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Times Shopper: Bangkok

Best Place for Buying Thailand's Alluring Silks

February 21, 1988|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

"It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this somber earth."

--Somerset Maugham

In the cities and towns of Thailand, the spires of gilded temples sparkle in the sun; in the countryside the jungle-thick vegetation is punctuated with exotic flowers in vibrant colors.

This abundance of color is reflected in Thai handcrafts, especially in Thai silk, an alluring fabric that is hand-woven in a variety of hot hues.

You'll find acid greens, brilliant magentas, luminescent yellows, electric pinks, shocking blues, earthy ochres and other intense hues, presented as solid blocks of color or in striking combinations as plaids and prints.

The fabric has a lustrous quality, an effect enhanced by the rich nubby texture that distinguishes Thai silk from all others.

By the bolt or yard, or stitched into fabulous fashions, ties, handbags, scarfs, pillowcases or accessories for the home--always reasonably priced--Thai silk is an irresistible souvenir.

It is sold in shops throughout Bangkok, but the best place to buy is the Thai Silk Co. at 9 Surawong Road.

Mysterious Story

This spacious emporium in an old mansion is among the Orient's most famous shops. It is known equally for the high quality of its merchandise and for the dramatic and mysterious story woven around the life of its founder, Jim Thompson, a flamboyant American expatriate.

Thompson arrived in Thailand in 1945 in the employ of the Office of Strategic Services. He was enchanted by Bangkok and decided to stay. For 22 years Thompson was Bangkok's most engaging bon vivant as well as a successful entrepreneur.

"The Silk King," as he was known, lavishly entertained royalty, movie stars and politicians in the magnificent Thai house that he built and furnished with priceless antiques.

Then on March 26, 1967, while vacationing in Malaysia, Thompson went walking alone in the jungle and disappeared without a trace.

Speculation was rampant--about kidnaping, foreign intrigue and attack by tiger--but extensive search efforts and offers of rewards produced no conclusive evidence.

According to Thai law, Thompson was declared dead in 1974. The unsolved case is Thailand's most celebrated mystery.

But there is no mystery about Thompson's legacy to Bangkok. His house is one of Bangkok's favorite tourist attractions, and his shop, run by his estate, continues to flourish.

More Than 200 Colors

On the ground floor, bolts of silk displayed on shelves look like a rainbow of more than 200 colors. Silk is woven in three weights, called plies. Lightweight single-ply silk is used for clothing; four-ply silk is used in draperies; six-ply silk is used for upholstery fabric or for wall coverings.

Prices for 40-inch-wide silk range from $14 to $25 a yard. That's about 25% of U.S. prices for Thai silk.

Also on the ground floor are beautiful ties ($14), pillow covers ($22 and up), matching place mats and napkins (set of eight for $30), tablecloths ($40 and up), picture frames ($8 to $10), handbags ($20 and up), wallets ($4) and silk-covered boxes ($4 and up) for jewelry or cosmetics.

A sweeping teak staircase leads up to the fashion floor, which features a selection of day and evening clothing.

Here are great quilted jackets ($240) and kimono jackets ($94). Women's blouses ($80) and men's shirts ($59) have mother-of-pearl buttons. There are elegant long women's dressing gowns ($115) and men's robes ($130).

Stylishly tailored or shift-style dresses sell for $90 and up, and pantsuits with matching belts are $255. Intricate "pretzel belts" of twisted silk strands cost $32.

Takes Special Orders

The shop also takes special orders to re-create your favorite clothes in silk or to copy the latest fashions from magazine photos. The workmanship is superb; prices are about 30% to 40% higher than for ready-made clothes.

The Thai Silk Co. produces Thai cotton too. Cotton clothes and home accessories are displayed on the third floor.

Once a Dying Industry

Contrary to popular belief, Thompson did not invent Thai silk, but he did re-create the Thai silk industry, transforming it from a dying cottage trade, in which very few weaving families were eking out a living, into a flourishing production with well-to-do workers and a worldwide clientele.

Thompson believed Thai silk could be marketed abroad. In 1947 he packed lengths of silk in a suitcase and headed for New York to show them to fashion moguls.

Edna Woolman Chase, editor of Vogue, was captivated by the silk's shimmering quality. In recommending the fabric to designers and colleagues, she pinned Thai silk onto the fashion map.

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