Akira Isogawa’s Eastern red socks
Fashion has an uncomfortable history with cultural appropriation. Like the size of models or the rights of factory workers, it’s one of those issues the industry as a whole struggles to get right. But this year at Australian Fashion Week, the line between honouring traditional Japanese techniques and silhouettes, and aping them for exotic thrills was drawn thicker than usual. Refreshingly, the designers that dabbled with Far Eastern inspiration – and there were many – wound up standing on the right side.
Given the saturation of 1970s style in fashion design at home and abroad for the past two seasons, a Japanese inflection is not surprising. After all, the ’70s was the decade Kansai Yamamoto clothed David Bowie in flowing white robes inked with outsized calligraphy and Kenzo Takada won Parisian hearts with his Jungle Jap store.
The restraint shown by contemporary Australian designers in exploring the theme (no heart-shaped red lips, no dodgy chopsticks jammed through bulging wigs) perhaps has a genesis at home.
Since 1993, Australian fashion designers have been working in the footsteps of one of the world’s most sought-after Japanese-born designers, a man whose ability to turn traditional textiles and classic motifs into garments both modern and heart-racing in their beauty is peerless in this country: Akira Isogawa.
Isogawa was the only designer in Australian Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary line-up who had also shown at the event’s debut. He presented not only his current collection – straight out of the suitcase from a selling trip to Paris in March – but also a selection of samples spanning the history of his label, including clothes from that very first show.
A final-hour addition to the event, Isogawa and his team had only a week to pull together the runway production. “It was actually quite hectic to organise the show. We did casting, numerous meetings with our hair and make-up directors, all in that time. So there was a real sense of relief afterwards,” he says. “The inspiration was a celebration of the fact that we’ve been working with fashion week for 20 years. And we wanted to express that the collection we designed 20 years ago is still relevant nowadays. Our idea was to express fashion in a timeless manner.”
Comprised of 10 new season looks and 39 archival outfits, the show reworked Akira’s codes for a younger generation. “I didn’t want to show things exactly the way we showed 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” he says. Creative direction from Kelvin Smith yielded sequins stuck to models’ faces and elaborate flower constructions placed in their hair. In particular a series of distressed fairy princesses, one with a teddy bear backpack, dressed in frothing tulle and chiffon with beaten-up tennis shoes and crystal eyebrows, looked downloaded from an art-obsessed teenager’s Tumblr.
His opening looks were paired with bright red adidas shoes, that not only harked back to his inaugural fashion week presentation – when he was so cash-strapped he couldn’t buy shoes, and instead sent models out in red socks – but also worked to tone down some of his grander garments. “Sometimes people think that what I design is almost untouchable, almost on the verge of costume. But then I think styling with the sneakers makes it more realistic in terms of what you want to wear today. It’s an easy way of styling it.”
Those red socks, now the stuff of fashion legend, also made an appearance. “Thank God the red socks still looked relevant,” Isogawa says, relieved that the throwback paid off. “It didn’t look old-fashioned at all; it looked quite modern, I thought. Which made me feel not only that the sample could still be presented, but also that how we started 20 years ago was timeless.”
Just a day earlier, HAN, a label designed by Melbourne-based Khim Hang, styled their models similarly in black and white sockettes. The footwear wasn’t the only connection. Inspired by his Cambodian heritage, but also textile techniques and silhouettes from across Asia, HAN showed suiting printed with large white wheels that referenced shibori, and thick belts tied karate-style.
Though HAN’s Cambodian-made collection showed promise, the use of thick fabrics and an overabundance of volume in sleeves and trousers resulted in a lack of fluidity. Some garments crinkled when they should have sat just so. Watson X Watson too referenced Japanese belt-knotting techniques on a pair of microscopic white shorts, which also bunched and bagged, albeit wilfully. For Akira, the placement of thick sashes worked because his belts were subtly tailored, strategic darts, meaning they cinched without wrinkling.
Drawing on the formal potential of happi coats (square sleeves, V necks) and freehand paste-resist dyeing, Ginger & Smart took a minimal approach to their Japanese influences. Though giant, spindly dandelion heads and sprays of gumnuts in white on blue recalled tsutsugaki techniques, they were actually printed digitally on glossy satin. The shorthand approach paid off for the label, which lost none of its signature slickness in making the reference.
Still wide-sleeved and thick-belted, but much more casual, Lee Mathews’ Japanese influence came via loungewear. She used prints that spoke to both shibori tie-dye (blue with blurry white circles), and stencil dyeing (a repeated print of white on ochre, recalling overlapping circles or a four-petalled flower), along with striking vertical stripes. The prints gave boldness to the collection of cotton tunics, worn alone or over loose trousers. Mathews also showed shirting tucked into high, wide trousers in a style that had a hint of women’s hakama. The collection was a pivot for Mathews, who normally creates clothing that is more dressed up and girlish, but the change worked strongly in her favour.
When asked how he feels about other designers referencing shapes and techniques that have become house codes for Akira, Isogawa is both flattered and a little befuddled. “What other designers are doing, in terms of what is a trend, I’m not really aware of,” he confesses. “It’s really flattering to hear that maybe some looks are completely on the money. Like, that something I’ve done two years ago, some particular floral motif or whatever have you, has been picked up and made popular. I’m not sure exactly who is doing what though… I know it sounds absurd... But more and more I feel that I’m not aware.”
Instead, Isogawa’s focus is on his clients in Paris and the artisans he works with across Europe, Japan and South-East Asia. While several AFW designers referenced traditional printing and embellishment techniques, Isogawa actively utilises them season after season. He visits textile mills in Japan twice a year prior to producing his collections, and ikat printers in Ubud, Bali, four times a year.
“I find it fascinating to be able to access these kinds of traditional techniques and interpret them with new eyes,” he says. “I find these artisans are very appreciative of working with fashion designers, too, because they have the techniques, but many of them are not quite sure what to do with it nowadays.”
In Isogawa’s hands, exceptionally fine and detailed silk embroidery was used to craft a cross-armed muscleman on a tank top made of sheer silk layers. Airy kimono jackets get thrown rakishly over straight, clean-cut trousers or close-fitting slips. Complex draping and sumptuous layering work effortlessly with sneakers. His style is extreme elegance with a dash of don’t-give-a-damn, and it’s been that way, slowly unfolding, for more than two decades. “I admire designers who can flip every season… But I am more evolution than revolution.”
It doesn’t matter for the Akira label when other designers try on elements of its aesthetic for a season or two, no matter how well it suits them. When a brand’s essence is this strong, no trend can dilute it. The retrospective runway show proved that the label’s marriage of traditional craft and contemporary culture hasn’t aged in 20 years. “Japonisme” may fall in and out of style, but an Akira piece is timeless.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Eastern red socks". Subscribe here.