The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. Welcome to How to Succeed, our monthly interview column in which we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.
As huge admirers of one of Thailand’s most locally and internationally successful fashion brands, POEM, we were super excited to sit down with designer Chavanon ‘Sean’ Caisiri – the man behind these timeless dresses that bring out the divine feminine of the modern woman. Little did we know about his path to success: a belief in a creativity grounded in logic and an adoption of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej’s sufficiency economy combined with his immersion in a community of dressmakers from a young age. As the son of a Sino-Thai dressmaker, Sean came from humble beginnings and was unintentionally exposed to the world of sartorial craftsmanship early in life.
His later studies in architecture would be the thing that ignited his focus on the physical structure of a dress and a deeper delve into something he’d later term “architectural fashion”. Sound interesting? Behind the doors of his “secret world of glamour” lies a tale of hard work and a sheer preservation of the skill of dressmaking. The story of how he got to where he is today is fascinating. Read on to find out his version of ‘How to Succeed’ in this exclusive interview.
Featured and Hero images: POEM.
How do I start. If I were to introduce myself, I would say that I am no one. I didn’t come from the social elite or socialite circles; I’m the son of a dressmaker. I graduated in Architecture from Chulalongkorn University. I started my own fashion business from the point of view of an architect student, and the son of a dressmaker.
My mother was a Thai-Chinese dressmaker based in Bangkok on Surawong Road, at a time when there were a lot of Indian suit makers there. I grew up watching my mother make dresses in her work room, so I had many real-time visions of how to make a dress. She never expected me to be a dressmaker or a fashion designer and she never forced me; I just learned subconsciously by seeing and watching her. Through my growing up in a dressmaker’s environment, I learned a lot about how to communicate with, and to, women when it comes to listening to their wants and conveying messages to them through dresses.
The difference between the two is important and often overlooked. My mother was a dressmaker and she had no idea about fashion design. Dressmaking for her has nothing to do with the fashion world – they are distances apart. Dressmaking is a kind of learned knowledge of how to make a dress well. But to be a fashion designer, you have to put your vision about your designs into the business and brand itself. Still, the most important thing for me has been to have the skill of dressmaking at the core of my fashion business – this is the essence of POEM. We started from the world of dressmaking and this is the core strength of the brand, especially when it comes to couture.
It started in my third year studying Architecture at Chulalongkorn University. Every year closes with a stage drama (Lakorn Tapad) and so all the architecture students work to create a performance, doing the casting, set design, sound, lighting, and costume. I took on the role of costume design. They gave me this job because they knew my mother was a dressmaker and I could somehow manage to do everything.
When I worked on the costumes, I had to do research and look into period drama designs and learned a lot and started experimenting with designing the structures of dresses. And this was the start of my journey into what I call structural or architectural fashion.
In my fourth year, when I started working on my thesis and I had to do research on the Siam Square shopping arcade where there were a lot of Thai designers, I unearthed more about the space, the character, the circulation of its customers and the characters of designers that started their businesses there.
One day, I went to interview a store owner at Siam Theatre. I was interviewing the owner of 388 for my thesis and at the end she asked me if I’d like to make something to hang on the rack in the window of her store. She knew I had been designing all these costumes at University.
I went home and said to mum I would try to make something to sell at the store. The pieces I made sold within the first hour of being at the store. Believe it or not, my first customer was VJ Loukkade (Jirada Yohara) from Channel V Thailand. As Siam Square was the hub of fashion and MTV was there as well as Channel V, when VJ Loukkade was on her lunch break and doing some shopping, she came across the jacket I had made and bought it.
It was around THB 2,000 and it was green with a built in corset. It was a mix of sporty fused with a Victorian aesthetic. This was back in 2004. Within a week of her buying it, she wore it live on Channel V. When I told my mother that the jacket we made was on television, she was so shocked. It was quite a big deal for a seamstress from nowhere to find her creations on live television. It was testament to how far she, and we had come. This was the point when I started to step into the fashion industry.
Straight after I graduated and finished my thesis, I started looking for a space at Siam Square. As I had already done a lot of homework on the location, I tried to find a small space to start my fashion label back in 2006. The rental price for the space back then was THB 120,000 per month and I was 22 years old then. It was quite stressful.
POEM makes reference to a subject I studied at university in a class called Aesthetic Beauty. There are three levels to aesthetic beauty: provocative, transformative and poetic beauty. It was an abstract subject that I really enjoyed. The course was very logic heavy, so I always craved this more abstract side to architecture. The name POEM came from the portion of that class I enjoyed so much.
When it comes to my designs, I think like an architect. I have to do the feasibility, project planning, financial planning, material planning, and I always apply the principles I learned from Architectural School. I don’t think of myself as an artist. If you want to be a good fashion designer, you must learn how to balance logic with creativity.
In 2006, most Thai designers were doing the Dolly dress – girly, feminine, short, lacey and young; there was no designer making the types of dresses Dita Von Teese would wear, who is my muse.
POEM has both ready to wear and couture. The focus on both is strong.
The value of couture today is priceless. In the couture department, you have to work as a dressmaker and you need to know the way to meet customers and speak with them, how to look at them, and take them in. For couture, POEM works with celebrities and for bridal too. I always meet with the client myself and most Thai designers don’t do that. I have to understand my client’s character, both physical and abstract, and I have to find a way to communicate that in the dress while also ensuring the dress adheres to the POEM brand.
Since the digital age has really taken off, there have been red carpet events almost every day and this makes couture even more valuable. Many designers design clothes and when there is a red carpet they will choose the clothes they’ve already designed for celebrities to take and wear them. But for me, I will meet with the celebrity and if we’ve never met before I will spend time talking to them to get to know their character.
It’s hard, I have to put my heart into it and I have to give my time; there aren’t many designers in Thailand who can give their time; usually, if you want that kind of one-on-one interaction, you have to go to a dressmaker, and usually the client will just open a catalogue for the dressmaker to copy. But with POEM, this isn’t the case. We believe in reading the character of our clients, and the dress has to be designed for them specifically, but so that it’s also POEM. People must know instantly that the dress is POEM, no matter what the dress is.
We always start with the structure of the dress, and most Thai designers don’t talk about the structure of the dress, they talk more about the abstract idea of the brand. But I always talk about the structure of the dress in solid form.
In the 13 years that have passed, I’ve seen a lot. Many celebrities and socialites coming into the fashion industry will launch a brand and it’ll be open for 1-2 years and then close. Sometimes, what they were doing was too abstract, and not grounded enough in reality; there was nothing solid, no structure.
The first 4 years of the brand was the toughest time as I had to “find myself” as a designer. There’s no way a 22-year-old designer can be settled in their idea of themselves or their style, so that time saw a lot of trial and error. I was lucky to have a background in costume and dressmaking and I had a penchant for corsetry and vintage garments so I had my starting point.
After those initial years, once people could see the world I was trying to create in my pieces, they started to believe in me. People began to wear my designs (people like MC June Sawitri Rochanapruk, who is also my muse) to high-profile events and that is where the connections were made and word spread.
When I started, my mother gave me a small sum of capital; I would have never believed that all this could have come from such a small amount of money. From that, I grew the business organically and never borrowed money. Back then, everybody was talking about the sufficiency economy from the late Rama 9 and I definitely took that on with the mindset to start and work with what you have.
As a family business, we didn’t have a backup when it came to money, but we did have backup in terms of connections, as my mum was in the business for 40 years and she knew all the fabric distributors and dealers – they all supported me during the early days. Everytime I went to Chinatown, they would all say congratulations to me and my mother and give me 3 months credit to pay for fabric – all would say” “this is Orasri’s son and he’s about to open a store at Siam”, this was very useful when I was starting out. This I owe to the connections of my mother. I didn’t have much money, but we had connections in the dressmaking world, and that was very useful.
2 months ago, I created cheerleader outfits for the football tournaments (TUCU) at Thammasart University. POEM used its recent signature ombre style. One of the things that impressed me the most was one of the cheerleaders, Nong Base, who was the first transgender to be accepted onto the cheerleading team in the whole 71 years of its existence.
I made a point of saying publicly that I was glad Thammasart was adopting a more modern approach, especially following allegations last year that some of the teachers were not accepting of transgenders at the university. I was so proud to make this outfit for Nong Base, and my content when I posted it on my IG was not about the concept or design of the outfit, but about the person wearing it and the context of her wearing it.
I noticed how many designers who were also making outfits for other cheerleaders were explaining their designs and their concept with long captions on social media. I was reminded of a valuable lesson, that the design has to speak for itself and stand on its own, and not have the designer speak for it. You don’t have to do the long caption in your IG about the outfit; it has to speak for itself. This may have been a very small project, when compared to say Paris Fashion Week, but because I was able to communicate something powerful to my audience, I saw it as a success.
I love gardening, photography and springtime vacations. The first half of May is the best time to go for vacation and see all the flowers in Europe or Tokyo. I was recently in Tokyo and I went to see the wisteria blooming – seeing flowers blossom gives me such inspiration. I have a love of nature. When I go on these trips, I take pictures, and then I get inspiration that feeds into my work. I like to spend Sundays by myself, in the garden, I like peace and quiet, and lots of greenery. I grew up in a concrete house in the middle of the Bangkok, so nature is important to me.
At 35, I noticed that in a world that’s digital and where everyone knows everything about others, I find most of us haven’t found ourselves yet. We don’t truly know ourselves. Many people don’t understand themselves, and we don’t have much opportunity to be by ourselves, and when we are, we’re always on our phones. But when we do find ourselves, it helps us better with our work. It’s important to spend time alone so that you can find yourself.
Working on timelines. This is very stressful. Because fashion never sleeps and is forever changing, we have to catch the trends and the timelines – this is one of the most stressful parts of the job. I must say, I owe a lot to my little brother Plain, who handles the business, finance and marketing side of POEM. POEM reached this point because of him.
You don’t have to study fashion to start a fashion business. You can be an architect, you can be in finance, you can be an accountant, you can study anything and still run a successful fashion business. These days people think they have to go study fashion to start a fashion business. Really, you just have to have inspiration; if you’re not inspired by something, then you are not living and people will see it in your work. Also, be consistent. To be a fashion designer, you must believe in your own message, and then you must keep repeating that message.