Millions of colors and Andrew & Audrey Designer Rujira Lawonvisut finds manufacturing her American lifestyle brands in Bangkok a recipe for success.
“My advice is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing,” says Rujira Lawonvisut, design wunderkind behind children’s labels Millions of Colors and Andrew & Audrey, as well as men’s line WRKROOM, which she designs with her husband, Je Jung. “If I believe in it, I can convince others to, and that’s how you get your teammates to create the same dream together. It starts with you.” The 36-year-old designer is quite an inspiration. Not only does she do the heavy lifting in terms of the design work on the various labels, but, with her husband, she also runs six retail stores throughout Thailand—three for the men’s line and three for Millions of Colors. Her children’s stores serve distinct markets within the region: One, in Bangkok center, sells the same goods offered in America and is a hit with the jet set and expat communities; another, in a suburb of Bangkok, serves mostly Thai customers and sells a capsule collection tailored to local tastes; and the third, in the beach town of Phuket, focuses on tanks and swimwear.
She set out on her own six years ago, leaving a plum position designing for fashion house Theory. She worked freelance for some time while traveling from New York to her native Thailand to visit her family. The 12-year womenswear veteran had worked as a designer, technical designer and product development manager for companies like Gap, Urban Outfitters, TSE, Express and Anthropologie, but says childrenswear was always in the back of her mind. What really started her down the road was answering a request from Thai Trade, an organization that was seeking a Thai fashion expert with work experience in the United States and manufacturing experience in Thailand. The organization was sponsoring a workshop for Thai manufacturers and brands and needed someone to advise on how to build an export business to the U.S. Lawonvisut was chosen, and it was at this workshop that she made key connections with factories that would ultimately produce her children’s lines.
“When I learned of the program, I wanted to help. I know a lot from working with Theory and Gap and thought it would be great to share that experience,” says Lawonvisut, who asserts that the program changed the course of her life, providing an unexpected opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream.
“My business partner in Thailand for Millions of Colors—who I met at the workshop—has been manufacturing high-end brands like DKNY, Chloé and Marc Jacobs for 25 years,” she notes. For Fall ’12, Millions of Colors’ collection is a continuation of the brand’s play on the theme of love, articulated in a more intense palette of pinks and reds as seen throughout spring/summer and mixed with autumnal colors like nutmegs and blues. Andrew & Audrey’s fall collection, produced in a separate factory that specializes in knitwear and also serves powerhouse brands like Timberland and Adidas, is inspired by boarding school. The toggle-clasped and chunky knit sweaters are at the heart of Lawonvisut’s design passion, as, she says, knitwear has always been her niche. “Personally, I love a sweater all year round,” she laughs.
The brands are on the rise in the U.S. and Europe, but Lawonvisut is also looking at the Asian market to fuel her growth. “For Millions of Colors especially, I see more business opportunities in Asia and am expanding the business there,” she says, citing great potential due to the region opening up and the buying power Asian consumers represent. “We are set up as a vertically integrated company, which helps us to communicate and react. We can respond nimbly to the end-consumers regionally. Right now, I have a showroom in Japan and am thinking about Hong Kong,” she says. Andrew & Audrey, on the other hand, is seeing a boom in Australia and New Zealand.
If Lawonvisut has to name the biggest challenge in the industry, though, it wouldn’t be global distribution—it would be photo shoots. As anyone who’s attempted a large-scale production with a team of toddlers would attest, success can feel like a happy accident rather than a planned and precise execution. “For Millions of Colors, we did an outdoor shoot around our Fall collection at a beautiful resort—although it was shot in Thailand, it looks like Switzerland. The kids were running all around and we were pressed by waning daylight. With kids, whether they’re hyper or cranky or tired, you just have to go along with it.” But the designer, who named her first kids’ line for the millions of expressions, moods and emotions of a child, knows that this is the beauty of the unpredictable children’s business. “Of course it’s tiring, but when you see the results, it’s very rewarding,” she says.