Rathchapol “Beam” Ngaongam, founder and designer behind the alternative knitwear label Bulan, recounts how the brand became one of the main attractions for New York Fashion Week 2023.
(Hero image: Rathchapol “Beam” Ngaongam, founder and designer of Bulan)
For most of us, February is the month to reconsider our ambitious New Year’s resolutions, or set elaborate plans for Valentine’s Day. But in the Big Apple, the familiar hum of New York Fashion Week was just getting started. Amid the many runway shows – from legendary fashion houses to recently established brands – one new player stood out from the bunch: Bulan. Its fall 2023 collection has an aesthetic throughline consisting of vibrant architectural knit fabrics, made all the more intriguing with mismatched gashes across the pieces. Bulan has clearly caught the world’s attention and is ready to subvert more expectations.
From Thailand to New York, the designer-slash-founder of Bulan, Rathchapol “Beam” Ngaongam walks Prestige through his fashion school days at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, interning for major maisons, and finally starting his own brand at the tail end of a global pandemic.
How did you get started in the fashion and knitwear industry?
I started off as a fashion design student with a major in sewing. Coming from Thailand [to America], I didn’t even know that knitwear was a specialisation, let alone an actual major you can pursue in college. I was introduced to the idea when I was in my first year of college as it was a mandatory class. As soon as I laid my hands on that first strand of yarn and started knitting my first swatch, I knew this would be something I’d enjoy doing. Though I’m quite good at sewing, I just don’t find it as exciting. But when it comes to knitting, I really connect with it. There is something about creating a full garment strand by strand from yarns that I find really fulfilling. I get to create amazing, luxurious textures, and it feels like being a part of the garment itself. I graduated in 2020 with a bachelor of Knitwear Design.
How has interning at some of the major fashion houses – Proenza Schouler, Dion Lee, 3.1 Phillip Lim – helped with shaping your own brand?
What I have gained from working with these established brands is the insight into how a fashion business works; how to deal with factories, how to create a Tech-Pack, how to send the factory a knit-down instruction, how to do fittings, and so on. That experience has been invaluable. That said, no internship can fully prepare you to start a brand. I’m definitely learning as I go, every single day, and I am enjoying every minute of it.
How was the process of establishing Bulan?
Starting Bulan had never been a plan of mine to begin with. Just like nearly every other fashion kid, I thought I wanted to work for a high-end brand with the goal of working my way up to becoming a senior designer. But after working as an intern at several companies, I decided to take the plunge and start my own brand. I remember it vividly: I was sitting in Union Square, texting one of my best friends to see if he would like to invest in me, so I could start a brand. At that time, I was thinking I only needed US$5,000. My friend kindly declined my offer, and frankly, I don’t blame them. It was a lot of money for something that was not even tangible at the beginning. I ended up using every single penny I had saved to launch my brand. At the start, it was more of a side project because I needed a job. I’m so grateful it has worked out so well, and that I can dedicate myself full-time to creating my own work and building my brand.
What was it like to start this business during Covid? Were there any specific challenges?
Luckily, I started my brand right as Covid was diminishing, so there weren’t as many obstacles as there might have been had I started it earlier. To be honest, Covid allowed me to spend more time at home designing than I might have been able to otherwise. I think my collection had benefited from all the time I was able to dedicate towards creating work that reflected my vision.
What is the brand’s DNA?
When I started Bulan, I knew I wanted to create something new, something that people have never seen before. I wanted to show the world what knitwear can be, that it’s not all scarves and beanies.
Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created so far?
I love every single piece I’ve ever created, as each was designed with love. I want my customers to get the best quality for the price they pay. All my yarns are imported from Italy and even though I’m based in New York now, all my garments are made in Thailand, to ensure that everything is of the highest quality and highest craftsmanship. I also decided to go with factories in Thailand because I want to show the world that Thai people are excellent craftspeople.
Could you explain how mental illness became the influence for your latest collection?
The collection is inspired by mental health issues and their complexity. It all started when I became fascinated with how the human body works, and ended up exploring sadness versus beauty, and its intersection point. A defining characteristic of my collection is complexity, a collection that incorporates chaos in its oversized garments, excessive wrapping, holes, asymmetrical curves, and bold colour combinations. I’ve included exaggerated and asymmetric silhouettes in hoodies, dresses, and jumpsuits to show that even amid turmoil and doubt, there is so much beauty to be found. German-born American painter Hans Hofmann inspired my use of colour, both joyful and uplifting. My aesthetic draws on the importance of seeking light in the darkness. For instance, I use polyester, acrylic fibre, and merino wool in vibrant colours like red, pink, and blue to overpower negative feelings of anger, sadness, and fear that we all wrestle with.
Are there other sources of inspiration you like to pull from?
My inspirations are endless. It all depends on what that particular collection is dedicated to. I try to design everything with love, something that is meaningful, and fun. That’s why every collection I had done, or I will do, will be something personal.
You also use a diverse range of models in your photoshoots. Is that intentional?
Yes, I always aim to bring in diverse models and create a community out of that diversity. I believe everyone is beautiful and I want to show that. In my latest debut at NYFW, we casted all Asian models as a tribute to where I’m from. I’ve always struggled with my own image and self-confidence, but by casting all Asian models it gave me a lot of confidence, because I realised that we are beautiful regardless of how other people see us.
How has New York Fashion Week been? And what was the fashion show process like?
It was very stressful right until the last second before the show started. I have to thank everyone who’s been involved in making this show. It would never have happened without all the help from my friends. I’m very grateful to have such friends who are willing to help me without asking for anything in return. They believe in me and I will cherish this moment forever. After the show, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Bulan has been named one of the “7 American Menswear brands to watch” by Hypebeast. It’s such an honour to be included on that list.
What’s the next step for Bulan?
I’ve decided to create a fall collection each year. Knitwear is very time consuming to produce and I really want to make sure that I’m proud of each and every piece I put in the collection. I don’t want to follow the fashion calendar to create an S/S [spring/summer] collection, just because. I enjoy creating knitwear and I think fall collections are the best fit for now. So… fall 2024 is the next step for Bulan.
For more information on the collection, visit Bulan’s website
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