10 Nov Jim Thompson an American Businessman Who Revitalized the Thai Silk Industry
Jim Thompson: Hours to kill at an airport when you’re waiting for a flight is usually a time filled with tedium. But not when you’re at Bangkok airport. Reason? Several Jim Thompson boutiques are scattered over the shopping concourse, leading to hours of pleasurable browsing and shopping.
Jim Thompson was not born a designer. He studied architecture at Princeton and eventually enlisted in the Delaware National Guard in 1940, leading to a posting in Thailand with the ending of World War 2. While he was in Thailand, he was very taken with the country’s lifestyle and culture and chose to settle there.
Thompson realized that though Thailand had historically been a major silk producer, it was now importing silk. Synthetic yarns and machine-made fabrics had taken over the ancient craft of silk weaving with its marvelous textures and colors.
Silk Industry in Thailand by Jim Thompson
Thompson set up a company to tap this unutilized potential in the late 1940s. He was convinced that there would be a massive market in the west for Thai textiles. It was around the same time when Thailand was underdeveloped economically, and this endeavor would help the local industry and economy.
By 1950, Thompson managed to set up several ateliers of artisans, with state of the art looms, innovating technique and design. Best of all, The Thai Silk Company, set up by him, was mostly owned by the Thai.
Jim had links with Edna Chase, who was the editor of Vogue. She got his textiles featured in the magazine. The Broadway show set in Thailand ‘The King and I’ also featured his fabrics. These two events catapulted Thai silk to the international arena and enormous success. They were used in interiors, couture, and famous films, creating a massive industry and supporting local crafts and people.
Jim Thompson Home and Mysterious Disappearance
Interestingly, in 1959, Thompson built his home in traditional Thai style with his twist, which continues to this day as a major tourist attraction of Bangkok, functioning as a museum full of priceless artifacts.
In one of the strangest incidents of the design world, Thompson unaccountably disappeared in 1967, while on a visit to the Malaysian Highlands. A vast search failed to elicit any clues, and the matter remains a mystery.
Jim Thompson Legacy
His legacy carries on in the industry, with Jim Thompson textiles serving as a benchmark for design and quality. The company set up by him now employs more than 3000 people, benefitting Thai society and culture in manifold ways. It is a model for all such companies worldwide, with its fairness and community standards and its vertically integrated approach. Right from the cultivation of silkworms and spinning of yarn to the entire design process – weaving and finishing, everything is carried out in-house, leading to perfect quality and finish.
Jim serves as a perfect example of the fact that we can choose to reinvent ourselves at any age. And of course, his design legacy is without comparison.
Jim Thompson continues to supply to the most luxurious of interiors and apparel designers worldwide. All because of the vision of one man.
Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury. She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft. She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.