Jet Shenkman, founder of British bespoke brand Eponine, talks about her extensive use of Thai hilltribe fabrics and what it’s like dressing the Duchess of Cambridge
WHILE fashion-influencing celebrity figures usually don creations by the world’s high-end fashion brands, an increasing number are turning to smaller and exclusive bespoke labels for public occasions. One such brand is the relatively new Eponine London, which has caught the eye of British royalty and its entourage.
Cressida Bonas wore Eponine to last year’s Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle./AFP
Eponine’s colourful dress made of Hmong fabric from Thailand made its first TV appearance last May at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It was worn by English actress and model Cressida Bonas, an ex-girlfriend of the prince, and instantly went viral on the social media. The comments were in the main complimentary though certain individuals fussed about cultural appropriateness. That negativity was largely squashed when another major fan of the brand, Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge, often referred to just as Kate, wore a bright green Eponine dress on a visit to Lavender Primary School in February, to mark Mental Health Week.
The Duchess of Cambridge also favours Eponine.
But photos and gossip apart, little was known about Epinone in Bangkok until last week when Jet Shenkman, the brand’s founder and creative director, was invited by the Commerce Ministry’s Department of International Trade Promotion to
give a talk at the Style Bangkok Fair 2019.
With no formal training in fashion, the Dutch-born, 50-something Shenkman spent much of her married life living in Japan and Hong Kong with her businessman husband and four kids. Back in London and with the children now grown up, she turned her attention to herself, using her long-time love for fashion and years of styling experience to start her atelier label in 2010 and expand it to a studio in 2014. And, she says, her affection for Thailand goes much further than her honeymoon.
Jet Shenkman wears her Hmong dress with poms poms.
“I came to Thailand more than 26 years ago,” she says. “We went to Chiang Mai on our honeymoon and stayed in a Karen village. It was an incredible adventure to ride on the back of an elephant. What I remember most is the beautiful and colourful handcrafted dresses wore by the locals.”
Inspired by the vintage elegant silhouettes of the ’50s and ’60s, Shenkman designs clothes with a contemporary twist. There are four collections a year, each of less than 15 fifteen looks but with a unique style and in fabrics ranging from Japanese kimonos to colourful hand-loomed Hmong cotton fabric.
Eponine London’s spring 2019 collection interprets the aesthetic beauty of Hmong cotton fabric into beautifully and creatively designed dresses.
“My biggest compliment came from a man who isn’t particularly into fashion. He told me: ‘I went to a party last night and I saw someone on the other side of the room, I’m sure she was wearing your dress’. To me, that means there is now a signature to our look – the silhouette of a fitted top with an A-line full skirt, exquisite craftsmanship and forms that are meticulously curated to
accentuate the best in the female form. We have only five people in the studio and they are led by Petar Petrov, our designer.
“The name ‘Eponine’ is derived from the character in the literary work ‘Les Miserables’. My children helped choose the name. In ‘Les Miserables’, Eponine is a girl with a good attitude and who isn’t afraid of anyone.”
Asking how she feels about the Duchess of Cambridge wearing Eponine London dresses, Shenkman tells The Nation that she was honoured albeit somewhat panicked.
“We didn’t prepare for the publicity at all because we had such short notice. We didn’t even know if we had enough fabric to create the dress! We were desperately short of staff. I mean, if you are lucky to have someone like the Duchess of Cambridge wearing your design, you must rise to the occasion. We are
really grateful,” she smiles.
Bonas was slightly easier as she is one of daughter Nina’s best friends. “I was aware that that the world press would try to find Cressida at the royal wedding. She has great style and she didn’t want to wear something that anyone else could be wearing. She wanted to feel really good on that day. Nina told her to come and see me. We went through the process step by step. The night before the wedding, her agent called me up and asked if I was prepared for the press. I said yes but I had no idea that everyone would be talking about the dress in Thailand until my Thai supplier called. I was so pleased for them. I used the fabric as a joyful celebration and out of huge respect for the Thai culture.”
The latest collection of Eponine London also features Hmong cotton fabric. “They are formal dresses that people can wear to the weddings. They are not really for everyday wear, more for special occasions. What I look for in these fabrics are the colour combinations, the quality of the details, the cross-stitch, and the length of the fabric. For example, with the [Support Foundation] fabric we bought at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, the pieces are actually quite small. I’m thinking what I’m going to do with that. You’ll have to wait and see, I’ve quite an exciting plan. This is the beauty of being here. I should have come years ago. We now have wonderful contacts,” she adds.
“We’ve been using Hmong fabric for the past four years and have purchased it online. With so many patterns like this one,” she says, pointing to her own dress, “it’s actually quite difficult to cut. When I found this piece, I was so excited and thought I would keep it for myself. I was hoping to find more but none of my suppliers have it. The Hmong pattern is not something you could ever find in Europe. I love the combination of the ribbons, the cross-stitch, the little sparkle, and my favourite colours – orange, red, and pink. I also love the birds, the random nature of colouring, how everything is thrown together. I’m not really into matching. Nature is my biggest inspiration. I also like to combine fabrics and that makes our dresses unique. I love the idea that no one else will have the same dress. The clients know that they’ll never walk into a room and spot someone wearing the same outfit. These are happy dresses, both when you look at them and when you wear them.”
Asked if Eponine London has any plans to open a boutique in Thailand, Shenkman shakes her head. “The brand is still small and having a shop aboard would be a major financial risk. Collaboration might be possible though.
“Of course, we can do other things for the mainstream, the ready-to-wear. But these beautiful dresses must maintain their exclusivity. Every one of them is unique, I’m very proud of that,” she smiles.