Roll with it - Issue 165 - Magazine | Monocle

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Before designer Jirawat “Bote” Benchakarn launched his jbb menswear label in 2007, shopping in Bangkok was often limited to drab, ill-fitting business attire sold in department stores or edgier fashion that would look out of place in most office environments. “There was a big gap in the market,” says Benchakarn, whose day begins with a coffee in his room at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. He stays at the hotel in downtown Bangkok during busy periods – a regular occurrence for a company with international operations and a staff of six. 

The Grand Hyatt is also where jbb made its retail debut with a single rack of white shirts, placed inside his friend’s jewellery shop in the hotel’s basement. Bangkok, which combines the dynamism of an urban city with year-long heat and close-knit creative communities, is the perfect stage for such unlikely opportunities. The city also offers a low-risk entry into retail – even today, you’ll often spot racks of clothes by up-and-coming designers at the back of a film-camera shop, for instance.

Benchakarn started out designing and producing the kind of well-cut shirts that he wanted to wear himself, quickly expanding to his signature blazers and pleated trousers. The style has since turned into one of the dominant menswear looks in Bangkok and his sartorial influence is now readily acknowledged across the city. 

But more than a decade on, the 45-year-old Thai designer is ready to give his label a head-to-toe makeover: launching new patterns, loosening up familiar cuts and rethinking manufacturing. “I have a new direction that I want to create,” he says, flicking through pencil sketches in his notebook. After popping into another room, he emerges in some of his new designs: a forest-green chore jacket over a heavyweight cotton T-shirt and pleated black shorts. “My new clothes are more relaxed but they still have a strong silhouette,” he says. “When you wear them, you don’t feel sloppy.” 

It was a production issue that sent Benchakarn back to the drawing board last year. When one of his factories ceased operations, he decided to discontinue his popular tailored jackets altogether and re-evaluate. “I had to move on and think about my brand’s fundamentals,” he says. “What is jbb without the tailored jacket? Will it be the end or not?” 

He set a new direction by asking the right questions and staying close to his customers. His own style also became a point of reference: the chinos that he used to wear as a fashion student in San Francisco in the 1990s (often worn two or three sizes too big with a tight belt) inspired a new iteration of his elegant pleated trousers. “We still use the same tailoring techniques; it is just not as constructed as before.” 

Variations of the new styles have already started making their way to the jbb boutique in Gaysorn Tower, an upscale office building in the Pathumwan district. The pocket-sized shop accounts for about 90 per cent of all sales, while online customers around Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Australia make up the rest. Some of Benchakarn’s new designs involve subtle changes to trouser cuts, while others, such as an open-collared, two-tone Havana shirt with a mint-green trim are more eye-catching. A short, khaki jumpsuit practically jumps off the rack. “It’s the Steve Irwin look,” says regular customer Cholathan Cheovarisajja, a marketing executive, referring to the Australian naturalist. “I prefer timeless clothes that are low key and I can wear for years and years,” adds Cheovarisajja, who sought out jbb as a student. Thailand’s top universities require male students to wear a white shirt and black trousers on campus, so looking trim comes down to the cut of the fabric and the small details. “jbb introduced me to linen trousers,” says the 26-year-old, who began spending more on his jbb wardrobe after graduating.

The physical experience of the shop is certainly one of the secrets to the brand’s success. Whether it’s coming in to browse every month or popping by ahead of every business trip, men from an array of backgrounds make a point of visiting this space year after year. Previous customers include fellow fashion professionals, chefs, business owners and even high-profile Thai politician Pita Limjaroenrat. They all insist on trying things on; they want to feel the texture, to see how it fits and to get advice – another regular tells monocle that jbb staff treat him “like family”. 

Benchakarn has always designed according to the needs of this group of busy, smartly dressed men in Bangkok’s tropical climate. “I have to create my own seasons,” says Benchakarn. The weather doesn’t encourage wardrobe updates – locals tend to move from air-conditioned cars to climate-controlled offices, wearing lightweight linens all year – so Benchakarn bets on smart design to keep jbb desirable. “I have to create the mood so that people keep shopping here,” he says.

As far as menswear design is concerned, Benchakarn describes himself as self-taught. He studied fashion at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University at a time when the syllabus only offered womenswear courses. After graduating in 2001, he spent four years as a menswear buyer before stepping out on his own. As jbb’s sole designer, he finds inspiration in materials rather than mood boards and collages. “If I can’t see the fabric, I can’t design,” he says, while giving monocle a tour of his stockroom – a museum of cloths that he has picked up on his travels. About 80 per cent of jbb’s fabrics come from Japan, while the remainder are sourced in Italy and South Korea, the latter having caught Benchakarn’s attention with unusual and unexpected colours. A few rolls have just arrived from Seoul, including a now familiar shade of mint green. 

Of the multiple departments that the designer must oversee at his own company, manufacturing has been causing the most headaches. Virtually every piece of clothing carrying the jbb label is made in Thailand. This means that Benchakarn, an evangelist for quality control, can cast a watchful eye over the handiwork and request changes. 

Until now he has relied on a cottage industry of individual seamstresses, working exclusively for him in small workshops. But as his ageing workforce retires, he has had to move some of his production to the Thai Yamaki clothing factory, which is one of the few facilities nearby that can live up to his exacting standards. A 90-minute drive west of downtown Bangkok, this is a larger but equally considered operation: shoes are left at the door and inside, more than 200 workers – mostly women from the area – are cutting fabrics, sewing shirt collars and inspecting finished pieces. Most large clothing factories have left Thailand for cheaper locations in neighbouring Laos or Cambodia but Yamaki’s Japanese owners continue to make clothes in the Thai capital for discerning brands in Japan and the US. 

Benchakarn has brought a sample shirt along and dives straight into a discussion about buttonholes. “Menswear for me is very technical. There isn’t a lot of detail so it all comes down to the fit, fabric and finishing,” he says. “My customers don’t have to know all of the processes and pain that I have to go through to find fabrics and work with factories but when they put my clothes on, they will feel the difference – that’s what keeps them coming back.” 

Back in central Bangkok, a small sample rack in the jbb office offers a glimpse of the future. A mint-green, zip-up windbreaker hangs alongside matching shorts, a few striped dress shirts and some pleated linen trousers. In August, Benchakarn is expecting a delivery of his new T-shirts (striking, colour-block designs with drop shoulders and wide collars) from Seoul. These are the first jbb items to have been made in South Korea. He lifts up a sample to show off the finish on the hem, which features vintage single stitching instead of the traditional double stitch. 

It’s this type of detailing that keeps him ahead of his competition and justifies his price tags: a standard white linen shirt costs 3,790 baht (€100). It’s also why Benchakarn remains sanguine about the arrival of international chains such as Muji and Cos in Bangkok. “In the long term, it has helped me grow and I’ve learned how to make my clothes look better,” he says. “If I didn’t have that type of competition, I might have still been making the same things that I was making 10 years ago.” 

The final items on his sample rail are two vintage pieces used for research: a cotton lab coat and a woman’s cardigan with green lining, picked up at a flea market in France. “I’ve been trying to make knitwear but I was never satisfied with what I had,” he says, while running his fingers along the rounded collar. “I hope this time I will be able to launch successfully.” 

The definition of success for other brands might be driving revenue or growing their footprint but Benchakarn is a designer at heart and his focus is on expanding the jbb collection without compromising on his principles. “My dream is simple,” he says. “It’s to provide everything for my customers, a complete, head-to-toe collection.” 

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