MAAS Senior Curator Roger Leong talks with the designer about his career, spanning more than 25 years, explored in the exhibition and book Akira Isogawa.
What led you to become a designer?
My interest in fashion began in kindergarten. I was already thinking about dresses then. I remember drawing female figures and playing with flowers and crushing them to see what colours came out. I was crazy about fashion as a teenager. I spent all my money on clothes. In those days, the Japanese label Comme des Garçons was the most avant-garde fashion brand and I used to visit the store in Kyoto. It was so different. The clothes were all black and the boutique felt like a temple to me. The designer, Rei Kawakubo, had a big influence on me then and still does now.
A few months after I arrived in Sydney, I was invited to a RAT (Recreational Arts Team) party. The RAT parties were all about visual stimulation, costumes, makeup, and the environment (decorations, lighting and theatre). Performances went all night long. It was exciting to discover a different side of Sydney. It was a very creative underground scene and it made me want to stay longer to explore my own creativity. I started making costumes to wear to RAT parties and was asked to make them for others too.
Was there a defining moment in your career?
My two first runway experiences at Australian Fashion Week were very important. In 1996, I was invited to parade my collection in the New Generation Group Show in the first Australian Fashion Week. It was the first time I
had shown my work to such a large audience. I could not afford shoes for the models, so I bought red socks from Gowings [Sydney department store] and that’s what many people remember most about the show today.
In 1997, I launched my label on the international market at Australian Fashion Week. Marion Hume [Editor-in-chief, Vogue Australia 1997–1998] arrived from London and saw something fresh in my work. She came to the studio before the show and picked out some dresses made from vintage kimonos. It was a surprise, because I didn’t know my dress would later feature on her first cover for Vogue. British supermodel Naomi Campbell wore my dress and it was shot by the top German photographer Peter Lindbergh.
You have reinterpreted the kimono since the beginning of your career over 25 years ago. What is it about the kimono that draws your attention and fascination?
I grew up with the kimono. It is in my DNA. I respect that is my heritage and it feels true to myself. The kimono has endless possibilities in terms of the shape, the textile itself, and how it is constructed. I am constantly exploring the kimono and how I can make it more relevant for today. Every time I look at a kimono, I see something new: the colours and the motifs but also the way it is constructed, like the way the lining of a kimono is attached — it sometimes looks as if it is patchwork. I also like working within the constraints of the kimono — always a rectangle or square — and the textile — which is always a narrow width and a certain length. It’s a conceptual challenge that I enjoy.
I have used many precious kimonos for my collections and have cut them up to make new clothes. I do regret that at times, but then you cannot live in the past. I guess this is a form of recycling, which is becoming very fashionable again today.
Can you describe your design process? Where do you find inspiration and how do you begin?
It always begins with the textile. When I start a new collection, I tend to develop the textile first — it might be embroidered, handpainted or custom-made. Only after establishing the textile I will use, can I decide what to do next.
Tell us about the most memorable collaborative projects you have undertaken?
I worked with choreographer Graeme Murphy AO, Artistic Director with the Sydney Dance Company, on five productions. The project that stands out for me was Grand (2005). A tribute to his late mother, a pianist, it was quite an emotional project for him. Production designer Gerard Manion, Graeme and I spent three or four days together at Graeme’s sister’s property in Tasmania. We got to know each other quite well and it was a special experience creatively for me. We spent time outdoors fishing and walking in the bush, but most of the time we were talking about the work. I think it made me more confident to create something more directional.
Your garments often blend traditional techniques with modern styling. Why is it important for you to maintain traditional modes of craftsmanship in your designs?
Craftsmanship is important to me. I would feel something was missing if I just picked something that was already made. I get a lot of inspiration from meeting the artisans that I work with and it’s important for me to travel to meet with them whether they are in Australia, Bali, China or Japan. I cannot do what they do so their expertise is really at the core of my creativity.
This exhibition and book were made possible by Akira Isogawa’s significant donation of over 100 examples of his work to the MAAS Centre for Fashion through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2018.