Mumbo jumbo takes off
Elephant cloth the in-thing
COINING IT. Bangkok Tales clothing brand co-founder and designer Gigi Wo showing off her clothing items made with elephant print. Picture: AFP
An elegant Thai socialite poses in sunglasses, a designer handbag discreetly visible in the Instagram photo, her stylish outfit completed by a pair of … elephant print pants?
Infamous across Southeast Asia, so-called elephant pants made of thin baggy cotton were once synonymous with grubby backpackers in search of themselves – and the nearest Chang beer, a popular local lager. The pachyderm pants were adopted by foreigners during an early wave of budget Southeast Asia travel, as visitors sought to appropriate “authentic” culture, despite there being little truly Thai about them, researchers say.
While they are still sold from stalls alongside Bangkok’s tourist haven – Khaosan Road – for about 150 baht (or about R75), young Thai influencers and the kingdom’s high society are increasingly reclaiming them.
“The pants are dope,” influencer Dalintan “MoRich” Promphinit said, after cavorting in a bright yellow set for his two million TikTok followers in April.
“They’re not just souvenirs foreign tourists buy,” he said. “Thais are rocking them too.” “It’s like a fashion statement” with a “teen street fashion vibe”, said the 19 year old. His fans instantly loved his latest look. “They kept asking where I got it,” he said. Posing at Chiang Mai’s ancient wall, Toei, 27, who only gave her first name, is clad head-to-toe in the “adorable” elephant print.
From local hit to global TikTok trend
“Initially, they were a hit among tourists, but now they’re trending on TikTok, thanks to influencers,” her 28-year-old friend Ong, also sporting the print, said. “So, we embraced the trend.”
A half-hour drive away is King karn “Jack” Samon’s factory, where rolls and rolls of pachyderm-inspired prints are measured, sliced and stitched.
“The pants have become a sensation in Thailand,” she told AFP during a tour of the facility, which has about 100 workers, producing 1 000-2 000 items daily. Orders including shirts, dresses, even handbags – are up 30% since the end of the Covid pandemic. The pants account for 85% of sales.
Hers is just a small cog in the kingdom’s textile and garment industry, which accounts for about 3% of its GDP. Kingkarn imports the fabric from China, shipping it to Bangkok for printing, before it returns to her factory, 700km away. The design’s popularity, however, has not been without controversy.
An online debate brought local reporters to her door after some Cambodians claimed Thailand had appropriated the elephant print, Kingkarn explained. Refusing to be drawn on the latest iteration of the historic rivalry, she did admit with a grin: the debate has boosted sales. Ultimately, little about the pants are Thai, said Kanjana Thepboriruk, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.
From tourist souvenirs to high-end fashion
Their adoption by foreigners, attempting to stake a claim on “authentic experiences”, instead meant Thais viewed them as international, she said.
“I see the elephant pants as the latest way that young rich Thais or aspiring middle-class Thais align their identity with Westerners,” she told AFP. And high-end retailers have quickly cottoned on.
Inside a luxury Bangkok mall, Bangkok Tales’ elephant pants sell for 1 090 baht.
“When people think about elephant pants, they think of them as really cheap, but I want to make them look like Versace,” explained founder and designer Rawiwan “Gigi” Worasinsiri.
Rawiwan initially targeted tourists, but the pandemic flipped her business model, with Thais filling the deficit. “I was surprised,” she said, crediting TikTok for her success.
At the other end of the spectrum in Bangkok’s sprawling Chatuchak market, 32-year-old Onnitsa Kuren already owns three pairs.
“Elephant-patterned pants go with anything – just pair them with a T-shirt,” she said. Musing as she browsed, she added, “I’m currently on the lookout for a red pair.”