Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Sampanthawong
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
Mobile: (66) 1-925-7187
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July 16-18, 2004

BANGKOK'S STYLE STATION
An AIDS charity event brings fashion to the masses
by Jennifer Gampell

In status-conscious Thailand, the only residents who take trains are those who can't afford to travel by private car or plane. So when Ranu Suriya and Gidaraj Ketmongkon--two nurses from Thailand's rural northeast--arrived at Bangkok's bustling Hualampong railway station on the afternoon of July 9th to wait for their train, they hardly expected to see hordes of stylish yuppies milling about.

Normally the nurses wait for the train sitting on the red plastic chairs that cover the station's ground floor. But that day, the banks of seats had been moved to the sides to make way for long rows of garment racks hung with clothing and accessories that had been donated by over 20 top local fashion brands. All proceeds were to go to charities for children with HIV/AIDS. While waiting for the overnight train to their Buriram hometown, Ms. Ranu and Ms. Gidaraj found themselves in the middle of Thailand's first major AIDS-related fashion event.

Conceived by a loose affiliation of socially conscious young Thai and foreign professionals in the arts and culture fields who call themselves "We Think," the event--called Fashion Market for AIDS--was modeled on similar functions held in Paris. "It's a simple concept that you use capitalism to serve a social cause," explained French-educated Pracamkrong "Kaeow" Pongpaiboon, one of the organizers.

The group originally planned to launch the project for December's World AIDS Day, but moved the date forward to coincide with the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok that is happening now. "It was important to show that not only Thai NGOs and the do-gooding groups are concerned about AIDS," said Ms. Kaeow.

"We wanted people with AIDS to know they're just like us." agreed Banluesakdi Hiranratana, a visual merchandiser with the über-cool Greyhound fashion house and café. "This is the first time we in the Thai fashion industry have had the chance to show we're all in the same boat and share the world together."

Throughout the afternoon, well-known local folksinger/activist Kai Ponsan played music and dispensed AIDS information from a small stage near the station entrance. Despite competing for attention with blaring TV monitors, departure announcements, free food giveaways and general passenger cacophony, he was in extremely good spirits. "I've played at AIDS-related events in big conference halls, but I've never seen anything like this happening in a free public place."

Chumpon Apisuk of "Empower," a long-running Thai nongovernmental organization that champions the rights of sex workers and AIDS-related causes, obtained the State Railway's permission to use Hualampong. "Holding it here is a breakthrough in terms of making Bangkok's public spaces accessible," he believes. "And it brings back a lively atmosphere to the AIDS movement which once held lots of activities but has been quiet for the last few years."

Sen. Mechai Viravaidya, who founded the hugely successful AIDS organization Population and Community Development Association in 1974, blames the current Thai government for the drop in AIDS activities and the rise in infection rates among young Thais. "Public education about AIDS has been in a state of suspended animation for almost three years," he said during a recent press conference for the Fashion Market.

This AIDS event was certainly animated, in part thanks to its emphasis on a matter that young Thais don't take lightly: fashion. With price reductions of up to 70%, the Fashion Market for AIDS attracted hordes of local students. Most of the 14- to 20-year-olds were regular devotees of standard adolescent hangouts in downtown Bangkok, but had rarely--if ever--been to Hualampong. Intent on grabbing as many bargains as possible (a three-item limit was eventually imposed), the teeny-bopper fashionistas wouldn't stop to answer questions about their levels of AIDS awareness.

Similarly, they ignored the many paintings by HIV/AIDS-affected children and continually knocked over the 230 knee-high female figures arranged around the perimeter. The figures, part of a papier-maché art project called "Labour Sans Frontier," were created by migrant Burmese sex workers who'd been invited to the AIDS conference but were denied travel documents by Thai provincial authorities.

Most waiting passengers watched the feeding frenzy at the racks as spectators at an art event, though a few came forward tentatively to see what all the fuss was about. Several older rural women dressed in polyester pants and print blouses claimed they saw no difference between the latest offerings by Soda, Fly Now and U2 and items available in their provincial hometown markets.

By late afternoon, selling was halted so the 50 nonmodels--local TV stars, singers, artists, photographers-- could prepare for the 7:30 p.m. fashion show under the tutelage of a famous Bangkok catwalk trainer. Capped and scarved passengers from Thailand's Muslim south looked bemused as the local celebs practiced weaving between clothing racks to the thumping techno accompaniment.

Pre-show entertainment included a visit by Sen. Mechai, more universally known as "Mr. Condom" and his entourage of Cops & Rubbers who walked the crowd dispensing free condoms. Provincial types and urbanites alike got down to Modern Dog, a 10 year-old rock band whose lead singer Pod is involved in We Think. A band member said they'd played at benefits for other causes, such as stray dogs and the homeless, but never before for children with HIV/AIDS.

Front-row seats at fashions shows are usually reserved for the likes of Vogue Editor Anna Wintour. But this Friday night, the coveted rows were occupied by working-class Thais heading home to the provinces. Most had never seen anything like it, except perhaps on TV. At the end of the very professional-looking show, the mart opened again for business. Its numbers swelled by all the artsy Bangkok bohemians who'd come to see the show, the crowd descended upon the clothes like piranhas attacking a wounded boar.

The glossy event failed to entice Ms. Gidaraj and Ms. Rana, however, the two rural nurses who seemed more interested in boarding their train and getting home. "Don't you even want to look?" I asked them. "There are great clothes for as little as $2.50."

"We don't have any extra money," said Ms. Gidaraj with a smile. "Besides, nurses wear white uniforms and socks and we'd look silly in this stuff."

 

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell