If great art can spring from the most unlikely places, then so too can great fashion, as Apichet “Madaew’” Atirattana could tell you.

The 17-year-old grew up in Thailand’s impoverished region of Isaan, the country’s rice-growing heartland in the northeast, where from a young age he would pore over tattered fashion magazines in the village barbershop. Soon Madaew — the nickname he goes by — was creating chic costumes from everyday objects found near his family’s market stall; chicken wire, concrete blocks and dyed cabbage leaves. “I want people to see that ugly things that don’t seem to go together can become something beautiful,” he says. “And that looking good doesn’t depend on money.”

Apichet “Madaew” Atilattana in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Sept. 9, 2016. 
                      Credit: Cedric Arnold for TIME (Cedric Arnold for TIME)
Apichet “Madaew” Atilattana in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Sept. 9, 2016. Credit: Cedric Arnold for TIME
Cedric Arnold for TIME

Madaew’s breakthrough came last summer, when he borrowed a bolt of traditional Thai checkered cloth from his grandmother and crafted a long dress, picturing it trailing 30 ft. down the concrete steps of a bleak freeway footbridge. The merging of old-country culture, youthful glamor and urban decay was shared thousands of times on social media and he became a new kind of viral celebrity.

Before long TV talk and talent shows were knocking on Madaew’s door, and he even appeared as a guest designer on Asia’s Next Top Model. “He inspires others to challenge the norm, to break the mold, and to explore new and exciting possibilities,” says veteran Thai-American supermodel Cindy Bishop, the show’s host. “I see him as an influencer and trendsetter for years to come. He celebrates the very essence of what it means to be Thai.”

While everywhere suffers its share of bigotry, one of Thai culture’s most laudable traits is acceptance of different sexual orientations. Madaew felt free from a young age to embrace his identity as kathoey, a transgender female sometimes referred to as Thailand’s “third sex.” Madaew (who prefers to be known by the male pronoun) pays tribute to his parents for never trying to change who he was, letting him play with girls and dress up Barbie girls without feeling ashamed.

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