped to build a crescendo and in a way mirrors a creative mind conjuring up a poem,” she says. This year Princess Sirivannavari’s Abode of Metamorphosis collection, embodying a fusion of tribal and futuristic motifs to reflect geographical diversity, was once again an unforgettable display. “My goal now is to keep strengthening the brand and making it better,” she says.
But it’s not just in the world of fashion that Princess Sirivannavari is cutting a dash. She has a number of achievements to her name as a sportswoman. Athletic from a young age, in 2005—the same year she launched her fashion label—she was part of the Thai badminton team that won the gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines. She is also an accomplished horse rider and won silver competing in dressage with the Thai equestrian team at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia. “I have ridden since I was a little girl,” she says. “It’s great fun but there is no short cut to becoming a good rider. It requires a significant level of perseverance, patience and discipline to be able to do it well.” In the same way she equates fashion to art, she also sees horse riding, particularly dressage, as an artistic form. “You have to design the moves and in that way I see it as creating art.”
Her interest in dressage also helps to illustrate Princess Sirivannavari’s drive to succeed. Not content to be simply a competent rider, she wants to compete with the best and so in recent years she attended courses at the International de Moniteur d’Equitation-Le Cadre Noir de Saumur in France, including dressage training at medium and Prix-St George level with Alain Francois and intensive instruction under Christoph Hess, the former director of training at the German Equestrian Federation. As well as finding time to study International Federation for Equestrian Sports coaching courses herself, the princess has also taken part in international competitions such as France’s Concours de Dressage Internationale de Saumur. In addition, she recently fulfilled one of her biggest dreams as a rider. “I had the opportunity to train with Isabell Werth this year,” she says. “She is a renowned multiple World and Olympic champion who currently holds the record for the most Olympic medals won by an equestrian—10, of which six are gold. It was a truly enriching experience learning from her. Looking at the bigger picture, I want to help pass on that knowledge, promote awareness of equestrian sports in Thailand while also demonstrating the capability of Thai athletes.” This is one of the reasons why she established the Princess Cup Thailand, a carnival-like equestrian event held periodically at the Royal Stable Unit at Sanam Pao in Bangkok, which encompasses dressage, jumping, eventing and best farrier and groom contests for local and international riders.
I have ridden since I was a little girl...it’s great fun but there is no short cut to becoming a good rider.
— HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya
Despite her already busy schedule—and again demonstrating her quixotic artistic nature—Princess Sirivannavari became the official patron of the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (RBSO) in 2016. While this certainly adds to her long list of responsibilities, it is a role she has taken on wholeheartedly. She tells us her grandfather, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a big musical influence when she was growing up. A keen piano player, as a child she also tried the violin and Jakhe (Thai zither) and says she has always had a strong appreciation for classical music, particularly the baroque period and the works of Chopin and Debussy. Being part of something that contributes to not only the preservation of classical music in Thailand but also to its promotion among new generations is something that fills her with pride and joy.
In her capacity as RBSO’s patron, the princess’s ultimate goal is to help drive the orchestra to ever greater heights. “This is all very exciting for me,” she says. “We have an abundance of talented musicians here in Thailand. My vision is for us to become a world-class orchestra comfortable with performing at the top concert venues around the globe.” A hands-on director (she also chairs the orchestra’s artistic committee), the princess even designed the orchestra’s new logo and she enthusiastically gets involved with the audition and selection of musicians, the choice of music programmes the RBSO will perform, and with identifying international artists who might be invited to Thailand to play with the orchestra—and help improve it. “I believe music is truly a universal language that can help strengthen relations beyond borders and foster better understanding,” she says of her musical philosophy, adding, “I recently visited Austria and saw how the Vienna Philharmonic works. It was fascinating and I think it is important for the RBSO to learn from leading orchestras such as this. We have already instituted a more organised framework and increased performances from a few shows a year to approximately 30, many featuring internationally renowned soloists. Our musicians must also be secure to practise their craft because we want them to be among the best in the world.”
My vision is for us [RBSO] to become a world-class orchestra comfortable with performing at the top concert venues around the globe.
— HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya
An animal lover at heart, the down-to-earth princess is the proud owner of eight Yorkshire terriers, a labrador, a golden retriever and a Siberian husky and enjoys spending time with all of them. Royal duties and work notwithstanding, she is also a globetrotter. “Greece and the South of France are at the top of my favourite destinations list,” she smiles. “And I love Paris, so I visit all three quite often.” While she is content to bask in the Mediterranean sun, one of her recent adventures took her to the wilderness of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Equipped with her favourite Leica camera, she was able to capture the picturesque landscapes of the savannah and the way of life of the Mara people. Once again showing a talented eye for composition, her images led to a solo exhibition entitled Little Wild at Leica Gallery Bangkok. “I was only in Kenya for five days—not long enough for such a photogenic country— but it was one of the most exciting and enriching adventures I’ve had,” she says. “I’m fortunate to be able to travel, but my heart will always belong to Thailand, my forever home. In the end nothing compares to the enfolding warmth of true family.”
- Photography Dominic James