As the only daughter and youngest of two siblings, Duang – her birth name Monlada means “descendent of the divine” – was raised in a strict, traditional home. Her late father, Montree Pongpanit, a well-known politician who served three terms as Thailand’s deputy prime minister, made sure the apple of his eye was shielded from the outside world.
“He was a perfectionist and very strict,” Duang recalls. “I was not allowed to wear makeup. No short skirts, no sleeveless blouses, no plunging necklines and, most importantly, no boys. He got quite upset every Valentine’s Day when I would get dozens of roses and bouquets from boys. He even told me that all the boys that approached me would only take advantage of me, and that they wouldn’t be mature and reliable until they are 27 or 28. It was his strategy to keep me away from any suitors. I had it easy with him though, compared to my brother.
“My father pushed my brother really hard – to make him a perfect gentleman of course, but sometimes I felt really bad for him. And it turns out he has done a great job taking care of my mother and me.”
Duang’s older brother, police colonel Wacharis Pongpanit, works for the Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police and is married with two daughters. The entire Pongpanit clan lives together in a big compound.
“My brother and I weren’t really close when we were younger,” Duang says. “I guess it was because he had my father breathing down his neck, nagging him about taking care of me and protecting me, so he never took me anywhere with him because he was afraid that something might happen to me. I didn’t blame him. We became much closer after my father passed away. It was a devastating shock for our family and it made me want to reconnect and be closer to the people I love, including my brother.”
Duang’s mother, Khunying Tida Pongpanit, was a little less strict, but a firm believer in tough love. “She is not the kind of mother that showers you with kisses and compliments. She’s always wanted me to be strong so that I can stand up for myself.Once, when I was about to start first grade, I begged my mom to take me to school on my first day, tears streaming down my face and telling her that I was so scared. She refused, and told me to be brave. ‘Just walk in there, and get on with it. You can’t be scared of new things all the time,’ she told me. Later in life she told me that when it comes to work, you either work very hard or don’t bother. That’s what my mother is like – strictly business and no nonsense.”
Duang says her mother also groomed her from a very young age to be able to be “happily alone” – if need be. “It’s such a harsh thing to say, and a very gloomy scenario if you think about it, but my mother believes that if you can’t be content in your own solitude and loneliness, you can’t have a fulfilled life. Ultimately we’ll be alone, no matter how many friends we have in life, and if we can’t be happy with ourselves, how can we deal with others?”
The designer and entrepreneur holds three degrees: a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and a degree in Fashion Design obtained in New York. However, Duang admits that, as far as her education is concerned, her teenage school years were the least impressive.
“I was a naughty girl and didn’t really like school,” she says, smiling. “During classes I would just doodle, make collages and create art in my notebooks, while other kids would chat, secretly nibble on snacks or even doze off. Academics was not really my strong point, but despite that I was not a troublemaker. I was just a teenager that had too many like-minded friends and, yes, I cut classes sometimes!”
After her formative high school years at Triamudomsuksa School, Duang had an epiphany in her senior year.
“I just knew that I had to change my ways if I wanted to get ahead in life. I needed to break away from my old life and go somewhere far, far away – so I begged my parents to send me to this Catholic boarding school in Cannon City in Colorado where I spent one miserable semester contemplating, agonizing with the kind of homesickness that I had never experienced before, and started to appreciate what my parents have done for me all along. It was a bittersweet experience, and I was ready to ‘grow up’.”
But growing up did not come that easy. Duang spent the next few years pursuing a Bachelor’s in Public Communication and Marketing at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, followed by a Master’s in International Business from the same institution. She managed to complete all the courses but did not quite achieve the level of maturity she had hoped to. “My English was so-so. It’s unbelievable, right? That’s because I only hung out with Thai friends, and surrounded myself with everything familiar and Thai.”
On her return to Thailand, Duang co-founded imported furniture shop Premio with her cousin. “I took care of PR for the company,” Duang recalls. “It was not really my thing – I was more into creating my own thing rather than selling other people’s creations. Besides, I only got business degrees to please my mother, who thought business management was a good foundation and offered useful know-how. She promised me that I could do anything I wanted once I completed those degrees.”
Duang decided to sell her shares in Premio. It was time for a new direction, time to follow her heart and her instincts.
“In high school, I only ever liked art subjects. Whatever free time I had, I would draw,” she says. “Initially I wanted to be a graphic designer, but later on, doing PR for Premio, I became more exposed to fashion, as many magazines would borrow our furniture for props or even come to our showroom to do photo shoots. I got to know a lot of stylists, models, designers and people in the scene. And, like most girls, I love beautiful clothes and dressing up. I knew right then that there was nothing else I’d rather be than a fashion designer.”
Without a background in fashion design or an art education, Duang had to start from scratch and struggled to create a portfolio that would earn her a place in prestigious art school Central Saint Martins in London.
“As soon as I set my mind to fashion, and with my mother’s approval, I rushed into it even when I knew nothing about sketching a dress – let alone making one. I took a T-shirt, put some jewels and sparkles on it and presented that to Central Saint Martins as my ‘portfolio’ when their representatives were doing admission interviews in Bangkok. He shook his head, told me that this was not enough to get me accepted. I then ended up training at the school for a whole year just to put together a proper portfolio.”
With the pressure to complete the portfolio in one year and make up for lost time, Duang worked hard and made a conscious decision that she would not fall back to her old irresponsible ways.
“I dedicated almost all of my time to studying. I could not afford to waste any time socialising and hanging out with the wrong people. I also wanted to improve my English so I didn’t hang out with Thai friends. I did everything I could to get ahead. The critiques from the teachers were sometimes very harsh – you have to swallow your pride and learn that people like different things. Although it was a stressful time, I was so happy. I guess when you do something you really love, you enjoy every moment of it and seem to have an unlimited supply of energy to spare.”
Her perseverance paid off, two-fold. Not only was Duang finally accepted at Central Saint Martins, but Parsons School of Design in New York also gave her a seat in its celebrated School of Fashion. Duang opted for the latter, believing that the vibrant scene in New York – as one of the world’s fashion capitals – had more opportunities.
“Everyone at the school worked and studied very hard, and so did I. I learned a lot about the fashion industry, working with various brands like Derek Lam and Libertines,” Duang recalls.
“Once, during a first day as a trainee intern, they asked me to cut the labels from this huge pile of clothes, and discard them afterwards. It was a shock to me because those were branded, expensive clothes. Later I learned that it was all about how a brand was established. Libertines bought cheap, second-hand clothes online and revamped them, altered them into its signature style and marketed them at steep prices. That tiny piece of printed fabric attached to a T-shirt is everything. It is what makes even the simplest piece of garment special. It really opened my eyes.”
After graduating from Parsons, Duang spent another two years conceiving the DNA of her own brand and gearing up for business, and in 2010 Monlada’s “modern classic sexy” concept was unveiled in a boutique at Seenspace on Thonglor Soi 13. Through the years, the brand has grown gradually and extended to two sub-brands, Noirz by Monlada, which is the younger and more affordable version of Monlada, and Monlada Homme, a menswear collection.
“I love historic costumes – the classic looks, the retro silhouettes, the ultra-feminine styles and all that. I find it fascinating and it’s always great to look back to the past for inspiration,” Duang says. “But of course we cannot wear that in a modern-day age, so I take some elements and styles from the past and turn them into something unique, chic and contemporary that complements the styles and personalities of different women. I also believe that every woman has her own sexy side, and that’s why Monlada is all about everything classic and sexy.”
If she’s not at the boutique taking care of business or entertaining the brand’s top spenders, Duang can most days be found at Monlada Studio, just 15 minutes’ drive from her family’s compound house near Bon Marche Market. The old rundown property, which also belongs to her family, was transformed into a minimal and sleek studio housing a small team of designers and a more recent extension for production to keep up with the expansion of her brands.
“It’s not as easy as it looks, because it’s not just about making beautiful dresses,” Duang admits. “You have to be aware of market trends, buyers’ psychology, marketing strategies, brand awareness and brand building that will ensure your brand’s survival. I now have three brands to nurture and each one is quite different. The business side is probably the most challenging part for me – I’m more of an artist than a businesswoman. But so far the brands have grown. It always takes time for a fashion brand to be recognised, and I’m not giving up. I think I was a warrior in my past life!”
While Monlada has been well received among women of sophisticated tastes, and Noirz by Monlada has become a hit among young, rebellious and chic ladies, Monlada Homme has enjoyed international limelight, sported by Hollywood actors such as Scott Eastwood, Daniel Radcliffe and Elijah Wood, as well as model Baptiste Giabiconi, the current male face of Chanel, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld.
“There’s so much to learn and indeed, I learn new things every day,” Duang says. “I learn by trial and error, from making bold decisions and sometimes I consult with my mom. I also attend a lot of seminars and talks about business and leadership to get a broader perspective and insights on management. I’d like to think I’m a nice boss. I take good care of my team. I value and respect each one of them, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem. Everyone is important and we each have a role to play to complete the big picture.
“I don’t have big plans for my brands just yet, because in the fashion industry a seven-year-old brand is still a toddler. In the near future we will offer more distribution channels – maybe at department stores – to give our customers access to the brands. And look out for the Monlada Homme website. It will be launched very soon.”
Duang is also working with her mother on a real estate project, Monlada Khaoyai. The luxury property with its premium quality simplex houses will be launched at the end of the year.
The gorgeous and single 41-year-old fashion entrepreneur has thrown her heart entirely into what she is passionate about – fashion. There’s no time for relationships and commitments – not yet anyway.
Asked about her favourite luxury or fashion brand, Duang admits that she’s biased. “Monlada is my own, it’s my life’s work. I also admire Vivienne Westwood as an exceptionally talented designer, and as a businesswoman who has continued to work until quite a ripe age. Who needs to retire when you are blessed with the job you love? It’s my life-long goal to keep working, to occupy my time with creative things. Not only will my life be fulfilled, but I will also never be lonely. Men come and go, but work stays with you as long as you let it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend your entire life challenging yourself to do better?”
On a question about raising her own family one day, Duang responds with a pensive look. “I would, if things worked out and I found the right man. And I want to have a son. I imagine myself being more like a friend to him, taking him to work with me and hanging out together. I would encourage him to work at 18!”
In her free time, Duang admits to partying much less these days. Instead, she prefers to spend time off watching a movie at the cinema, indulging in delicious meals and hunting for her own mix-and-match style – from high brands in flashy malls to deep finds at markets and street stalls.
“For me luxury is not always about brands. It is something classic and timeless, something that stays with me forever and has been made from excellent materials.