Finnish Fashion Mixed with Thai Hill Tribe Style

Finnish designer Marianne Javinen working at the Doi Tung Development Project in Chiang Rai, however, has been fortunate to achieve just that. Regrettably, though, she never got to meet the late Princess Mother (the present Thai King’s mother), who started this noteworthy project. But of course the present Thai royalties have visited several times, sometimes staying in the Royal Villa that the late Princess Mother built on the mountain.

     With 24 years in Thailand, working in refugee camps for the Finnish missionary church on various handicraft projects, and with more than 10 years on the royal initiative Doi Tung, naturally Marianne has a lot of experience and many stories to tell.

     However, we focus on her achievement as a foreigner in Thailand, on her becoming the person in charge of developing the whole handicraft venture and staying on the project and gaining such success and ever-increasing attention both locally and abroad.

     Sometimes, when she has visitors from Scandinavia, they express great surprise: “From Finland? Why are you here?,” they ask and turn even more surprised when they learn that it is a royal project. “Even Thais wonder how I got into this,” says Marianne. “It has been an interesting opportunity with lots of different visitors coming here; state visits, ministerial visits and delegations from international organizations.”

     ”We started with just ten ladies, weaving and sewing,” Marianne explains. From then onwards, the project has developed into a handicraft industry producing on a big scale capacity – and now about to expand the facilities – employing hundreds and feeding 1,625 persons, including hill tribes people like Lahu, Akha, Thai Yai and others.

     In this most northern part of the country where the local drinking water brand is called ‘Yellow Surprise’, opium which used to be the common crop is now substituted with other produce like Macadamia nuts, coffee, vegetables, flowers and decorative plants. The Doi Tung area is fairly known for its own coffee brand, but most people probably know where it is if they are told it is part of the Golden Triangle.

     The visit by ’the royal mother from the sky’ – “Mae Fah Luang” – back in 1987 changed everything. The people gave the late Princess Mother this title since she used to arrive by helicopter to the remote villages in the mountain area, ‘…like the descent of a divine mother who has been sent from the heavens to ease their troubles.’

     Her Royal Highness decided to reforest the Doi Tung mountain and to build a villa there where she would settle down one day, so then the project was commenced and the Mae Fah Luang Foundation was appointed to run it, with the intention of improving the quality of life for people living on the mountain.

     The result so far is quite impressive with the mountain sides again covered with trees, the Mae Fah Luang Garden, an Arboretum, nursery gardens, agriculture – and then the handicraft centre.

     Marianne came on for phase two of the project that aimed at improving people’s livelihood and increasing the per capita income to a minimum of 30,000 Baht in accordance with the royal strategy of ‘helping them to help themselves’.

     “In the beginning I was working with everything. We had some Thai supervisors; we were selecting the materials and training the ladies to weave the different techniques and so on. It was very busy,” she remembers.

     “In the beginning, we brought the hill tribe style into the fabrics, and then matched it with some more unique colour fabrics. Now we are going back to that, but maybe not so strongly ethnic by trying to adapt it to western style,” says Marianne.

     Last year, Mae Fah Luang introduced their first ready-to-wear fashion collection and Marianne thinks it has changed tremendously. “We were very small from the start so we could not produce the materials and did not have all raw materials and the right techniques. All together the quality was not high enough for this type of products. With the new designers and the colours and patterns, it has changed a lot.”

     From plain, simple Finnish style with even strict colours, the designs have recently begun to include more colourful patterns that also target younger age groups among the Thais. However, the Finnish influence stays on with Marianne. “I think there is quite a lot,” Marianne laughs. “Sometimes our director says, ‘It looks Finnish. It looks too Scandinavian’. But of course, I think that comes with the designer’s background. It is something in you. Now that we have Thai designers also, it seems to be that their designs are more colourful. I prefer to have more of the unique colours, plainer and so on.”

     Does she think the Mae Fah Luang fashion collections could be popular in Scandinavia? “Yes and no. I do not think they would be in Finland. Some would, some not. I think they are too colourful. The Finnish designers go to the big shows in Europe and then they adapt the style a lot to fit into the local taste, which is quite simple.”

     So far no fashion garments have been exported and the project would need to standardize quite a lot, according to Marianne, and label the fabrics to have the compositions of the raw materials.

     The demand has been increasing during the last three to four years and they cannot really produce more without expanding the buildings.

     Everything is hand-made and it should be the sophisticated kind of hand-made, explains Marianne, so that people can see and understand the price-difference. She believes their director wants to stick to it because of the Doi Tung Project’s main purpose. “The UN people asked us the other day, whether we are going into the semi-automatic or something like that. Then the reply would probably be ‘no’, because that would mean we would need less people to work and the purpose is to give work for the people. As long as we can sell the hand woven products it will stay like this.”

     For Marianne, her work still seems to inspire her and she gives no indication of any plans of moving back to Finland or doing something else. “It has been interesting and challenging to work here, at least for me because I started this. The variety and freedom to try out and so on, I don’t think many companies give so much freedom to use ones ability.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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