Since the day in 1982 when Japanese designers burst on the Parisian scene almost out of nowhere, shaking up the industry with their avant-garde aesthetic, names such as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake have come to define the country's fashion. Their monochrome palette, boundary-pushing vision (who can forget Rei Kawakubo's “lumps and bumps” collection for Comme des Garçons?) and brooding shows are still considered the key characteristics of what Japanese fashion stands for, influencing designers from Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester to Marc Jacobs. An aspect of Japanese fashion that may not pass muster with cooler-than-thou arbiters of style is what the Japanese refer to as kawaii. The term is loosely translated in English as cute: picture Hello Kitty and those pink-clad, parasol-wielding Japanese girls who populate trendy Tokyo neighbourhoods such as Harajuku.
It comes as no surprise that “serious” fashion people tend to dismiss anything kawaii as the stuff of teenagers who spend their days looking at videos of fluffy kittens and shopping for doll outfits and Ladurée macaroons, but you can't deny the global impact that kawaii has had on the world at large, with entertainers such as Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry riding the wave.
The only high-fashion designer who has found a niche with her kawaii-inflected vibe is Tsumori Chisato, the Japanese queen of quirky prints. The bubbly and vivacious Tokyoite, who started out as an illustrator, has stuck to her guns since the founding of her fashion label in 1990, creating whimsical and fun pieces that have found a strong following around the world. A far cry from the ominous spectacles of her fellow countrymen, her shows are upbeat and exude the vibe of a gang of fun-loving young girls on a weekend romp. The designer, who shows her collections in Paris, sat down with Prestige Hong Kong for a chat after her 2014 autumn/winter show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
WHAT'S YOUR EARLIEST FASHION MEMORY?
I remember that I loved drawing as a child and I was obsessed with drawing flowers, especially tulips. I also used them for one of my collections as a motif.
IS THAT WHY YOU BECAME AN ILLUSTRATOR?
Yes. When I was young I was an illustrator for manga, and I loved doing all the drawings but I found it really hard to come up with a storyline. I then entered the music world and I became a performer before moving to fashion. I felt that by working as a designer, I could be independent and do my own thing one day, and that appealed to me. I'd always been in love with fashion. When I was a child I loved playing with dolls and dressing them up, and now I feel that I'm doing the same thing but with real people.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WORKING FOR ISSEY MIYAKE?
Although he was my boss for many years, our aesthetics are very different, and I developed my own taste early on. But what I learned from him is to build a strong team and work well with them because unlike what many think, the work of a designer is teamwork, not just a one-man show. I also learned that it's important to make clothes that are dynamic and that have something special to them.
WHERE DOES YOUR UPBEAT AESTHETIC COME FROM?
I don't like serious. I'd rather be fun. I want my clothes to be happy and I want to make people happy. That makes me feel good. Why would I want to make people sad and bore them?
ARE YOU INSPIRED BY TOKYO AND ITS STREET STYLE?
Not really, because for a Japanese person it's not something you really pay attention to. We tend to like things from the rest of the world, although I did do a collection referencing Japan once. Tokyo is just work, so it's not really a source of inspiration. Paris, where I come often, is a stronger source of inspiration. I always see a lot of art and meet different people here. However, because I'm Japanese and my roots are in Japan, unconsciously I'm obviously influenced by my own culture and my background – things like the colours of an old kimono and so on.
YOUR COLLECTIONS OFTEN REFERENCE FARAWAY PLACES.
Yes, travel plays a big role in my design aesthetic. When I was in Venice, I took lots of photos and ate a lot of fish, so I used photos of the city and other images from Venice for one of my collections. I loved the Peggy Guggenheim museum there. This autumn/winter, it was the jungle, Brazil and Africa. I thought that it would be interesting to do prints, vibrant colours and patterns, clothes with a summery feel for an autumn/winter collection. I've been to Africa and I want to go to Brazil.
DO YOU APPROACH FASHION DIFFERENTLY AS A FEMALE DESIGNER?
Not really, but the hardest part of being a female designer and having my own company was when I had my first child. Being both a mother and a designer wasn't easy. Nowadays it's slightly easier to do both as a woman, but I find that it's still hard for young mothers who want to have a career in Japan. That's why in Japan no one is having kids any more. A good thing about being a female designer is that I get to try everything I make before sending it down the runway.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE RISE OF CHINA AND KOREA?
I feel that young people in Asia, outside of Japan, especially in China and Korea, have a lot of drive and willingness to do things, whereas Japanese young people don't strive too hard. I wish that Japanese young people would travel more, do things and explore more. Even my son. But they don't, and their counterparts in the rest of Asia are doing much better. Japanese young people love their home too much (laughs).