Willson sashayed into our interview wearing a silk patchwork
blouse, contrasting silk shawl, white pants, low heels and a
clutch bag. His proffered card was embossed gold on silver,
saying merely Tananan Willson Haute Couture. He also had
probably one of the broadest smiles you can be given in
Thailand, the renowned land of smiles. Within the first minute I
knew this was to be a ‘different’ interview.
Tananan is a local product, having been born
in Lampang. His father was a policeman, and his mother a
masseuse, and he had one sister, ten years younger than himself.
Family finances were not all that good, and
after his father died, money became even tighter. He had thought
about a career doing something to do with ‘design’, but was
not really firm in his future direction, as were most of us at
that age. With the financial dictates, he abandoned all thoughts
of university, and instead went to commercial college to do
That was to take up the next five years of
his life. The Certificate course was three years, plus another
two years for the Diploma. The personal sums were also simple.
He did not have enough money to do this, so he supported himself
by teaching children for two hours every night.
Having got the diploma, he then decided to go
all out and entered CMU for two years to get a degree in
business administration, to go with his accountancy
qualifications. More children received nightly education to pay
for this too. However, he did find time to indulge in drama,
through the CMU drama club, where he became interested in the
application of stage make-up and in hair styling.
Now it was time to enter the workforce, and
Tananan felt there were more opportunities in the nation’s
capital, rather than in the provinces, so he moved to Bangkok.
There he found that he was over-qualified! He finally just used
his basic accounting diploma and was able to get a low paid job,
which he did for two years. At least it was money coming in
regularly, and he had the opportunity to brush up on his
His next career move was to become the
secretary to the director of a UN project regarding drug
treatment and training of health care workers. This required him
to send reports in English back to New York, and although he
stayed there for three years, he admitted that he became
“bored” with the job.
Still obviously ‘drifting’ career-wise,
he joined a vocational college as a teacher in hotel management
and tourism, for people who had found their vocation!
After two years there, and still not finding
his own true career, he returned to the UN project to close it,
then got his next job totally by accident. He met the vice
president of a department store, who was looking for a
secretary, and since he was looking for a job, Tananan took it.
At least once again money was coming in. It was also during this
time that he met his partner David Wilson, the well-known
With this change in his life and
circumstances, a degree of entrepreneurship began to become
apparent with Tananan. He had gone to experience America with
David, but again he used the word “bored”. He rang home to
Thailand and said, “Send me something to sell.” He rented
space in a flea market and began to sell Saa paper and wood
carvings. He was good at choosing the right artefacts, and the
products sold well, so he moved from the flea market into a
shopping centre, renting an aisle way cart for his northern Thai
Again a certain ‘flair’ began to show, as
Tananan decorated his cart so artfully that he was given a job
to decorate the other carts in the centre. In the meantime,
Tananan moved his business into larger premises. He was showing
that he not only had a flair for display, but he could sell as
But life for Tananan and David was not to be
in the US. Tananan’s visa ran out and they returned to Chiang
Mai, with the usual problems of re-settlement for Tananan and
settling in a new country for David. To stop himself getting
“bored” again, Tananan began to manage his mother’s
massage institute, finding that he could use his previously
studied business administration skills in this area.
However, by 2002, the dreaded boredom was
again raising its ugly head. “I just couldn’t sit there. I
thought I wanted to draw, but there were no art classes, but
they had design classes. I did well, so I went on to do pattern
making, sewing and then haute couture!” These courses were
done through the local Polytechnic and were very inexpensive.
“They cost one baht an hour,” said Tananan, flashing that
big smile again. He added, “Education is the most important
thing in your life.”
So the one baht dress designer started making
clothes for those around him. “My mistakes were kept in the
family,” said Tananan. However, when at a stage of proficiency
that he was satisfied with, he opened his own shop and found
that his use of 100 percent silks was very popular with his
His thirst for knowledge in the ever-changing
field of fabrics has led him overseas again, looking at all
aspects of the fashion industry, from production, right through
to fashion shows and sales.
He wants to do a fashion show in New York and
have his shawls represented in the world name outlets of
Macy’s and Saks. “A shawl gives you personality and you can
do everything with shawls,” says Tananan.
I finished the interview by asking Tananan just how he saw
himself in the scheme of things in today’s more liberal world.
“Oh! I’m just me,” said Tananan with a wave of his hands,
and that broad smile again. And that is how I see Tananan too.
He is simply just himself.