By: Anonymous: Anonymous ()  Monday, 23 July 2012 @ 07:00 AM ICT (Read 1626 times)  

'It was a real struggle, like making money from dust," recalls Pichet Vanich, the 42-year-old owner of Handicraft Vanich Manufacturing, a small enterprise that makes leather bags and wallets inspired by the biker, heavy metal, cowboy and American Indian fads of the 1970s.

Today, Mr Pichet, a graduate of Bangkok Arts and Crafts College and with an expertise in leather, runs a business that exports 90% of its output to Japan and sees annual revenue of 10 million baht. He also made the costumes worn by the cast in the 2003 Thai period drama Khun Suk or Sema: The Warrior Of Ayodhaya.

As with many who "came from nothing" _ to use Mr Pichet's own words _ life was a struggle for years. Thirteen years ago, he was eking out a living as a sidewalk vendor on Silom Road, putting whatever he made on display. But that business did not do very well, so Mr Pichet then became a professional tattoo artist. His clients were mostly foreigners.

While in his early 30s, a close German friend paid for his flight ticket, his meals, literally everything to travel to Germany to open a tattoo shop there. And it was through tattooing that Europeans learned of his skill in making leather bags. A British man married to a Thai learned of his leather work through a mutual Thai shoemaker friend and placed an order for 1 million baht.

"The order was so big that I decided to return to Thailand and open my own shop," said Mr Pichet. Passion and the desire to create kept him going, but that alone was not enough to sustain his initial success. He said several shops in Thailand sell similar products, so it is not just a matter of making something you feel like making and then hanging it up on the wall expecting someone to buy it.

"What's important is to be yourself, to include your passion and innovation in your work while at the same time capturing the mood of the customers. They have to be able to get a feel for your products and say: 'Yes, that's what I want'," said Mr Pichet.

He said innovation and creativity are not only about designing and coming up with ideas but also the ability to capture people's moods. Proper knowledge and valid information are also crucial for a sustainable business. "Anyone can make leather goods, but to do it well you must have proper knowledge. I spend a great deal of my time in conferences, attending talks, using whatever channels I can find," said Mr Pichet, adding that the Office of Small and Medium Enterprise Promotion has been of tremendous help.

Established in 2004, Handicraft Vanich Manufacturing provides handmade leather goods designed and made to order from genuine animal skins _ crocodile, snake, cow, stingray and python. It also makes Harley-Davidson motorcycle seats, wallets, belts, shoes, furniture and bags, with the main factory in Samut Prakan province employing about 30 workers.

The company operates two showrooms in Bangkok, at Chatuchak weekend market and Palladium Square in the Pratunam area. Currently, 90% of the business is in the form of an original-equipment manufacturer for five Japanese companies. "It's very strange. Japan lost World War II, but Japanese have 100% accepted American culture," he said.

While the cowboy trend has not proved popular among Thai customers in recent years, Mr Pichet believes it is making a comeback, especially among high-end male shoppers with an eye for vintage products.

"Any trend or fashion that has disappeared for a long time will make a natural comeback. Unlike the apparel industry in which fashion changes very rapidly, the cowboy fashion tends to go out of favour for a longer period of time, then makes its way back, which it's doing right now," he said.

Competition may remain slight in the country, as the market has been rather narrow for a few years now, but China has started to produce similar types of leather products. Some of Mr Pichet's Japanese customers disappeared for a while to try out the Chinese products but always returned to him due to the inferior quality of the Chinese goods. Handicraft Vanich uses only top-grade leather made in Thailand.

"This is a bit of a drawback right now. Even though we use the best leather in the country, the really good stuff is imported, which bumps up production costs," he said, adding that he plans to upgrade to imported leather once his brand becomes better known.

"It's a step-by-step process. Right now our goal is to build a brand for ourselves by producing diversified products to cater to larger target groups such as working professionals." Mr Pichet said at the end of the day, product quality is of the utmost importance to business sustainability: "You need to pick the right raw materials and good-quality accessories, as the finer the artwork, the more value is added to your product."

For more information: You can also find Handicraft Vanich Manufacturing at the Jatujak Market (weekend market) Section 7 Main Gate number 2 turn right at the first soi 1 and go to the end of soi 1.

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