Covid-19 was not kind to Jim Thompson, which relies on tourists for the vast majority of its sales. With borders closed and sales drying up, the Thai silk fashion house was forced to shed a majority of its workforce – from a peak of 2650 to a mere 650 at one point. It closed stores in Singapore and Malaysia, reducing its network from 40 to 22. But the crisis presented the company with an opportunity to review its business model and look for ways to reposition itself on the global fashion
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ion landscape. Now it is looking to take its brand to the European market, rather than waiting for Europeans to visit Southeast Asia. In short, Jim Thompson is refocusing from relying on the tourist trade to reinventing itself as a mainstream fashion label, banking on its brand recognition to attract a whole new generation of customers in the likes of Paris and Milan. Leading the turnaround plan is Frenchman Frank Cancelloni, who took up the CEO role in March 2021 after six years as regional president, APAC, with PVH Corp, overseeing the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands. Before that, he headed up Lacoste in the region for nearly six years. His term commenced after the job cuts and amid a six-year string of losses by the company, which remains family-owned. As Cancelloni works to establish itself on the global stage, the headcount has begun to recover. And he told Nikkei Asia in a pre-Christmas interview that he expected the bottom line to continue to improve in 2023 after nearly breaking even last year. A brand based on an enigma Jim Thompson (the man) – often referred to as the King of Thai Silk – was an American architect and former soldier spy despatched to Thailand towards the end of the Second World War. Smitten with the tropics, its climate and natural landscapes, he returned after the war ended and built an urban oasis in what is now central Bangkok, a short walk from National Stadium. His palatial home – now the Jim Thompson House Museum, owned by a charitable trust – was designed with a blend of traditional Asian values and Western convenience, built with solid teak timber in traditional Thai style and decorated with Chinese artwork and ceramics. Across the narrow canal behind Thompson’s home was a Muslim settlement, Ban Krua, which eked out a living weaving Thai silk. Thompson worked with the community to create silk apparel and home fabrics and in 1951 founded The Thai Silk Co, which owns the Jim Thompson brand to this day. Well-connected to influential US families in politics and business, Thompson was able to open doors from Hollywood to Broadway. Silk dresses and outfits from the 1960s featured in Vogue as the Thai Silk Co grew into Thailand’s only global lifestyle brand at the time, but then tragedy struck and the conduit from Bangkok to Los Angeles came to an end. The enigma of the Jim Thompson story is what happened to him after he disappeared while bushwalking in Malaysia in March 1967. Multiple books have been written and speculation abounds about what became of him, ranging from conspiracy theories linking his disappearance to his earlier spying activities to more likely scenarios that he perished in a fall. No trace of his body or belongings has ever been found. Jim Thompson’s former home now stands at the heart of what the brand dubs the Jim Thompson Heritage Quarter. Alongside the museum – which ranks as one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist destinations – a new flagship store and gallery have opened, to be followed in April by a fine-dining restaurant. The multimillion-dollar project takes up 1400sqm, incorporating a ‘Museum About the Man’, a home furnishings exhibition, a cafe and a retail store selling apparel and homewares – all alongside the Jim Thompson Art Center, an art gallery that will host exhibitions. Besides acting as a showcase of the brand’s new contemporary clothing and accessories, the retail flagship will feature exclusive lines and, the company hopes, entice visitors to the house and foodservice venues into indulging in some retail therapy while they are there. Cancelloni describes the venue as “a new chapter in the history of Jim Thompson”. “This is not just any lifestyle brand; it is a brand founded by an iconic man who revived the Thai silk industry and a brand synonymous with authenticity and quality. The whole project will…reflect the spirit and the sense of hospitality of Jim Thompson.” He is counting on the Heritage Quarter to fuel interest in Thai culture and traditions, stimulate tourism growth in “a meaningful and responsible way” – and introduce the brand to a new generation of customers. Chasing a younger demographic And therein lies a key plank to the success of Jim Thompson’s renaissance: drawing a younger demographic both at home and abroad. Cancelloni told Nikkei that shortly after he commenced his role, he undertook a large-scale survey of Thai residents, including Chinese and Japanese nationalities. Brand recognition was a staggering 91 per cent, yet only 50 per cent said they had bought a Jim Thompson product. “The style of the product was perceived as a bit out of date, with no innovation, something you will buy for your father or grandmother. Nothing sexy, nothing exciting. We had a product issue,” Cancelloni explained. His response was to recruit a Laotian-American designer to revamp the brand’s range and develop a more contemporary feel and look with broader appeal. While still featuring traditional silk materials, the new products seem, to Inside Retail, bolder and brighter with more modern cuts than pre-Covid collections. “Our products are getting more contemporary,” he said. Inside The Iconic Store Those products are all showcased in the new flagship, which Jim Thompson has named The Iconic Store. The store design was inspired by the reddish facade of Jim Thompson’s traditional Thai houses, while the interior colour has cinnabar hues. “Every section of the store, from the earth-toned décor to the free-flowing, undulating walls, has been designed to highlight the opulent colours of the silks and the founder’s passion and deep respect for craftsmanship and unique traditions of Thailand,” the brand states. The store takes up two levels, with a stunning feature spiral staircase linking the two (as seen on our cover). Some 6000 products and other collaborative projects are on display – and those interested in Jim Thompson the enigma can even purchase one of the biographies of the talented American. Three pillars of the silk road Moving forward, Jim Thompson will focus on three core business categories: men’s and women’s apparel, homewares and F&B – all core features of the Heritage Quarter. While the fine-dining venue will be a first for the quarter, there are restaurants in Tokyo, Yokohama and Singapore operating under the brand already, and the existing cafe in Bangkok. The homewares collection includes blankets, cushion covers, napkins, placemats, coasters and kitchen linens. Mixing clothing, home and F&B is a well-travelled road for iconic European fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, and Cancelloni seems confident that mix will deliver success for Jim Thompson in the future. “I’m convinced that this brand would be worth $300 million, $400 million or even $500 million in the midterm,” he told Nikkei. “It will take time. You don’t become Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani within two to three years. For me, it’s an eight-to-10-year plan. This story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Inside Retail Asia Magazine.