Weekly Local Biography

  Tananan Willson

Tananan 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 accountancy.

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 English!

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 pianist.

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 handicrafts.

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 well.

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 clientele.

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.