Fashion As Art

Fashion designer Nong Tumsutipong brings her flair for pattern, fabric and texture to Brooks this week.

Growing up, all of Nong Tumsutipong’s pets had outfits. Custom-designed, couture ensembles fit for the red carpet, but tailored for her furry friends at home.

She’s come a long way since then.

Nong Tumsutipong, who grew up playing in the workroom of her mother’s couture house in Bangkok, is now a successful designer in her own right, working with fashion houses around the world.

“I grew up being very creative; my mother’s workshop was my playground,” said the L.A.-based designer.

Tumsutipong will be the visiting artist at Brooks School this fall, working with students the week of October 8. Her original works will be on display in the Lehman Art Center, starting October 10.

Passionate about her work, Tumsutipong is excited to be working with Brooks students. In fashion, she says, you get to be creative and step outside of your normal boundaries — students will be encouraged to think of fabric, pattern and design as their artistic mediums during her classes with them.

Tumsutipong grew up in the business of fashion design in Thailand: her mother ran a fashion school and couture house on their property in Bangkok. Students at the school learned cutting, draping, design — and Tumsutipong soaked it all in at a very young age.

She came to the States at the age of 11, to attend the Fay School in Southborough, Mass., and eventually found herself at the Mass College of Art and Design, where she majored in fashion design.

After that she launched her own clothing line, selling to boutiques in the Boston area and Rhode Island. She relocated to New York City, where she worked for Marc Bouwer and Saks Fifth Avenue, helping to create gowns worn by Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle and Toni Braxton.

Throughout her career, she’s bounced between East Coast and West Coast. Tumsutipong has worked for New York companies designing men’s lines, women’s lines, and eventually moved to California, and opened Maduzi, a boutique custom-made clothing design shop on L.A.’s famed Melrose Avenue in 2005.

Her designs graced many a red carpet, and are popular with such starlets as Jennifer Love Hewitt, Olivia Wilde, Melissa Gilbert and Diane Farr.

But when the economy soured, she closed down the store, and moved back to New York City for her next venture: developing a recycled denim line in 2008.

“It was a line we were trying to put together, but we had a lot of problems with the fabric. We couldn’t stabilize the yarn,” she said.

Her most recent endeavor sent her to India in June, putting together a collection for a company called Jessamine, a contemporary women’s wear line based in Rajasthan. It was a different creative process for the young designer.

“I actually worked in their sample room, and went into the factory. We had a pattern maker, and the owner of the company was working with me, and a staff of seamstresses to help me sew and make the samples,” she explains. “We went around using whatever was available.”

Normally, a designer sends sketches to a sample maker, who creates the samples, and then there is quite a bit of back and forth to make sure the designer’s vision is represented in the actual articles of clothing.

But in India, says Tumsutipong, it was a much more personal experience.

“It was really a hands-on process. Everything I’ve ever learned in fashion I had to apply it to that job,” she said.

Now that she’s freelancing back in L.A. she also has time to work as a stylist, which gives her the freedom to draw sketches when she feels a burst of creativity coming on.

And while she works with celebrities (her roommate is a celebrity makeup artist, and she works with him sometimes on the set) she wouldn’t quite say she’s fully entrenched in the celebrity scene.

“My friends joke that I should be on Project Runway,” says Tumsutipong of the wildly popular reality show where designers face off in a serious of fashion challenges. “The drawing and designing I could do, but the drama and the stress, definitely not!”

She and her friends do enjoy watching the award pre-shows, where they can critique the gowns, hairstyles, makeup and jewelry choices of everyone from Lady Gaga to Angelina Jolie.

“All my friends are either in fashion, are makeup artists or TV script writers. During awards season watch all the red carpets and see whose wearing what,” she said.

So what’s her official review?

“Everybody plays it safe these days; no one is daring like Cher used to be. You never knew what she was going to show up in,” Tumsutipong said.

Seeing her work on celebs at black-tie affairs is fun, she says, her favorite clothing to design is contemporary women’s wear — the type of stuff that she wears herself.

“I pretty much make everything I wear. I’m lucky that way that I can make whatever want, and I just love it. That’s my hobby,” she says.

But it comes with a drawback: Knowing her knack for sewing and fine tailoring, her friends have started asking her to fix things, from loose buttons to ripped hems. “I don’t mind, I have great friends, I just think it’s funny that they come me,” she says.

What she actually ends up doing a lot with her friends is becoming their personal style guru — they’ll call her and ask how something looks, or have Tumsutipong help them pick out outfits if they all go shopping together.

Anyone feeling like they can never seem to find great clothes should follow Tumsutipong’s advice when shopping: take a picture.

“We do that when we dress celebrities for red carpets, we take a picture, and then we ask them to look at the picture, rather than just looking in the mirror,” she said, “My friends do that too — they’ll take a picture and send it to me and ask my opinion.”

While she’s working for a design company her own style choices are slightly constrained to fit that particular company’s look, but she says her own designs are “a little edgier, a little funkier.

“I do lots of buckles and metal closures. There’s a little bit of peekaboo style, but still covered,” she said.

For her Brooks show, she’s worked on a mini-collection of jackets, dresses, and full outfits that will be on display in the Lehman gallery until December.

Her latest collected is highlighted by geometric, uneven hemlines and draws its inspiration from architecture and Tumsutipong’s Asian background.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from buildings, architecture, my Asian heritage, with a little bit of Japanese influence,” she says. “I’m Thai, but I love Japanese kimonos and the way they wrap, and kimono sleeves.”

Exhibit  Opening
Join us for the exhibit opening of Modernistic: An Exhibit and Fashion Show, featuring the works of fashion designer and stylist Nong Tumsutipong. The exhibit opening is Wednesday, Oct. 10, from 6:30–10 p.m. Fashion Designer Nong Tumsutipong will be present at the opening to discuss her work. This event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Center Coordinator Heather Lazar at (978) 725-6232 or by e-mail.
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