When Bangkok combined pop art and shopping at the Central Embassy Mall
Bangkok has more layers than an onion, each layer an entire universe. One of these layers is, of course, retail. Bangkok’s frenetic shopping scene will set the pulse of even the most reluctant consumer racing. Elevated walkways transport shopaholics seamlessly between malls which loom over Bangkok like benevolent deities. There must be a million stores and more here, all heaving with merchandise and utterly fashionable shoppers. Queen bee among Bangkok’s malls is quite possibly Central Embassy, an infinity-shaped mall bristling with possibilities which owes its name to its location on the grounds of the British High Commission. I’m no mall rat, but I know a nice mall when I see one. And Central Embassy is really, really nice.
Of course, I wasn’t in Bangkok to shop. It was a more rarefied layer of the onion I was after. What I hadn’t known until recently was that Bangkok has a keen appreciation of cutting edge art. But, being Bangkok, it was all happening at the mall. Central Embassy, which routinely celebrates the arts with exhibitions on its premises, was unveiling KAWS: BFF, an eight-metre-tall sculpture by the Brooklyn-based artist known as KAWS (a combination of letters he found interesting and adopted).
A bit of background here. In another life, KAWS was known as Brian Donnelly, and used to work as an animator for Disney (he contributed to the animation series 101 Dalmatians). That seems to be the unusual wellspring of his art. Donnelly gained notoriety as a graffiti artist in New York, subverting (or defacing, depending on your point of view) billboards and phone booth advertisements, which ultimately become collectibles. His oeuvre turned three-dimensional with the production of limited edition vinyl toys, which were instantly embraced by a global art-toy collecting community. Ever since, his fan following has burgeoned even as the size of his sculptures has ballooned. The gigantic, cartoon-like figures are often disturbing reworkings of familiar figures like Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants. Most feature his now trademark crossed-out eyes and soft skull with crossbones motifs. KAWS: BFF is no different and bears more than a passing resemblance to his iconic Companion figure. However, BFF sports a furry appearance, a first for the artist. As you can imagine, this had caused a minor hurricane in Bangkok. The sculpture (which will have departed Bangkok by the time you read this) was accompanied by an exhibition of limited edition prints showcasing the artist’s creative milestones. And, being Bangkok, art segued effortlessly with shopping. Pop art met popup shop. A series of limited-edition KAWS: BFF items, created in collaboration with AllRightsReserved, were made available for purchase during the month-long exhibition at SIWILAI Store. The overpriced plushes and brollies, T-shirts and totes, and a beach towel, just 1,000 of each on offer, attracted a snaking queue of devotees and sold out in a matter of minutes (and were promptly reselling at a hefty premium on ebay, Siranthaya Nguansiri, Department Manager, International Communications, Central Group, assured me).
The posh lounge at the Embassy was closed off for a tete-a-tete with the artist who arrived in a cloudburst of camera flashes. The soft-spoken gent left us none the wiser about his art but the throngs of fans lined up outside for an elusive autograph convinced me there must be something to it. He was whisked away like a closely guarded secret, and reappeared only in the evening for the official unveiling, with Bangkok’s arty set in full selfie-clicking attendance. In the interim, I hit the mall.
Central Embassy has a total of 37 floors, of which 8-storeys is the shopping centre, the rest of the tower reserved for a Park Hyatt opening later this year. More than 300,000 aluminum shingles, inspired by Thai temple roofs, surround the building and sparkle in the sunlight and draw shoppers like moths to a flame. Inside, the walls are white and canvas like, the flooring imported terrazzo from England. The leading designer stores are well represented but, for a luxury mall, Embassy is surprisingly approachable. The large glass-fronts of the stores are inviting, some more than others. I was particularly taken in by Sretsis (which, if you haven’t figured it out, is sisters spelt backwards), a highly regarded Thai designer brand run by three sisters. The youngest sister also runs the adjoining jewellery store, Matina Amanita, and the two establishments are connected through a secret door. Must visit. Eathai, the food court in the basement, is a splendid and very affordable showcase of Thailand’s many regional cuisines and street foods. Central Embassy is the mall of the future. And, in Bangkok, the future has already arrived. That’s why Bangkok and I are best friends forever.
Central Embassy, 1031 Ploenchit Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, +662-119-7777, www.centralembassy.com. Don’t miss the well-loved Central Chidlom mall, connected by an air-conditioned walkway (but, of course) to Central Embassy. This is the flagship store of the Central Group and opened in 1973. I stayed at Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel, just down the road from Central Embassy. Lovely rooms with great views and perfectly located if you’re in town for some retail therapy. Their sumptuous buffets always seemed to feature an Indian section. See marriott.com.