Picture the Shangri-La Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
As a Thai jazz band warms up the crowd and paparazzi from throughout Asia snap madly, hundreds of gorgeous young women vogue in the hotel's tropical gardens, competing for the title of Miss Thai Supermodel.
In the midst of this spectacle stands Los Angeles designer Maggie Barry, agog, as she would recall later, at the mix of ancient Thai culture and jet-set kitsch. She is there to do a fashion show of her Van Buren line, whose sexy, whimsical outfits adorn Westerners from Cher to Naomi Campbell to Sharon Stone.
But if the Thais get a whiff of cutting-edge L.A. chic, Barry and partner Ty Moore reap inspiration during annual May visits across the Pacific Rim for months to come.
No, it's not the temples, the enigmatic Buddhas or even the woven textiles that make their heads spin. Barry, who is of Thai and German extraction and has family scattered throughout Bangkok's suburbs, has been there, done that on previous trips.
It is the street life that electrifies her and Moore. They are spellbound by the Thai wild style evolving before their eyes as a 2,000-year-old Eastern civilization collides with Western street hip, broadcast into the most remote Thai villages by Asian M-TV.
"The hybrid of East meets West is very surreal, and it creates something completely new," Barry says. "When you think of Thai aesthetics, it's color, an eye for detail. It's ornate, almost gaudy in an artsy way, everywhere your eye goes. It's like Vegas, like a giant jewelry box piled up full."
Fashion has always meant appropriation. Top designer lines are knocked off before a gal can say, "Jean Paul Gaultier." History is raided for an updated Russian Cossack or medieval ascetic look. Beatniks, hippies, punks and grunge rockers find their makeshift duds copied by the couture houses of Chanel and Versace.
Thanks to satellite TV, the cross-pollination is now happening faster than ever, folding back on itself like a Mobius strip as Americans draw inspiration from Asian interpretations of Western icons. For the duo behind Van Buren, that shadowy interstice is precisely what creates a fashion dynamic with global reverb.
"It almost takes a Western eye to go over there and see that," Barry says. "You have these Indian bands doing MC Hammer and girls in saris behind the singer, doing roll moves," Barry says with a shiver and obvious delight.
"At the same time, Thai designers are very conservative. They use traditional fabrics. But there's a new generation growing up in Asia. The kids are very trendy. They're into platform sneakers. They listen to the same music we do. They're tremendously influenced by Asian M-TV, which puts a Far Eastern spin on American and European style.
"That's why we didn't return from our trip and design little beaded dresses."
"We came back with 'punch, power, pow,' " Moore adds.
Thais put their own spin on everything, including Mercedes-Benzes, which some Bangkok yuppies festoon with fuzzy dice and mud flaps bearing the silver silhouettes of trucker girls with Thai facial features.
Thais also paint their Benzes in lowrider metallic-flake colors, a far cry from the sedate black or cream favored by Americans. Those colors showed up one season in the blue and red metallic-flake vinyl patches accenting Van Buren's cropped black cotton ribbed military-style sweaters.
Things aren't so linear that Barry and Moore return from Bangkok and design a Thai-inspired wardrobe. Besides, they already did an Asian line several seasons ago that featured \o7 cheongsams, \f7 the traditional Chinese dress with the Mandarin collar and asymmetrical fold across the front.
These days the influence is much more subtle and impressionistic, they say, with a half-life that glows long after the trips fade into memory. And one thing leads to another. After the queen of Thailand asked that they use Thai fabric in their designs, Van Buren began working with a Thai mill to come up with the colors and fabrics.
"We're going to mix it with Lycra, of course," Barry says drolly.
The Thai angle creeps back into Van Buren's holiday line this year with Thai silk suits in ornate fabrics and colors that range from brights to pastels.
On their most recent trip, Barry and Moore were blown away by Thai kick-boxing shorts--"the most genius thing we found," Moore says.
"It has the funky street edge," Barry adds. "I would do a video in a minute and have girls with kneepads, sneakers and these shorts."
The fashion trail evolves something like this:
In the old days, Thai kick-boxers wore a sort-of loincloth in the ring. At some point, American-style boxing shorts came into vogue, but the Thais added more color, symbols like stars and cursive Thai lettering stitched on the back.
Now here comes Barry, captivated by the silky shorts that are ubiquitous in Bangkok's open market, in shades of flaming green and orange, pink and green, purple and pink emblazoned with big stars and letters.