Inside Jim Thompson—The Thai Silk Co.

September 12th, 2013
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Jim Thompson June 2013 designs.Jim Thompson photo

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thanks to designer-stylist extraordinaire Amos Kotomori, I was able to tour the Jim Thompson—The Thai Silk Co., while in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sept. 4, where Amos is working as a guest designer for the company.

The company has a total vertical production system, from the raising of silk cocoons, fabric production, printing, sewing, leather-working. It was amazing to see the work that goes on at the company's headquarters. I wish I could have seen the silk production as well, but that was further out into the country.

The company's American founder is credited with having saved Thailand's dying craft following World War II, when machine-made textiles from Europe and Japan were displacing the handwoven silks being produced by farmers for additional income.

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Nadine Kam photos
Spinning silk to create fibers that go on to the loom, below, to bring designers' initial inspirations to life before a decision is made to put a particular design into production.

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During WWII, Thompson had been assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), assigned to work in North Africa, Italy, France and Asia.

He was confident that peace would be followed by an expansion of leisure travel to the Far East and decided to go into business in Thailand. He believed that the brilliance and quality of Thai silk would appeal to the West, and had the foresight to imagine a world-class designer brand built on luxurious silks.

Along the way, silk got a boost when the costume designer Irene Sharaff used the fabric for Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 Broadway musical and 1956 film "The King and I," a dramatic interpretation of Anna Leonowens experience as a governess in the Victorian era Court of Siam. Sharaff contacted  Thompson, who sent her samples of Thai silk and photos of local dress from the mid-19th century.

Thompson had little time to enjoy his success. During a trip to Malaysia in March 1967, he left his bungalow for a walk after attending church services, and never returned, launching an islandwide man hunt. He was never found.

But the mystique of the adventurer and aesthete lives on in the company's line of scarves, clothing, handbags and home textiles.

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Designer Amos Kotomori with Tinnart Nisalak, design director for Jim Thompson—The Thai Silk Co. I asked Tinnart about his inspirations, and he said everybody asks that but he never has a good answer. Indicating my dress and jewelry that day, straight from my visit to Bali, he said it's just a feeling that is the same as the impulse that made me put on that dress that day, and pair it with those particular jewelry pieces. His so-called non-answer was actually made more sense than anything else I've been told.

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Jim Thompson's portrait is a prominent feature at the company headquarters.

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Some of the many variations of red that go into Jim Thompson silks.

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A few examples of home furnishing textiles, including a peacock feather design.

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Piecing a collection together.

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Purses in progress in the sewing room. There are no quotas for pieces produced, so employees are encouraged to take their time to perfect each piece.

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This woman is removing threads one by one, to even out the fringe (foreground) on scarves. In the west we assume technology goes into the manufacturing of goods, but machines cannot match the perfection of the human hand and eye, so seeing the labor that goes into these luxury goods should give people more appreciation for the craftsmanship involved.

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The Jim Thompson campus does not have the ambience of a factory.

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