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One of America’s top designers quit at the height of his career. Now he’s back—with a vision

Beloved by Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama, Thakoon Panichgul was designing 200 looks per year before he closed his label. Today, he says, “my job as a designer has fundamentally changed.”

One of America’s top designers quit at the height of his career. Now he’s back—with a vision
[Photo: Thakoon][Photo: Thakoon]

For more than a decade, Thakoon Panichgul has been one of America’s best-known designers, lighting up runways with his striking, maximalist clothes beloved by everyone from Anna Wintour to Michelle Obama. But two years ago, at the height of his success, Panichgul did something unexpected. “I decided to take a pause from that work and ask what the climate of fashion is now,” he says.

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Thakoon Panichgul [Photo: Thakoon]

After all, the tectonics of the fashion world had fundamentally shifted since Panichgul came onto the scene in 2004. Direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane and Cuyana challenged the inflated prices of high-end designers. It became increasingly clear to consumers that the fashion industry—and its emphasis on seasonal trends—is driving a pattern of overconsumption that’s harming the planet.

Today, Thakoon returns with a new, direct-to-consumer label that responds to those shifts—and could be a model for the rest of his industry. Panichgul is no longer creating the fabulously patterned runway collections that made him famous, largely because those outfits were designed to be worn just a few times before being retired. Instead, he’s turned his attention to reinventing classic women’s garments. The 12-piece collection that dropped this week on his new website is restrained and minimal, full of sleek, architectural lines and neutral colors. While his previous designs sold for thousands of dollars at high-end department stores, each garment in his new line costs $225 or less.

This evolution in Panichgul’s aesthetic—not to mention his business model—reveals something about where the fashion industry is going. He believes the era of exorbitantly priced seasonal collections may be coming to an end. That system is premised on relentless trends and overconsumption, which no longer resonates in an era when 75% of consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of the fashion industry.

“Waste was the biggest driver of this change,” Panichgul says. “I had customers who once bought thousands of dollars worth of Thakoon outfits every season, but if you talk to them today, they are much more cautious about what they buy. They know they don’t need it, and it’s wasteful to keep accumulating more clothes. Their priorities are very different now, so my priorities also need to change.”

[Photo: Thakoon]

Refashioning high fashion

Panichgul’s new, direct-to-consumer line has a lot in common with the flock of direct-to-consumer brands that have hit the market over the last decade, including Everlane, Cuyana, AYR, and Naadam. Each promised high-quality clothing at a fraction of the price of luxury brands, thanks to the fact that they don’t have a middleman markup. Panichgul thinks this model may, in fact, be the future of fashion, but he brings something new to the table compared to these other DTC brands, none of which are driven by a single designer with a particular point of view. “What’s different about my brand is that I am offering a designer perspective on women’s basics,” he says.

[Photo: Thakoon]
Beyond a business model, the DTC approach appears to be changing consumers’ expectations and shopping habits. Panichgul has observed how some of his most loyal clients, who once bought thousands of dollars of new outfits from him every season, are much more price-conscious now. This may be partly due to brands like Everlane that have drawn attention to how inflated prices in the fashion world are. “Customers now have more choice than ever,” he says. “They can now get well-made, well-designed items for far cheaper than before. So why would they ever go back?”

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It’s not just about the money, though. Panichgul believes the tide in the fashion industry is moving away from a culture of excess.

As a designer, Panichgul found the relentless churn of new trends unsustainable in every sense of the word. He designed fifty new looks four times a year, and as soon as he was done with one season, he immediately had to focus on the next. It was exhausting, but it also created a lot of waste. Since it is impossible to predict exactly which looks will sell well, designers often overproduce garments, which end up being either discounted or thrown out. And even if customers go crazy for a particular look, it is designed to be out of fashion the following season. Over the last few years, I’ve written extensively about the waste generated by the fashion industry. Fast-fashion brands are easy culprits, since they spew out heaps of inexpensive clothing every season that is designed to be worn for a short period of time before being chucked out. But high-end fashion designers also play a role in perpetuating this system by creating new looks every season and dictating to the consumer what is in style.

Consumers themselves now seem to be pushing back against this model. Panichgul has found that his own customers are looking for pieces that are not overpriced and that can be worn season after season. “Designers no longer get to dictate what people wear,” he says. “Customers don’t want to be told they have to wear bell-bottoms or knee-length skirts this season. Trends don’t matter anymore.”

He believes that his role has to change. He no longer sees his job as pushing his aesthetic vision out into the world: Instead, his goal is to understand the needs of his customer and to offer them solutions. “As a designer, I see myself cocreating clothes with my customer,” he says. “I want to create pieces they will wear season after season, and style in new ways based on their own taste.”

[Photo: Thakoon]

Fashion design as problem-solving

This approach is a stark departure from the past. As a wildly successful runway designer, Panichgul had free rein over what he created every season. He didn’t have to worry about how practical or comfortable garments were. His only goal was to communicate his vision to the world.

“In any other design discipline—whether it’s designing cars, cellphones, or furniture—you always have to think of the end user,” he says. “It’s crazy that runway designers don’t really think about what the customer wants, besides the fact that she wants to look fancy. We’re not thinking about how comfortable or functional the outfit is.”

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In the past, Panichgul took advantage of this freedom by creating looks with dramatic patterns and loud prints. Michelle Obama, for instance, loved to wear Thakoon’s most eye-catching outfits, which helped propel Panichgul’s career forward. When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in 2008, Michelle wore a Thakoon dress covered in swirls of red and purple, with flowers attached to the neckline. At a Cinco de Mayo event, she wore a dress covered with a striking watercolor print. At an event at the Whitney Museum, she wore a dress covered in a floral pattern. 

But while Panichgul is best known for his dramatic looks, he’s always been intrigued by the challenge of reinventing classic pieces. He got his first taste of this approach back in 2007, at the very start of his career as a designer, when he was asked to design a white shirt for Gap. The challenge involved using white cotton material, mother-of-pearl buttons, and using the traditional white button-up shirt as a model. Panichgul created three looks, including a shirtdress with a tiered skirt that became so popular that customers still ask him to bring it back. “I like having guardrails,” he says. “When you work with less material, your output can be that much greater.”

[Photos: Thakoon]

That focus on redesigning classics is evident in every piece in the new collection. There’s a pair of $135 wide-leg trousers with clean lines in the pleating that can be worn either high- or low-waisted to create different looks, making it more versatile. There’s an oversized $225 wool jacket with a dramatic tie-front sash, with large slits on the side, which make it easy to access your pockets. There’s a $135 midnight blue spaghetti-strap dress with a low back that is carefully designed so it can be worn to work with a cardigan; without it, it’s perfect for a party.

“My job as a designer has fundamentally changed,” he says. “I don’t want to create something that a woman will only wear once. I want to turn my ideas into designs that can be worn day after day.”

A lot of energy has gone into the 12 pieces in the launch, but it’s still a major change of pace from Panichgul’s days designing 200 new looks every year. He plans to drop new pieces from time to time, but the goal is to create a highly edited collection with only essential pieces that are designed to last for years. And he plans to continue selling directly to customers through his website, allowing him to keep prices reasonable. Next year, he plans to open his first brick and mortar store in New York.

But while Panichgul is ready to leave much of the traditional industry behind, there’s one thing he wants to hold on to. For all his focus on practicality and function in clothing, he doesn’t want to lose the magic of fashion. “We cannot lose touch of the idea that fashion should inspire people,” he says. “That’s not quantifiable, but we all know that when a designer creates pieces that inspire you, it makes you think and feel differently. I want my clothes to do that no matter what my business model is.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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