Asia

Mountain catwalk: Bhutan street fashion

  • 12 February 2015
  • From the section Asia
Media captionA quick look at fashion trends in Bhutan

The mountain kingdom of Bhutan probably does not top the list of global fashion capitals.

Bhutan had a strict dress code during the 1990s. But now, one of the country's most popular blogs regularly showcases how contact with the outside world, combined with a nostalgia for vintage looks, has created a unique street style.

Former fashion student Karma Wangchuk began taking photographs of ordinary people on the streets when he was struck by their attire. On his Facebook page, Bhutan Street Fashion, he shows how appearances can reflect a changing nation.


The sartorial farmer of Thimpu

This is not about cool, this is about natural style. This is the real Bhutan. I put up the pictures of how people look, dress and act with no censorship, nothing. I saw this farmer working the fields one day; the whole scene had an old-school charm. You don't often see people dressed like this anywhere: collared shirt, fedora hat, high-waisted trousers. In the field, this is a typically Bhutanese look.

From Tokyo with love

When I was at fashion school in India, people had this very traditional idea about women in Bhutan as demure and submissive. You can see from the above, this is an assumption too far these days. This woman I met in the streets had lived in Japan and brought back a true Tokyo style. It is a trend I have noticed - Bhutanese are having more contact with the outside world. This young woman was not inhibited. She was happy to strike several poses.

When Tibet was in

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I bumped into a friend of mine while on a walk one day. The fabric of her garment is what interested me. Decades ago, there was a trade border between Bhutan and Tibet. People in the border area used to wear this style of fabric - a rare moment where a piece of cloth gives you a glimpse into history. Then in 2009/2010 Balenciaga used this style of fabric in a jacket in his collection. Suddenly it became all the rage once again in Bhutan. The girls - like my friend here - started taking these garments out of their grandmothers' closets.

Grandmother style

And here is one grandmother wearing that vintage Tibetan piece, so much in fashion these days.

Officewear

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It is compulsory to wear the national dress in Bhutan's government offices, but even in private offices many prefer to dress this way. This is Bhutan's traditional male costume, worn by a dancer. Going to work every day, of course, we wear normal socks and leather shoes.

A flamboyant twist

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We don't wear wings. This dancer is dressed in a traditional way, but the wings are a contemporary addition - a flamboyant modern innovation. He represents the raven - our king has a raven on his crown. You don't see many of these on the streets of Bhutan

Paris Bhutan

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But perhaps what I admire most is how young Bhutanese so effortlessly blend the traditional with the modern. The upper half could be seen in any Paris or London coffee shop; the lower portion is found only in Bhutan. Bhutanese women are sensible: it is mandatory for them to wear the national costume in so many contexts, so they have found contemporary ways of dressing it.

A rural style in the city

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This girl is from a village. She and her mother had come to town to shop for fabrics. I loved her outfit, that combination of old prints and bold colours that is coming back into fashion. Perhaps it's just me, but I see this look as effortlessly elegant. She was in no way self-conscious, with perhaps little sense of how stylish she looked. International designers like Derek Lam and Donna Karan have been inspired by the clean lines and the robes worn here.

Boys with their hoods

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When I was young, the backpacks we had would feature manga characters or popular cartoon figures. The influence was Western - now the trend among the youth is to use local fabric. It supports the local economy but in my view, dressing western clothes with Bhutanese accessories confers grace.

A sombre but stylish trio

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They stand unsmiling but in my eyes they look stupendous. The Kira is the national costume for women, a rectangular piece of cloth, almost the size of a double bed sheet - and yet they manage to make it look so elegant.

A look at the changing style of Bhutan is a study in Bhutanese history. It is clear evidence of just how remote we have stayed and how crucial our traditional look is to our identity. But it also shows a changing Bhutan with more connections to the outside world.

Wherever I go, I have my camera with me and I always find reason to take photographs of people, what they are wearing and how they choose to express their personalities, culture and history.