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Lights and lace

Tawn Chatchavalvong's ties with France are becoming a sweet success

Since Bastille Day was yesterday, we asked Tawn Chatchavalvong what he liked to do when in Paris, now that his eponymous fashion label, Tawn C., has made the City of Lights its second home.

"I'm quite embarrassed to admit this, but I am probably one artist who doesn't like to go to museums," he says, with a laugh.

Museums will only find a place on his itinerary on rainy days, because he'd much rather be trying out the capital's best croissants or watching life unfold.

"I like to look at people, the city and life on the streets. I like to be at cafés to watch life happening, as well as seeing food, pastries and dessert in stores, to see what's interesting about town. It is life that gives me inspiration for my work," says Tawn.

Fashion designer Tawn Chatchavalvong at his store.

The immaculately-dressed and articulate fashion designer is celebrating his bond with France by designing a chocolate collection for Sofitel So's Chocolab. Teaming up with the Gallic hotel chain for the second time, his creations take a more abstract turn around, with half of the 24 bonbons alluding to French icons, such as the Seine and Eiffel Tower. An installation at the Pompidou Museum makes it to one piece.

Boasting flavours such as Champagne, Mont Blanc or Ceylon tea, Tawn's "Bonjour Bangkok, Sawasdee Paris" collection also has a Thai side with traditional flavours like dried banana, kaffir lime or tom yum.

Watching how people live constitutes a lot for his clothing collection, as the fashion designer reveals that talking to customers contributes to his designs. The 40-year-old explains: "It's all imagination for me, but I don't think my brand would have survived on imagination alone because I wouldn't know what customers want. Being a male designer who designs for women, it is sometimes hard for people to imagine my brand -- women designers can be their own muse and wear their own clothes, but I can't."

Yet, Tawn C. has created a solid footing for itself in just seven years -- finding a home in Paris, Kuwait, New York and Russia this season. Sold alongside the likes of Oscar De La Renta and Lanvin in multi-brand stores abroad, it is considered no small feat that this Thai designer has been picked up by his French agent to represent his distribution internationally.

The first Thai designer to receive the "Pyramid Of Excellence" accolade from Accademia Italiana is also another triumph to tack on the wall. Known for incorporating a lot of glamour and gold, the splashy socialite's staple features the highest quality materials, meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Seven years is something of a teen phase for a fashion brand and Tawn says: "Seven years is when you aren't new anymore but you aren't old either -- it's like a teen still growing. It's just started to bloom."

He credits finding the right agent and the right timing that has helped him gain global momentum in brand expansion. For those who want to join the ranks of international houses, Tawn says, you'll have to start going to trade shows, appointing an agent and taking part in the fashion weeks around the world.

The flagship at Gaysorn.

Most importantly, join the world's fashion schedule, where collections are shown seasons ahead, as opposed to being shown when the season starts, like it is in Thailand.

It is somewhat an act of clairvoyance to design something that will be trendy in six months and Tawn says: "But it means you will truly be yourself because you are working ahead of time. You do not see anyone's work and won't get influenced by that since it may unconsciously creep into what you design."

Having to work ahead of time is not his biggest headache, as it is the standardised pricing, different stocks (and tastes) for different countries and scrupulous pages of regulations for shipment that poses a larger challenge, when selling internationally.

Techniques to make the bonbons include screened images, manipulated textures and abstract interpretations.

Going international usually means brands must push themselves up a notch in order to get past the pages and pages of quality control -- surprisingly with the French not even the most fastidious for Tawn C.

"They require clear labels about how to care for products and such, but it is not as rigorous as the Middle East -- they are very strict because they are worried about counterfeit products," says the designer.

For a brand and brand owner that oozes glitzy perfection, Tawn is supremely hands-on to the point that he packs all the shipment himself and delivers his clothes to photoshoots by himself when in Paris.

He emphasises: "I believe that when you embark on a new project, if you are a designer or owner who doesn't get hands-on, you'll never know how it's done and what limitations you are working with. Just like with the chocolate, I didn't just send my sketches to the chef, I had to be in the kitchen for five days to see what manipulations could be done or not."

It was eight years ago when Tawn decided to pursue his passion for fashion.

"Back in the day, it look some time to figure out how to make a career out of fashion, because there were only seamstresses, in regards to fashion. There was no example for me to take after and it was after getting to see things abroad that I understood that you didn't have to be just that and could be a designer, too."

Quitting his full-time job as a corporate PR to study fashion at Accademia Italiana, his brand was born. Coupled with his branding and business savviness from his days of working as a PR and having a father who was a business investor, Tawn has flourishingly managed to run Tawn C. for more than half a decade.

He systematically lists three things that are a must for global success: money, talent and network.

"Everything is a cost," he explains. "Then you need to have talent too, because everyone who has a standing globally is talented with beautiful products. You must have a network and good connections or else you'll never get discovered. This combination of three is something you need to have no matter which market you enter."

Visit the Tawn C. flagship store at Gaysorn Village. The "Bonjour Bangkok, Sawasdee Paris" collection is available at Chocolab at So Sofitel Bangkok until September. Bonbons come in specially designed boxes of five (225 baht) or 16 pieces (720 baht).

Thai fillings include tom yum and mango.

Inside the flagship store.

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