BANGKOK (Reuters) - Squeals of delight erupted from two Thai women dressed in elegant designer labels as they scanned a rack of fashion magazines at a high-end Bangkok shopping mall, then pounced on the object of their quest: a copy of the Thai edition of Vogue.
"It's here, it's here," shouted Athitiya Santisuk, 31, to her friend as they eagerly turned the glossy pages.
The fashion bible's launch in Thailand on Jan 25 heralded a new era for budding fashionistas and a growing middle class whose tastes are becoming more discerning even as the Thai fashion industry grows more international, highlighted by a twice-yearly fashion week.
"Vogue has become an indicator of economic development and the sophistication of a nation. Thailand's luxury industry is mature and this is a barometer of an emerging, affluent middle class," Kullawit Laosuksri, Vogue Thailand's editor-in-chief, told Reuters.
The Thai edition, published by Conde Nast International with a Thai company, is chock full of advertising, just like its overseas cousins - including those promoting skin whitening products, a reflection of Thailand's obsession with light skin.
"Vogue Thailand will have a strong beauty component, perhaps slightly more than other Vogues," James Woolhouse, President of Conde Nast Asia Pacific, told Reuters.
Among the articles are a photo spread of Thailand's Queen Sirikit in her younger days and several fashion shoots using Bangkok as a backdrop. The cover features Si Tanwiboon, a Thai-Chinese model who has graced catwalks at Jean Paul Gaultier and Louis Vuitton.
But the magazine's presence in Thailand raises questions over the country's income gap and the stark difference between the lifestyle of many of Bangkok's urbanites and some 66 percent of the population who live in slums on the city's periphery or in rural areas far from modern, multi-storey shopping malls.
The number of Thai millionaires is expected to swell by 35 percent between 2010 - 2015, says the Swiss-based Julius Baer private-banking group, and that wealth is partly what has helped fuel the appetite for luxury shopping malls in the city.
"We are seeing an increase in both the investment in the fashion retail space and the sales of luxury goods," said Woolhouse.
Editor-in-chief Kullawit said he wants the magazine, which costs 100 baht, to inspire Thai women and "give them new ideas like how to mix high-end brands with pieces that are readily available in Thailand's flea markets".
Yet the products advertised in Vogue remain beyond the reach of the vast majority of Thai citizens, many of whom make only some 300 baht ($10) a day.
At a road-side stall steps away from the luxury Central World shopping mall in Bangkok, Pratum Singthimas sells papaya salad and makes 530 baht ($17.73) on average a day.
"It looks like a magazine for a 'Khun Noo'," she said, choosing a Thai expression for privileged women that can imply spoilt or pampered.
Analysts gave the magazine mixed reviews but said its arrival brought more positives than negatives.
"The articles will give less affluent people a taste of the world outside Thailand and could help stimulate debate in a country that, unlike America, is not big on free speech or challenging social structures," said Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok think tank.
Fashion insiders point to an overall preference for high-street labels over luxury brands.
"The Thai middle class is a lot more dependent on mass brands mimicking luxury brands. This not only takes away from the luxury market but also hinders the success of young, emerging designers," said Hestie Roodt, a teacher at Accademia Italiana, a design institute in Bangkok.
Kullawit said he aimed for a mix of Thai and Western models with the magazine, which would be "surprisingly Thai."
But the reception from online fashionistas was cool.
"Boring. I thought Vogue was supposed to be international in its outlook. It looks like other Thai magazines," said Gaga91.
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato)
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