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The Death of Thailand's King Is Turning the Country's Fashion Industry Black

Within the Thai economy, the fashion industry has been heavily affected by the country's mourning ritual of wearing black clothing to honor the late king. Demand for black threads is so high that brands are suffering while street vendors are cashing in.

Thai merchants ready black clothing for citizens who are mourning the late monarch. Photo by Guillaume Payen/AP Images

Jaruporn Osathanont, a clothing store owner at Platinum Fashion Mall in Bangkok, was preparing her lunch in her shop—rice and spicy pork rib soup—when two Thai women strolled in. They came to purchase the hottest fashion item in Bangkok: a plain black T-shirt.

The women handed Osathanont a wad of baht, and left with a black shirt and dress. She has sold about 1,500 black clothing pieces in the last two weeks, and lately, Thais have flooded her shop in a frantic hunt for them.

"I can sell more than 150 pieces per day," she said. "One customer can get two or three pieces alone." One of Osathanont's T-shirts cost 150 baht ($4.30) and her black dresses are 250 baht ($7.15).

From Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Phuket, black clothing is selling out. It's a style fueled by the recent death of the country's monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at the age of 88 on October 13. Wearing black has become a symbol of national mourning in an period of grief that the government announced will last an entire year, a tribute to the only king most Thai citizens have ever known.

Some Thai street merchants are selling their black clothing at inflated rates due to high demand. Photo by Guillaume Payen/AP Images

King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 and ruled Thailand for 70 years; at the time of his death, he was the longest-reigning monarch in the world. His name translates to "strength of the land, incomparable power," and the king was an authoritative figure, his rule sacrosanct, and his absolute power insulated by a powerful military that staged a coup in 2014, overthrowing the country's democratically elected government. Thailand is expected hold renewed democratic elections in 2017. Meanwhile, the king is dead and the country's emotions are raw and real—Thais reacted to his death by publicly weeping in the streets.

Bhumibol was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was raised mostly in Europe. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk, played the saxophone, painted, and was generous with charities. He also implemented crucial agricultural programs in the rural reaches of the country.

Though many loved him for those reasons, they were also legally required to revere him. The country's "lese majeste" laws protect the royal family from even fleeting or minor criticism. Article 112 of the Thai criminal code stipulates offenders can spend up to 15 years in prison for defaming him. A Thai blogger faced prison time last year for snubbing the monarch's dog on social media. And in the wake of his death, sensibilities regarding his legacy haven't receded.

Those refraining from mourning or showing solidarity toward his passing has been met with swift and somewhat severe repercussions. The BBC and Al Jazeera TV channels were briefly taken off the air in Bangkok for broadcasting fairly innocuous obituaries of Bhumibol that were deemed "inappropriate content." One Thai woman who allegedly insulted the late king was arrested and forced to kneel and pray to a picture of the monarch outside a police station on the island of Koh Samui while an angry crowd jeered at her. Police had to link arms to protect her from the disgruntled throng of Thais.

The citizens of Thailand responded to the king's death by publicly weeping in the streets. The government said the mourning period is to last a full year. Photo by Guillaume Payen/AP Images

Black clothing has become one of the most obvious symbols of national grief. Thailand has a history of color-coding its dress, and each day of the week is linked to a certain color. For instance, many Thais wear yellow on Monday because that's the day Bhumibol was born. Shortly before his death, when the king was placed on a ventilator after receiving blood purification treatment, people began wearing pink, a symbol of auspiciousness, in hopes his condition might improve.

In the aftermath of his death and the resulting black clothing shortage, the Thai government has reminded its citizens that white, brown, blue, and cream are also acceptable mourning wear. Black is the most prevalent, though, and wearing anything else, especially bright colors, is borderline taboo. At the insistence of the Thai justice minister, some Thais have been shamed publicly for not adhering to the fashion blackout.

While the country is grieving, vendors like the aforementioned Osathanont are raking in the profits. Some clothing vendors told VICE they've doubled their daily revenue since the king died, bringing in as much as 70,000 baht a day—roughly $2,000—by selling hundreds of black clothing items.

"We are in better business now—busier definitely because the demand for black clothes," said Sunisa Kittiyanorrasead, a shopkeeper of 20 years who abandoned selling surfer shorts to ride the black clothing wave.

Demand for black threads is so high Thailand's government has warned of a shortage, price gouging has been suspected, and stations have sprung up where people can dye clothes black for free.

People have set up dying stations so Thai citizens can turn their clothes black and mourn the king. Photo by Natnicha Chuwiruch/AP Images

"I wear black because I mourn for our king," said Sandy Pakornmaneerattana, 32, a Thai marketing manager who was wearing slim-fitted black pants, a stylish but modest full-sleeved black blouse, and black shoes.

"The roadside vendors have all increased their prices, some of them up to 50 percent for a normal black T-shirt," she added. "These vendors are running out of stock, and they're really using this time to make a lot of money for themselves."

Although this boom has allowed vendors hawking cheap black apparel to cash out, not everyone has been so fortunate.

Out of convention and insistence by the government, the king's death has inflicted a somber mood across Thailand that has extended to impact certain sectors of the country's already-sagging economy. The Thai government asked its citizens to cease all "entertainment activities. "Movie theaters and clubs shut their doors, television stations went off-air, concerts were postponed, and even sex workers in Bangkok took a holiday. The mere promotion of entertainment has also been deemed distasteful.

The fashion industry has perhaps been shaken the most by the gloomy economic landscape compounded by the blackout ritual. Fashion shows were canceled, brand launches of entire lines have stalled, and some designers social media accounts went dark for a couple weeks following the king's death.

It may come as no surprise then, that smaller designers whose lines and styles thrive on vibrant designs, have been stung the hardest by the mourning period—and some of them are now wondering how they'll earn a living.

Mannequins wearing black and white clothing at a shopping mall in Bangkok, Photo by Sakchai Lalit/AP Images

"I sell swimwear and swimwear always has to be bright colors," said Saroj Kunatanad, a 29-year-old Bangkok designer, entrepreneur, and founder of swimwear line St. Barts, whose brand, which he described as "very California," is in limbo as he waits the out the mourning process.

"I only have one color that is dark, which is navy blue," he added. "Swimming is related to holidays and being happy. That mood is totally contrasted with the whole country, where no one's [currently] thinking about going on holiday or going to the beach. That's affected my brand."

Mark Ketteringham, 49, formerly of London, who now designs eye-catching crocodile and snakeskin leather handbags for designer brand MONBAG in Bangkok, said he has also felt the economic freeze.

"I just finished designing a whole collection all in bright colors...and now I don't know what we're going to do—it's a disaster," Ketteringham explained. He added that his collection's launch is delayed due to the mourning rites. "Everyone is feeling the pinch. Nobody is buying anything—apart from the stuff on the street that costs 200 baht [$5.70] for a black T-shirt or a black skirt."

He said that even display window mannequins across Bangkok have conformed to black.

"You're not allowed to have anything color in the window," he added." Everything has to be black. We didn't have any black bags in our store, so we couldn't even put anything in the window, apart from a picture of the king. We can have the colorful stuff inside, but Thai people won't be buying it."

Ketteringham, who said it can take up to a month to manufacture one handbag, which is hand-painted and dyed, has now resorted to repainting some of his bags black in a damage control effort.

Mourners gather outside of the Grand Palace to pay respects to Thailand's late king. Photo by Anusak Laowilas/Sipa by AP Images.

Some larger brands that have department store reach and stockpiles of black designs, have seemingly fared better. Mark Maruwut Buranasilpin, 39, the artistic director at Asava, a women's line that designs dresses and blouses, said that black clothing sales have "gone up more than 50 percent." A spokesperson for Patinya, another major Thai brand, also said they've seen a surge in black clothing sales.

The first phase of the mourning period will last until November 14, after which these designers are hoping the country's mood and cultural practices will return to normal.

Kunatanad, the swimwear designer, is patiently waiting to resume business, but he respects his country's conventions and its right to grieve.

"I actually [am] fine with it," he added. "I completely understand why we have to not be able to promote or try to make the sale. People are trying to hold onto their memories of the beloved king and reunite the country."

Thailand is now preparing for the late king's son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, to ascend the throne. The prince will officially be named king on December 1 but won't be coronated until Bhumibol's body is cremated a year from now.

Additional reporting from Muktita Suhartono and Reena Karim.


Dorian Geiger is a Canadian multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker based between Doha, Qatar and Queens, New York. Geiger is a regular contributor for VICE and his work has been featured by The New York Times, Al Jazeera, TIME, Politico, Teen Vogue, The Toronto Star, and others. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Muktita Suhartono is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. She was formerly an assistant correspondent for the New York Times Jakarta in Indonesia and is a fixer for the Times in Bangkok. Her work has also appeared in Singapore's daily newspaper, The Straits Times.

Reena Karim is a print and new media journalist based in Bangkok. She was born and raised in India, but has lived in the UK, Malaysia, and Thailand. Karim is a senior writer at Masalamagazine, a society glossy in Bangkok for Thailand's Indian community.