When I first went to Bangkok, I was a leather snob—no petroleum byproducts for this American woman. I always brought at least two pairs of Easy Spirit heels with me along with sturdy Rockport sandals. My bag was from Coach. I looked at the array of plastic on the feet and over the shoulders of Thai women and felt pity for them. Frank Zappa's immortal lines, "Plastic shoes, plastic hat and you think you know where it's at," invariably came to mind. Then the rains came.
There’s something about wading down a flooded soi barefoot, shoes in hand, and watching dye leach from a handbag in a heavy downpour that would change anybody’s mind about plastic. When I found out that my feet fit into Thai shoes it was the end of leather for me in the Kingdom.
I once lived with a Thai man who was involved in the fashion business. When he was home, he could always be found in front of the TV, eyes on the Fashion Channel and hand rapidly sketching what was coming down the catwalk. As I watched with him, I began to learn that what was in Milan or Paris one week would appear in the cheap sidewalk markets of Bangkok in the next. My mode of shopping flipped—now I bought plastic in Bangkok to wear in the States.
Without exception, my Bangkok purchases were always ahead of the U.S. curve—thanks to those annoying intellectual property laws. One of my treasured memories was visiting a sweet little Seattle boutique where a man from Vietnam retooled vintage clothing for trendy tastes. I was there with a woman whose handbag was leather and expensive while I carried a small piece of plastic purchased for five dollars at a stall from Victory Monument.
Both my friend and I were surprised when the boutique owner demanded “Is your bag sharkskin? Where did you get it?” and he was looking at me. That’s what happens when you carry Bangkok plastic. It never fails.
I’m getting older and I’ve begun to think of having one or two things that I won’t have to replace every fifteen minutes. So on my latest trips to Thailand, I purchased two small, well-made, classic leather bags that will probably outlive me.
When I carry them, nobody notices them. They look like any department store purchase in this part of the world. But when I go out with my large mustard-colored plastic tote, or my little red envelope bag, or my big squishy turquoise hobo, people ask about them—and will right up to the day that they fall to bits.
Thai Plastic—long may it reign.