Modi Soondarotok – Globetrotting Designer

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, she lived in London, Paris and New York before settling in Portland to launch IDOM, her namesake fashion label. Garnering fans from around the globe, IDOM has reached near cult status. Modi still travels to Thailand several times a year—all of her designs sewn by a carefully chosen group of Thai seamstresses—along with regular visits to Japan, China, and an upcoming trip to Indonesia for inspiration. Her designs are beautiful and utterly unique, with an aesthetic that can only be called globally inspired.

Modi’s professional background is as impressive as her passport, particularly as Portland fashion goes. She studied fashion design at Parsons, and then designed for some of the biggest names in the industry including Donna Karan and Armani.

In 2006, she left all that to move to Portland with her husband and launch IDOM (her name in reverse), a collection that seamlessly blends her technical skills, with draping and detail, with her love of globally-inspired textiles. Every style manages to strike the perfect balance between modern and vintage, ethnic and easy.

If Modi’s designs feel a step or two outside your comfort zone, rest assured; it’s a step well worth taking. However, once you take the plunge, it’s almost impossible not to be smitten with the deceptively detailed, infinitely flattering styles Modi conjures up each season. Add to that a flawless, ever-changing collection of accessories. It’s not surprising to find out that inspiration for her style comes from legendary fashion eccentric Iris Apfel. Imagine your days traveling the planet, a suitcase filled with a stunning array of worldly designs.

You’ve had the opportunity to live in and travel to some amazing places.

I was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, and then found myself at the Royal College of Art in London, then Parsons School of Art and Design in Paris, and then I ended up in New York. I transferred there and graduated, earning my fashion degree from Parsons in New York.

What brought on all this world travel?

My parents have always been big travelers. They’re professors, so there was always a lot of teaching overseas and exchange programs. I think I started traveling when I was 4 or 5 months old.

So it’s really in your blood. And you’re still a very serious traveler, right?

I love it. I think it allows you to be a kid again, because everything’s always new. New colors, sights, and smells—there’s nothing like it.

How do you think growing up in Thailand influenced your design aesthetic?

Well, Thailand’s culture is really based on a lot of art and craft. Everyone makes something within their family. And they are so influenced by other countries—China, Japan, India, Australia and a lot of European countries, so it’s really a fusion of cultures. You see a lot of very interesting shapes, and the way we put pieces together is very experimental and modern, but mixed with our old traditional styles, you know, whether it’s a woven bracelet or a handmade necklace. It’s really fun to be there, and so inspiring.

And going from Thailand to Paris, London and New York, with their more cosmopolitan styles must have impacted you as well.

Absolutely. In London, people tend to pick a few pieces that they love, and kind of build their wardrobe and style from that.

That seems true in Paris as well.

Yes, it’s definitely the same thing in Paris. I think I’ve picked up that sensibility, where I buy things I truly love and just build my styles around them. It’s kind of a mix and match.

Tell me about your experience at Parsons. I think most of us are largely familiar with the school from Project Runway fame.

It was very hard core, very competitive, and so much work. Your first year, you study a lot of painting and sculpture and architecture. It’s more like a foundation. So, it allows you to see many avenues, and then you choose the path you want to take. I chose fashion because I like the medium of fabric, but it’s intense. You’re constantly designing new pieces, being critiqued, and having to prove yourself over and over. You can’t just write a paper and get away with it. You have to show your work. It’s a great training ground, but it’s brutal.

Did you go to Parson’s knowing you wanted to do fashion design?

When I started, I was actually interested in architecture. But then, fabric has always been my love. So I was torn in the beginning, but ended up going toward fashion.

Are you happy you made that choice?

So happy. I really fell in love with draping—how three-dimensional it is, and how much more hands-on you can be. You have much more of a say in what you’re doing than you would with architecture, which is such a different path. In architecture, you have to work underneath someone for so long before you have the chance to design your own buildings and then you’re still beholden to a client. With fashion, yes, you have to follow direction from the designer and merchandisers, but you have more flexibility. It’s also a smaller scale, which I like. It’s more intimate.

Once you finished at Parsons, you went to work for some pretty amazing design houses. You worked for Armani, I know—who else?

Donna Karan, and Peter Som. And then recently, I have done some work for Marc Jacobs. It’s like a secret mission. (laughs)

Tell me a little about your experience in those big fashion houses. It must have been amazing.

It was such a great learning experience. Donna Karan is an amazing draper. Her work is very fluid and modern and her technical skills are amazing. You know, you can be a good designer and sketch anything in the world, but if you can’t construct a piece…. It just proves that she’s a truly great designer, that she has the technical skills as well as the artistic skills.

It’s interesting to hear you say that, because now that I know you worked for Donna Karan, I can see so much of her draping technique in your pieces.

I learned so much from her. She was great, particularly when it came to what inspired her. She’d bring in African baskets and rocks and, you know, things that were influencing her at the time and it was almost like a classroom setting. We would come up with a concept and then collaborate to design the collection around it.

You must have some great stories from that part of your career.

It was always very fast paced, exciting, but really hard, hard work. During Fashion Week, you know, there’s always some sort of crisis going on behind the scenes in the tents. So there’s a lot of running to the garment district at the last minute for new buttons, sewing your life away. (laughs)

Do you miss that life, designing in Manhattan—the craziness, and all of the excitement surrounding times like Fashion Week?

I did in the beginning. Collaborating with other designers and meeting other people, it really fuels your vocabulary of design. But now I have the freedom to do my own thing. I really love what I’m doing, but I still go back and do some freelance work, just to keep my foot in that door.

Do you have any dreams of showing IDOM at Fashion Week?

I would love to. I’d love to show in Europe, maybe Paris and Stockholm.

What are some of your earliest memories of style or design?

I was raised by my grandmother, and one of her neighbors in Thailand was a textile loomer and another was a tailor. My earliest memories are of drawing and sketching designs as a little girl, and then Granny would trade the vegetables that she grew for the fabric—whether it was cotton or silk—and then go next door to the tailor, hand him the fabric and the sketch, and ask him to make these ridiculous outfits I was designing. (laughs) I’m really lucky that I was so exposed to design at such an early age.

So, your grandmother was a really strong force for you.

Yes, absolutely. She was an amazing cook and a mathematician. She was a teacher as well. So I think I have to give her the credit for my pattern-making skills.

What ended up bringing you to Portland?

My husband and I really wanted to change our lives so that we would have more freedom to do what we truly love. In New York it was very difficult, financially, to do that. My husband grew up in Oregon, so Portland felt like a good fit. And we love the fact that you don’t have to drive. You can bike, and there’s great public transportation. Also, we were really drawn to the fact that Portlanders are so conscious of sustainability—that was huge for both of us.

Now that you’ve been here for a few years, do you think this was the right place to launch your label?

I think so. It’s been an on-and-off struggle, but really rewarding at the same time. I think the city and all this space allows me to think more clearly, and allows me to choose not to follow what everyone else is doing. Being here gives me space to really experiment with what I want to do, which I’m so grateful for.

Tell me a little about the style aesthetic behind IDOM. Who are you typically designing for?

IDOM is geared toward fashion for women in their late 20s all the way into their 70s. The style is very fluid, draped, and oversized. My goal has been to design modern, adventurous styles for someone who wants to have their own take on fashion. They allow you to be versatile, to kind of mix and match, and put your own stamp on the style.

Are there any special style icons you have in mind as you’re creating your collections?

My style icons are definitely my mother and grandmother. They are the most powerful forces in my life. They are so well dressed, and they know themselves so well internally. I really admire their self-confidence and willingness to always take risks. They’ve faced lots of struggles in their lives, but they take pride every morning in dressing themselves well and really honoring themselves.

I also adore Iris Apfel. She’s so adventurous and well-traveled. I always have her in my head. What would she wear? How would she mix it in? She’s also a risk-taker and really loves life, and I admire that.

Are there styles that you design and sell that you wouldn’t necessarily wear yourself? Or do you always want one of everything in your line?

I always want one of everything! (laughs) It’s probably a good practice to not be so attached to it, but I do love all the pieces I design. When a customer comes and takes them home, it’s like they’re taking your babies and giving them a good home. It’s always really fun to see who takes which pieces home. Some customers will send me photos of themselves in my designs and it’s just a great ritual, you know, because you live your life in these clothes. It’s great to be a part of that.

Do you get to see people walking down the street in your designs sometimes? Do you ever stop people?

I do! I get so excited, and then they’re like, “Who is this crazy woman?”

One of the things that people are especially drawn to in your designs is that they’re built to flatter a broad range of figures. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I think that comes from my love of architecture. I think certain abstract shapes and proportions really flatter women. I love draping a style so that a woman appears full of curves. I love that technical part of it, conjuring up a piece that you think will flatter so many shapes. It’s like designing a building that will house so many different individuals.

Some people may also find your styles intimidating to wear.

With my pieces, you really do have to try them on. My clothes are definitely more abstract, but once you try them on, people are just shocked how flattering they really are. But you can also add definition and focus by using styling—a great belt, or maybe a blazer to add structure. You have to play around and be open to something different.

That explains why you have all those gorgeous accessories in the store. I’m not sure if people know that you carry lines other than your own in the boutique, but you have some really special pieces. Has it been hard to find lines that really blend well with yours to fit the store?

It’s been challenging, but I try to pick pieces that are very classic or more tailored to complement my own designs—that idea of opposites attracting. For example, I love that we carry Saint James from France because it’s so classic and you can really have it forever.

I know that sourcing for IDOM is really important to you, both for fabrics and for construction. Can you talk a little bit about how you handle sourcing and construction for the line and what makes it unique?

I really want the collections to be a part of my Thai background and I want to help preserve the art and the craft there. So I use a lot of hand-loomed cotton and silk that’s all naturally dyed. In fact, I’m still buying a lot of the fabric from my grandmother’s neighbors who I literally grew up next door to. So I have really a hands-on experience, and I want to support that industry. When I started the business, I really wanted to be socially responsible about how we produced all the pieces. So all the contractors, they used to work for big American factories, but now they have retired and want to do their own work. So I work with everyone from their homes in Thailand. There are so many men and women that are helping me to do the work, and literally, all the pieces support eight different families.

There’s such a strong movement right now to source things locally, especially here in Portland. You’re taking a different spin on that angle by sourcing according to your roots, and you seem to take a lot of pride in that.

In the beginning, I really tried to stay local, actually. It was my goal to produce here in Portland as well, and I tried so many different avenues. But I think the resources here are really limited. There just aren’t enough skilled contractors. But you know, there are alternative ways of reaching positive goals. My production choices support a global economy, which I totally believe in.

You’ve recently started designing jewelry as well. What made you decide to branch out into that area?

I’m really interested in working with different mediums, and I discovered working with brass, which is a really inexpensive way of experimenting. I get to play around with different shapes, and it’s such fun to work with different materials to construct a piece. It’s so different than fabric.

What do you think is going to be next for IDOM?

I’m trying to expand to more of an international market. I’m hoping I can do more trunk shows, perhaps in Europe, Japan and maybe in China. That feels like where my path is going to go right now.

Let’s talk a bit about your personal style. How would you describe it?

Oh, I’m always changing, but I try to build a strong collection of basics and then mix in some modern avant-garde pieces. I love things with a global influence, especially a tribal influence. I’m very much into mixing and matching and experimenting with shapes and textures.

I’ve heard you mention that you like to mix your grandmother’s vintage jewelry with more current, high-end pieces. Can you talk a little about that mix?

You know, part of it is to who you are, but also, be willing to change and not be afraid to try new things. So, you might fall in love with a pair of Gap jeans and then a beautiful blouse in a boutique. You can pair those together and then throw in your grandmother’s hat or a vintage belt. Don’t be afraid—just play around in front of a mirror. It brings so much joy, and there’s no right or wrong. It’s a privilege to be able to take care of yourself in that way and to find out what you like, and what you love. At the end of the day, it’s who you are and what makes you happy that matters, and I think if you just keep experimenting, and buying things that you really love, they will always go together.

What’s inspiring your current work?

Right now I’m working on Fall/Winter 2011, and it’s all inspired by the Elizabethan era and the history of the English Renaissance. I found a lot of interesting paintings on my last trip to Thailand—the country has such a long history with Europe. I really enjoyed going to the museums and seeing the art, and the garments they were wearing, and how that influenced Thai culture and style. It’s such an interesting global exchange because the King sent so many of his children to England for education, and there were a lot of English expats living in Thailand as well.

Like The King and I?

Exactly! It’s really fun to explore that pocket of history in Asia. And Tokyo has a similar history—there was a lot of British influence after the Japanese became more westernized. There are a lot of great cultural crossovers between Asia and England.

Once you have your inspiration, how does the design process begin for you?

Usually it starts with a concept, and then I just dive in. I do tons of research and then that’s usually my jumping point. So with the collection I’m working on now, I spent a lot of time researching the way people were dressed and learned about the ways in which different colors meant different things and delineated a person’s social class. The way in which the fabric was dyed was based on what a person could afford. I tried to dig deeper into those class structures as well as the technical aspect of how things were made.

You seem like a more cerebral designer than some. How common it is to start with so much research, before even beginning to sketch?

Oh, I love researching. I love learning about the human condition—what inspires us to dress a certain way, what influences us to live the way we live.

Are there any pieces in the collection you’re already excited about?

Oh yes! I really love that it’s more about tailoring this time around. The Elizabethan era has a lot of the corsets and more form-fitting styles. I’m trying to take that to another level with a modern update.

What’s next on your travel agenda?

I go back to Bangkok two or three times a year, and then I’m hoping to go to Bali. I’m really interested in the jewelry and the fabric, especially the Ikat fabrics—they are my love. Indonesia has amazing Ikats.

With all of this traveling, do you still have any dream destinations?

Oh, there are so many! I would love to visit South Africa and see the wild animals—the giraffes, the elephants in the wild… and I’ve heard so much about the sky. The light in the sky is just beautiful, there’s nothing like it. That’s my dream.

Travel is really your primary inspiration when you’re designing.

Absolutely. Traveling, seeing the art, buildings, sometimes even music. It can really be any little thing that becomes inspiring.

So it’s completely off the topic, but before we finish, I have to ask about your cat. Her name is “Stares At Trees.” There has to be a story there.

(laughs) She just really loves trees. As a kitten, all she did was sit next to the window and look at the trees all day long. We couldn’t come up with a name, and my husband abruptly said, “How about honoring Natives [Americans]? You know, since she loves the trees and you love nature, she can be Stares At Trees.” And I said, “Well, that’s perfect.”

Do you use her full name when you’re talking to her?

Only when she’s in trouble!

In closing, can you think of a time or moment in your life that brought everything together for you?

I think it’s been a collective experience. Throughout the years, I’ve made decisions about where I want to be. I knew I wanted freedom to do what I love without being told how to design. When my grandmother passed—I was there while she was dying. It was really an eye-opening experience for me, that life is truly amazing and precious. So take that jump and go with it. Just take a risk and see where it takes you.

About The Author: Becki Singer