We meet Chu Suwannapha, the print-obsessed designer who celebrates Africa’s myriad and wonderful diversity
“My customers are global travelers. They are fun, confident and dress in a stylish and artistic way. Head-to-toe Chulaap is how they roll,” says Chu Suwannapha of his bold, print-powered menswear brand. Although the Cape Town-based designer’s looks aren’t actually strictly for men only. Working with strong silhouettes, unexpected necklines and a heady mix of pattern has made Suwannapha – known as the ‘prince of prints’ – a firm favourite with the finer sex, too. “A Chulaap piece is always loose-tailored or boxy in style, which means it suits men in general and women who go favour a more androgynous aesthetic,” he explains.
Born and raised in Thailand, Suwannapha studied at the prestigious fashion school ESMOD in Paris, before moving to South Africa after a vacation in the country blossomed into something altogether more permanent. “I came to Cape Town on holiday and completely fell in love with the city,” he remembers. “The ease of lifestyle, the vibrant cultures and rich art scene continue to inspire me every day, while the diversity and the rawness keep me hooked. It brings me peace and happiness,” he reflects. “The open plan of the city has spoilt me too; it’s unlike anywhere else on earth. To the right you have Table Mountain and to the left and you have the beach and ocean!”
Before launching his label in 2015, Suwannapha earned his stripes as fashion editor and latterly as fashion director at FairLady, You, Huisgenoot and Drum magazines. This editorial background has served this talent well with the styling of his collections as impressive as the pieces themselves. He piles print on top of print yet nothing ever feels fussy or chaotic. Clever layering and ingenious use of colour bring harmony, and it’s also where his heritage is most evident. “Thailand will always bring a flavour to my collections especially when it comes to the attention to detail.”
“My passion is creating happy fashion”
But it’s the love for his adoptive country that is so evident in his work; Afro-centric, it never feels derivative or cliché. “Whatever I do, I will always make sure that I don’t alienate my audience. In general, I work with existing African prints, while steering away from the tropical or the super obvious traditional ones. Then to make it my own, I will layer another print over the top or add detailing to the fabric, making use of embroidery or origami folds.” So just what is it about wax prints that the designer loves so much? “Fashion is a kind of a fantasy,” he reflects. “Every print tells a different story but that can have an entirely different flavour depending on what it’s mixed with and how it’s worn.”
Suwannapha’s modern approach to prints, whether batik, ombre, tie-dye, animal or checks, takes them into a new dimension, thus ensuring collections feel fresh and wearable. “My passion is creating happy fashion,” he says. “Using colour, textures, shapes and forms all at the same time to create something that is inspired by contemporary Africa. And of course, made in Africa.” And it’s his status as an immigrant that gives him such a unique position. “I approach African culture and art as an outsider, with different views, and that adds an extra angle.”
Suwannapha has shown extensively in South Africa and was winner of the 2018 Best Menswear Collection Award at the Durban Fashion Fair. He is also building up an international following, so much so that Vogue Italia is putting together a retrospective of his work to date. Shot by Jacobus Snyman and styled by the designer himself, this glossy tome looks set to be a colourful retrospective.
With his graphic collections consistently receiving critical acclaim and his shows being staged in increasingly unexpected locations, from a military base to the top of a football stadium, what’s next for this Cape Town crusader? “For Winter 2019, I’m playing around with different ideas and different techniques on the jacquards – wait and see,” he teases. “But in three to five years’ time, I want Chulaap to be globally accessible from the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, to London, Paris, Berlin and Milan. Oh, and I want to have a pop-up in Bangkok as well.” But in the meantime, we’ll just have to pore over the pages of the new book.
Words Miriam Bouteba
All clothing Chulaap
Millinery Simon and Mary, Crystal Birch
Briefcase Robert Chokwanga
Walking stick Rings and Things
Iziqhaza jacquard Al Luke
Crowd ear-phone Pichulik
Socks Falke, Skinny Sbu
Published on 24/11/2018