Interview with Designer Ong-Oaj Pairam: From Noodles Factory to Dressing the Hollywood A-List


You may not have a dress by Ong-Oaj Pairam in your wardrobe yet, but actress Natalie Dormer (The Tudors, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) does – not her usual Elizabethan court dress or war attire. Nevertheless she was ready to face the paparazzi at The Hunger Games: Mockingjay London premiere with the Andy Warhol camouflage inspired gown by Ong-Oaj Pairam. The Thai designer launched his Brighton-based eponymous label in 2012, after gaining experience at Proenza Schouler in New York. His couture dresses quickly earning their place on the red carpet.

“The transformative quality people have when they dress up really inspires me,” says Pairam. “I’ve seen my dresses bring out excitement, [they have] elevated confidence, elegance, and even renewed sexiness.” Now for his SS16 collection he presents dresses inspired by the Quetzal, a vibrant iridescent bird. His silk and chiffon fabrics treated in such a way that they mimic the ruffled feathers. From Mockingjay to the Quetzal, Ong-Oaj Pairam transforms women into birds of paradise.

Congratulations on Natalie Dormer wearing one of your gowns to the Hunger Games Mockingjay: Part 2 on the red carpet. Do you think this could be a breakthrough moment for your label?

Thank-you, yes definitely! Natalie is an incredible actress celebrated not only for her diverse roles in The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and The Tudors, but also for her impeccable style and she often sits in the international best dressed lists.
The Hunger Games has been such a phenomenon and there has been so much excitement for the final instalment. The London premiere was a perfect showcase for the dress, I specialise in Red Carpet garments and there has been a huge global response to the event and particularly the looks worn by the actresses. I am very selective with who represents my brand and Natalie is the embodiment of the woman I love to dress, empowered, sophisticated, talented and bold.

The print for that was very interesting; it took inspiration from Andy Warhol’s camouflage paintings but is really just paparazzi cameras. Can you tell me more about the story behind the dress and this collection? 

The motif that runs throughout the AW15 collection in varying forms such as the print, embroidery, devoré and jacquard was inspired more by the concept of Andy Warhol’s camouflage works rather than the actual pieces. I find the way Warhol reinterpretation of everyday objects and prints into works of art totally inspiring.
At first glance the print does feel like it’s made of militaristic forms – like camouflage or tank tyre tracks evoking a sense of danger or protection. I have used the paparazzi camera as a form of camouflage which juxtaposes the weapon of the camera, it is a nod to the vulnerability and exposure that fame brings. Having Natalie Dormer wear the dress for the premiere for me was the ultimate conclusion to the design.


Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind your SS16 prints? 

The spring/summer prints drew inspiration from a variety of sources. Essentially I wanted to create a really modern tropical print that eluded to travel and the jet set era. It is difficult to translate tropical in a new way, so I researched a spectrum of birds, butterflies and flowers. The Quetzal bird became a pivotal reference for one print and I created a subtle bug print that from a distance looks like a tweed. There are lighter moments such as an orchid print that is classic and feminine and a graphic suitcase print. The Adventures of TinTin comics were also influential in the designs through the simplicity of line and colour. I like to add an element of the unexpected in my designs, for example the trench coat is made from a silk/cotton polka dot jacquard, some of the polka dots are actually insects.

Last February when you presented AW15, your invitations were ‘Scratch and Sniff’ featuring scents ranging from bee venom facial to the most expensive burger. What did you learn about fragrances through this?

How the body processes a scent, which in basic form is a molecule, is incredible. I used scratch and sniff as another nod to Andy Warhol, he was the master of the unexpected and creating things that were before his time, creating talking points, it felt humorous and relevant. I like my invitations to set the scene for the collection in anticipation of the show. I wanted to reference the modern notion of celebrity and decadence through the invitation, the invitee was provided with varying scents with luxury connotations, be it the sweet smell of success or the stench of not getting out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars. Creating a smell is an interesting process, particularly when then transferring the scent into scratch and sniff form – we work with a great team on our invitations who interpreted what we wanted to achieve. I’m obsessed with fragrance. Scent is probably the most powerful sense, it can bring back forgotten memories and feelings, lift a mood, provoke a desire yet it can also make you feel sick. Truly powerful.

I would hope if you launched a fragrance range it wouldn’t smell like gourmet burgers, but is starting your own fragrance something you aspire to do? Why or why not?

I would love to develop a scent and it definitely wouldn’t smell of gourmet burgers! Like everything I create though I would have to spend time developing the scent and ensure that it was completely unique and felt iconic, I wouldn’t want to produce anything that I got bored of smelling after a while.I like signature scents on people and eventually I would like my own that is representative of my brand.

Describe what would be the signature scent of Ong-Oaj Pairam?

It would need to feel fresh, bold and distinctive. A scent with many notes within it. Similar to my designs I would want something that turns heads faster than spectators at a tennis match but holds your attention.

Women dress much more causally now than they used to in the past. As an emerging designer, why have you decided to take the route of designing gowns suited for the red carpet?

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My collections are designed for an era of woman and I have naturally gravitated to red carpet-worthy creations. The transformative quality people have when they dress up really inspires me. I’ve seen my dresses bring out excitement, elevated confidence, elegance, and even renewed sexiness. Initially, I was surprised how much the look and feel of a dress can really transform behaviour and bring out someone’s most magical qualities, you would never get that from designing casual wear. Everyone loves dressing up and deserves to feel special so that’s why do what I do and love what I do.

Do you have a muse or who do you create for?

I design for lots of different women, but a woman who has an individual style and sense of creativity. I do have a muse for each collection but they vary and influence the way the aesthetic of each collection.

Natalie was an honour to dress because I love her talent and attitude. I also recently created a bespoke dress for artist and model Tessa Kuragi for the Nick Knight Veuve Cliquot Exhibition. She was such an empowering and inspiring person to design for and was the embodiment of the dress that featured embroidery, corsetry, beading and fringing.

Is there any other celebrity you would love to see in your dresses?

I’d love to dress my favourite music artists; when I can relate to their songs I feel I can really create something unique for them. I am a huge fan of Taylor Swift, everything from her music to her style – she would be amazing to create something bespoke for. Dressing the actress Emma Stone is another dream, I always think she looks incredible and has a fun loving spirit and youthful elegance

I understand you grew up in a noodle factory in Thailand, so can you tell me more about what fashion exposure you had growing up and what ultimately led to you pursuing fashion?

Haha, you get very limited fashion exposure growing up in a noodle factory – it was all sterilised white wellies and lab coats. When I was growing up there was a massive obsession with western brands, I learnt about houses such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton through my mum’s social circle and found myself drawn to the incredible designs. Fashion instantly excited me and I started studying and researching everything from the cut of a garment to the fabrication of collections at a very young age and built my own personal fashion library by collecting look books, magazines and catalogues from family friends that had visited Europe.

Do you reference your Thai heritage at all in your collections?

I have in spring/summer ’15. I’d always tried to avoid it because it doesn’t feel new or fresh looking back on my own past. However, it became quite an exploration and heritage will naturally come through in all designers. Particularly exciting for me were the prints and colours – a real acid trip of pastels inspired by street food. It’s one of my favourite collections and one that expresses me as a designer, particularly the Gladiator boots they were real statement pieces!

If you could go back in time to your days at the noodle factory, what would you tell or advise your young self?

I’d tell myself to crack on and go with my gut instinct.

Can you tell me what you learned from your experiences at Roland Mouret and Proenza Schouler in New York that you still carry with you today?

Proenza was amazing experience, it was a small business at the time so I was really hands on and had to learn so many aspects of the business. I was really trusted, so lucky enough to get involved in lots of areas and meet a lot of impressive people. Proenza have always been about celebrating the individual, something I completely get and respect. It was a great fit with my personal design ethos that celebrates the individual as opposed to wanting to create mono-generic fashion for the tribes – the way the designers have created impressive careers and retaining their identity is something that I strive to achieve with my own label.
Can you give me a glimpse of what we will see for your AW 16 collection, and what you are hoping to achieve this season?
For AW16 the collection will be slightly darker. The season is always my favourite to design as I can make things slightly more opulent and there will be lots of innovative red carpet pieces.

What are your aspirations, both personal and work related?

I will be growing the business and ultimately I would love to open a flagship store offering everything from the gowns, accessories, fragrances and who knows maybe some casual wear. I want to carry on making beautifully crafted collections that bring people joy and continue to dress empowered, intelligent and glamorous women, Taylor I am awaiting your call!