After 30 years, Akira Isogawa is sorting through a body of work that changed Australian fashion, placing hundreds of pieces with major museums. By Lucianne Tonti.

Akira Isogawa’s fashion archive heading to Powerhouse and NGV

A fashion parade.
Akira Isogawa at Australian Fashion Week 2023.
Credit: Stefan Gosatti / Getty Images

Behind the brown door of a two-storey warehouse in Marrickville, in the inner west of Sydney, Akira Isogawa is contemplating his archive. Two interns are sorting 30 years of collections from his eponymous fashion label across both floors of the former factory. Hundreds of pieces have recently been acquired by the Powerhouse Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

The first garment I touch is a cream silk crepe shift dress. The silhouette is simple, but Isogawa’s signature opulence is at the heart of its construction. Along the front panel of the dress, softly luminescent sequins have been sewn in vertical rows, gathering the delicate fabric into pleats that end at the hips and give the dress a slight swing through the skirt.

When I comment on the silk’s lightness, Isogawa says, “I love to see that a garment is melting on you rather than going against your sensibility.”

Despite having lived in Australia for almost four decades, Isogawa speaks English with an idiosyncratic rhythm. He is youthful in a way that belies his 59 years, in appearance as well as temperament. Our conversation is punctuated by giggles and moments of candour. Both are unusual for a designer of his standing and calibre.

“I think if you want to run a successful business, you’ve got to be totally obsessed by yourself,” he says. “You’ve got to think about yourself before anything else. I remember being like that. I’ve been told how selfish I was.”

In 1993, he opened his first boutique in Woollahra. It was just seven years after he immigrated to Australia at the age of 21, defying his father’s wish that he remain in Kyoto. By 1998 his designs were being sold internationally. He was named Australian Designer of the Year in 1999 and the country’s first fashion laureate in 2007. His work has been displayed at the NGV, the Powerhouse Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and internationally at Paris Fashion Week and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Isogawa is at a turning point. He has not released a collection since 2021. His team of 20 staff has been reduced to just a few interns. He closed his only remaining boutique in Sydney’s Strand Arcade last year. Sorting through his extensive archive seems an apt exercise for this period of change.

“It feels like it’s going backwards,” he says. “It feels like I’m just starting out something new.”

It’s not that he hasn’t been busy. Sometime this year he will release a small collection of 10 new looks. He has designed costumes for the Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company and the West Australian Ballet. In 2023, he created a runway show with the designer Jordan Gogos, who is widely considered a breakout talent.

The duo sent a mix of fantastically upcycled garments down the runway at Australian Fashion Week in May. The pieces were so ornate and sculptural they were more like art than fashion. A ready-to-wear capsule from the collaboration will be available to purchase soon. When the first piece appeared that was obviously Akira’s – a long, floating dress made of piles and piles of silk florets, structured to hover off the body in odd proportions – I was palpably relieved. In a week of runway shows, I had missed this sensibility for quality materials and how they move on the human form: the angles that can be created by hips and knees, shoulders and ankles, by a designer who prioritises creative instinct above market projections.

Almost eight months later, in Isogawa’s warehouse, I am struck by a deep nostalgia. The layers of pastel chiffon, raw-edged appliqué and strands of heavy beads remind me how luxurious Australian design could be before the market was flooded with synthetic materials and mass-produced global brands.

It’s a sentiment that echoes a headline written by fashion editor Marion Hume in 1999, who, incidentally, is someone Isogawa says was a big influence on his career. She singled out a garment from his Resort 2000 collection at Australian Fashion Week and named it “The dress that saved Sydney” in The Australian newspaper. From the front it appears to be a summer dress with straps and an asymmetric hem, but the back is a series of complicated tucks and pleats. It’s adorned with intricate glass beadwork in pink, purple, bronze, red and green. The beading was inspired by traditional Javanese batik, an example of Isogawa’s talent for marrying Eastern techniques with Western silhouettes.

“Akira creates beautiful clothes that flatter way beyond what used to be fashion’s narrow diktats of style,” Hume writes via email from London, where she is based. “That dress retains an inherent beauty. It took a humble cloth – canvas – and gave it nobility. It took an eternal Sydney shape and gave it a different grace.”

As I move around the loft, restraining myself from abandoning the interview to thoroughly inspect and wonder at every single garment, Isogawa follows me. He is wearing a T-shirt and slim-cut pants made from jersey with black Martin Margiela trainers. His long dark hair is greying. For the most part, he keeps it off his face by tucking it behind his ears.

I ask how he wants people to feel when they’re wearing his clothes. “I don’t think a designer should be a dictator,” he says. “Maybe you need to wear some particular style of clothes to feel confident. Or maybe you need a dress to feel sexy or glamorous or professional. Or maybe you want to feel rich. Clothes are only the object to support you.”

The next garment I pick up is a mid-length halter off-white dress made of thousands upon thousands of tight, airy pleats. It has a plunging neckline that meets just below the bust, where the fabric is ruched into a wider circle that looks like a flower. The silk has been manipulated using the Japanese art of shibori, to give it body and form despite its weightlessness.

Katie Somerville, the senior curator of fashion and textiles at the NGV, says this ability to mix Japanese references with the creation of original printed, painted, pleated and embroidered textiles saw “Akira play an important role in helping to establish an independent identity for Australian fashion in the 1990s … providing an alternative view to those who have tended to draw on a European fashion lineage”.

For a designer who has long been obsessed by ancient techniques and the tactility and movement of textiles, it makes sense that, as he looks to the future of his brand, he has found a desire to be sustainable. The starting point for this is using the fabric he already has on hand at his warehouse. “I do not need to purchase or get a weaver or mill to come up with any brand-new product, so I do not have to worry about producing any more raw materials,” he says. “Moving on, every single practice should be sustainable.”

This is not the only change for Isogawa. Now that he is outside fashion’s seasonal calendar, with its cycles of production and deliveries, he can create in his own time, in his own way. “I no longer have to think about seasons because it’s a project,” he says. “I’m not able to say when the next capsule is going to come, it depends on my other activities.”

As I scan the racks, my eyes flick over a skirt covered in a delicate appliqué of pale purple pansies, a black jacket that has shoulders adorned with gold and orange beadwork, red patterned silks and a sleeve covered in layers of small squares of beige chiffon. Isogawa explains his plan to clear the space so it can be used by other artists too. Garments that aren’t taken by galleries will eventually be sold.

I want to know how it feels to be letting go of a trove of the kind of garments we may never see again. The cost of high-quality natural fibres, such as the cotton, silk and wool Isogawa uses, is rising. The landscapes that produce these materials are threatened by climate change.

“I think it’s really healthy for someone who has a creative mind to let go of the past and allow themselves to be open to new possibilities,” he says. “You can’t just hang on to it. It’s giving me a sense of freedom. We’re moving forward now.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "A pleat in time".

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