The Obama effect on Thakoon Panichgul

Times Fashion Critic

NEW YORK designer Thakoon Panichgul went from being an insider favorite to a fashion sensation when Michelle Obama wore his rose print shift dress the night her husband accepted the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month.

And Panichgul didn’t even know it was coming. “I saw her on TV and I couldn’t even look, I was so embarrassed from being excited,” he said at his Tribeca studio, days after his Spring runway show. “This industry is so small that when you see something on this level, it’s a different story.”

Turns out, Obama has been a fan of the up-and-coming talent for several seasons, shopping for his collection at renowned Chicago fashion boutique Ikram.

Although the store’s owner, Ikram Goldman, wouldn’t comment on the potential first lady, she confirmed that her store will stock the dress from the pre-Spring collection, officially named the acid floral radzimir kimono dress, for $1,250. “What I love about Thakoon is that he’s always made wearable clothes,” she says. “The collection is always of-the-moment but complementary to a wardrobe, and it ranges in appeal from young girls to mommies to businesswomen.”

It’s not as if Panichgul, 33, came out of nowhere. In business four years, he’s been gaining traction the last few seasons. His Spring ’08 collection of shibori dyed skirts and painterly floral dresses with exposed zippers helped spark this summer’s trend for all things ombré and flowered. The cabbage rose and trellis print dresses, ombré mohair jackets and lady grunge multi-plaid blouses, in stores now, have popped up in nearly every magazine’s fall fashion spread.

His talent is in taking something classically feminine and giving it a clever twist. Witness the Spring ’09 collection he showed last week, a play on the notion of seduction that included billowing dresses “bound” with grosgrain ribbon, chiffon cardigans in winking eyelash prints and a blouson jacket in a black Jacquard featuring rose blooms balanced on pairs of legs.

You might characterize the Panichgul look as sweet sexiness. It’s also worth noting that the fit is superb, and not only on the stick-thin.

“I don’t ever want it to be one or the other, sweet or sexy. Because a lot of women like both,” says the designer, who is soft-spoken and extremely thoughtful about his clothes.

Born in Thailand, he moved to the U.S. at age 11 and grew up in Omaha. After graduating from Boston University with a business degree, he worked as a fashion features editor at Harper’s Bazaar and a merchandiser at J. Crew. Then he decided to go to design school at Parsons.

He collaborated on Spring’s witty rose and legs prints with photographer and conceptual artist Laurie Simmons, whose “walking objects” series from the late 1980s explored what it would be like for humans to morph into the kinds of commercial objects with which they define themselves. “It’s a play on how women want to be perceived as well as how they are perceived,” Panichgul says of the rose print. “There’s a duality there, a tension between what’s sexy and what’s formal, what’s refined and what’s aggressive.

“I try to bury ideas into the clothes. At first glance, you think it’s something. But there’s more to it.”

Panichgul seems to have found a winning formula. His collection, priced from $400 to $5,000, sells at Tracey Ross, Neiman Marcus and Barneys New York in L.A. In addition to designing shoes for Italian leather goods brand Hogan, on Dec. 28 he’ll debut a limited-edition collection for Target.

“They really let you do what you do. They want individuality from designers,” he says of Target. “And when I go home to Omaha and talk to people who are not in fashion, they always ask when I’m going to do Target. They see that as making it.”

Guess that’s what they mean by the popular vote.