The Cathedral of Sneakers at Bangkok’s Siam Square

Vii Athletic Club Bangkok

Booming hip-hop beats reverberate through the Vii Athletic Club downstairs as owner Varakrit Vivaddhanakasem, or just “Bob” for short, leads me to his office through a dark, fourth-floor storage space packed with boxes of designer sneakers stacked chest high. I met Bob a week before when he swiped my credit card and bagged a suede, cherry-red pair of Nike high-tops; I’d already scooped up a sharp pair of New Balances earlier that month. If there’s one place in Bangkok where sneakerheads can go to indulge their obsession, this is it.

Bob flips the lights on and sits down at a desk cluttered with folders and notebooks and invoices and toys. My eyes are immediately drawn to the Buddhist shrine on the floor behind him that’s fashioned from crayon-brown wooden tables. On top of it sits a hand-sized jade Buddha swathed in golden robes; below, a curio of offerings that include a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex, a toy sports car, an unopened pack of bubble-blowers, transformed Transformers, and a Mister Donut bag next to a glass of red soda.

Tall and lean, with short jet-black hair and intense brown eyes, Bob leans back in his chair, silver cross dangling from a chain necklace that hangs over his Nike t-shirt, when I ask about the sleeve of aquatic-themed tattoos that color his right arm like a Technicolor blanket. He clearly has a prepared narrative about his tats, but seems somewhat embarrassed to share it. He does anyway.

“I got the koi fish because it symbolizes bravery. The legend says that koi swim up the waterfall, and once it reaches the top it becomes a dragon,” he says. “So it symbolizes that if you try hard enough, and if you’re courageous enough, you’re going to be successful one day. I want this tattoo to always remind me that I cannot stop, and that I cannot rest, until I am successful.”

Bangkok Today, Thailand Tomorrow

Right now, there’s indeed no time for this young entrepreneur to rest. Brisk business has lead to the rapid expansion of Vii Athletic Club, which bills itself as “Thailand’s most exclusive sneakers boutique” and does indeed carry exclusive lines from Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and others. Although three smaller branches of the main concept store at Siam Square have popped up in greater Bangkok, including one at Central Ladprao’s Shoe Café and another at Siam Paragon’s second-floor Sports Mall Zone, Bob says he’s just getting started.

“Within five years we’ll have our own line of products,” he says. “Right now, I’m designing [Vii’s] line of t-shirts and I have my own brand of silver jewelry in the shop, but I also have plans for jeans, small accessories like bags and wallets, and sneaker accessories. For now, though, it’s all about expansion.”

It’s also about competitive diversification for this former Nike Footwear Sales Executive, whose passion for sneakers was sparked while studying abroad in the United States during high school and college (in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and then at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York). The flagship store, a beautifully designed space with exposed brick walls, mirrors shaped like cathedral archways, and multi-colored sneakers arranged on pedestals like exhibits at a museum, has successfully proven Vii’s multi-branded concept to the Nikes and Reeboks of the world, but Bob remains leery of what he sees as a collective transformation of Siam Square for the worse.

“I think Siam Square is slowly fading. Thai people love convenience, and that leads to the big department store because they have everything in one place,” he says. “This used to be a place where you could find unique stuff, or a cool store that had different kinds of products. Now, people care more about making quick bucks, so they kind of opted for cheap, mass-produced products, instead of trying to create something of their own. It’s changed the whole place around, and that’s why I have to expand.”

Bob of Vii Athletic Club 2

A Pack Mentality

Bob says that while he learned a great deal about the sneakers industry during his four years with Nike, eventually he began thinking about starting his own business because “wearing a shirt and tie to work was unthinkable.” In other words, he had no interest in blending into the background of an everyday rat race.

That yearning for personal and professional independence is a recurring theme during our conversation in his cluttered office with the creamsicle-colored walls, as when he shares his philosophy for the Vii brand, which he carefully describes as “free” and not attached to any specific aesthetic or trend.

“Thai teenagers follow trends too much, which is maybe because of the way we are taught in school at younger ages. There it’s not about understanding—it’s about memorizing, which is a bad thing,” he says. “Memorizing leads to kids not thinking for themselves in other ways, not only in school but in other things too, like fashion. You don’t have to follow trends. Fashion and collecting sneakers is about your own freedom.”

Independence is also at the heart of a wolf tattoo that covers Bob’s back and, like the koi swimming upstream on his arm, reflects his sense of worth and outlook on life. “I like to work alone, but at the same time, the nature of the wolf is that it hunts in packs,” he explains. “It loves its family, its friends, its surroundings, so I think it kind of symbolizes the way that I am.”

Vii Athletic Club’s concept store is located at 212-214 Siam Square, Soi 1, Rama 1 Road, in Bangkok. 084 705 7744. Open daily 12:30 – 9pm. For more information, visit the website or follow Vii on Twitter.

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