Niche and famous
Tsumori Chisato wears her own whimsical aesthetic well. The petite fashion designer sits in front of me adorned with her own youthful creations - a bright sequinned tunic featuring a cartoon leopard, a slouchy white cashmere cardigan and eclectic jewellery. 'This is an Australian opal,' she says, pointing to the large, milky blue rock on her finger.
The protegee of Issey Miyake set up her own brand in 1990. It now has more than 40 points of sale, many free-standing stores in Asia and is expanding steadily throughout the US, Italy, Russia and Scandinavia. Chisato is eager to extend her reach beyond Japan's ailing economy and her approach, in terms of business and design, is very inclusive of other cultures.
'When I am moving into different markets, it is important to deal with local partners to produce the stores and to represent my line in the most effective way,' she says, perfect black hair hanging loose down to her waist and with the kind of immaculate grooming that only seems to find home on French or Japanese women. She is flanked by PR girls who nod at her answers throughout the translated interview.
In Hong Kong, although multinational Western brands still rule the roost, even a cursory glance at our youth culture shows that local inspirations lie in Japanese fashion. When she inaugurated her new store at the IFC mall last month, diehard fans brought along their cameras and favourite Tsumori Chisato outfits to mark the occasion. For the store's opening, Chisato hosted an exhibition with I.T of various iconic pieces from the past 20 years.
'I want a lot of different people to see and experience my clothes this time, so specifically the collaboration with [local department store] I.T is very important ... in this region.'
Chisato has a Beijing store opening soon and another in Singapore, in January. Her aspirations to develop outside of her native Japan seems to be going swimmingly with the help of locals.
A graduate of Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College, Chisato began working with Issey Miyake in 1977, becoming head designer for his Issey Sport range, later renamed I.S. Chisato Tsumori design. Even though their aesthetics were different, Chisato says that her mentor was supportive, encouraging her to pursue the drawings that have become core to her label.
'From the beginning, Issye Mikaye recognised that I had a very unique style, because I was always drawing images and illustrations and that kind of thing,' Chisato says.
'He encouraged me to develop my own aesthetic and my own style. He said to me things like, 'This is cute, this is interesting. You should follow this and develop this further.' So he was very supportive right from the start.'
Design legends such as Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake have given the Japanese huge international clout in the fickle world of fashion with their use of exaggerated forms, deconstruction and breaking from traditional structures.
By 2003, some 13 years after going it alone, Chisato had moved into menswear. She took her pret-a-porter label to show in Paris, making an international name for her wild colours, clever use of pattern and charming bohemian style. Her shows became a welcome contrast to more familiar, anaemic catwalk performances. Chisato seemed to inject a dose of happiness and optimism with her anti-minimalist designs.
Her aesthetic is whimsical, with a childlike, although not childish, curiosity. It is a fantasy world of manga, Russian dolls and gypsies, ruffles and rainbows, the circus and merry-go-rounds, exotic travel with an Alice in Wonderland touch of fantasy.
Behind the barrage of patterns, colours and eccentric cuts lies a highly developed, sophisticated and cognitive skill. It takes a lot of creativity to render sense from chaos.
'My childhood was always fun,' Chisato says. 'I had a lot of pets at home and I grew up in a town with mountains close by and rivers close by ... I dreamed of being a singer ... and a cartoon writer when I was young ...We [kids] would play outside. I would pick flowers and look at little things. I loved animals. There was always that sense of play and fun - it's still like this.
'It's partly about escapism,' Chisato says. 'But I'm a woman, I like to wear nice clothes. I don't like that too cutesy, too girly, too frilly kind of style ... I have a particular balance within myself that I enjoy the most, but is also particularly hard to express.'
Her winning formula has included asymmetry, hoods, playsuits, capes and pretty dresses that have become staples in her collections over the years. Her innovative use of new, textiles, careful beading, embroidery, appliques and her own prints have also helped to win her fans.
Chisato cites her biggest inspirations as 'the little things in daily life'.
'So when I am travelling, it's the places and the people that I see and meet.' Places such as Turkey and Uzbekistan been recent influences.
The adventurous designer reportedly goes to a new place after every major show in search of inspiration, and likes to say that she is international at heart. She even thinks customers 'have the same feeling everywhere. When I am visiting Paris or other places, it's the same feeling, same style, same sense, I was so surprised.
'The Tsumori Chisato brand has such a unique image and style that is has almost a cultural fragrance or odour to it ... so, rather than being culturally misunderstood, the brand rather brings together people who have this playful ideology and approach to fashion.'
Chisato admits, however, that no matter how well her label is going, 'it's never going to be something that is a mass brand.'
But she has struck gold with her niche style, which is a breath of fresh air in Hong Kong.
'It's always going to be something that's interesting,' Chisato says of the future, and with her characteristic youthful optimism, adds, 'It's always going to be fun!'