Until a year ago, not many had heard of Japanese label Sacai, even though it enjoys a cult-like status among fashion insiders. It was only when designer Chitose Abe decided to host her first runway show at Paris Fashion Week last March that people began asking about her cool, innovative pieces.
Founded in 1999, Sacai is based on the concept of creating the unexpected from the expected. It's helping to redefine 21st century Japanese fashion, which is moving away from deconstructed and conceptual designs with clothes that are cutting edge, feminine and wearable.
"I am not influenced in particular by other designers. This is not typical Japanese design; it's more international. I want to create my own world," says Abe, who was recently in Hong Kong to launch a pop-up shop at Joyce Lee Gardens.
Wearing a funky striped cotton biker jacket and a kilt made from an antique patterned scarf, Abe embodies the Sacai woman. The beauty of her outfit is in the details, from the lace lining peeking out from under her skirt to the stiff peplum on the back of her jacket. Her nails are a complementary shade of blue to bring the look together.
"I love to dress up. That's why I could only imagine being a fashion designer," she says, looking like a little girl in a candy shop rather than a mother of a 15-year-old.
Abe says she has wanted to be a designer since she was 10. She learnt the trade under Rei Kawakubo's eye at Comme des Garçons before working with Junya Watanabe for eight years. After having her first child, she decided to launch her own label, offering a different take on fashion.
"Every designer has their own taste," Abe says. "Rei understands that fashion is a business, but you have to balance it with creating what you like. She always told me that you have to be your own designer and create what you want. So I knew it had to be something I wanted to wear. Sacai is really about me."
Knitting was the easiest option, and soon buyers were visiting her at home to see her creations. As the brand developed, so did her aesthetic. Soon Sacai (the name is taken from Abe's maiden name) became known for innovative fabrics, which were pieced together in one style.
"I visit lots of fabric shops and am always experimenting with creating new materials. Everything we use is made for us. I like fabrics that look one way on the outside, but on the inside are different. Details are important. I want people to see how special Sacai is," she says.
The designs are deceptively simple. Abe takes classics, pulls them apart and puts them back together to make something feminine and unique.
"I try to do something modern. Everyone knows what a biker jacket is, but we add new details. There's an element of dressing up in my designs. Nowadays no one designs for women like me," she says.
"Our materials are all original, but we have been working on the silhouette to create new proportions. In the old days, we talked about putting two different things together to create something new. It's not just about fabric; it's masculine and feminine. It's putting together the unexpected."
The spring/summer 2013 collection in the store now reflects this. Styles transform from masculine to feminine, depending on the angle they are viewed from. A dress made from embroidered tulle is actually a jumpsuit, and a sweater dress becomes a blouson top and flared skirt from behind.
"I really like this idea of movement," Abe says. "My favourites are the trousers which are wide-legged from the front but from the back are actually a long bias cut skirt. I wanted to use light fabrics that were easy to walk in, and create movement."
With such quirky and innovative designs, it's no surprise the brand tops editors' wish lists. Sacai now has a men's collection and secondary line called Sacai Luck. The brand opened its flagship store in Tokyo in 2011, and next season it will launch its first line of bags that are a luxe interpretation of vintage military helmet bags.
"Now is the time to let people know more about the brand," Abe says. "I would love to open more shops in other countries. Asia is a wonderful market for us. The brand used to be very niche, but things have changed. People recognise Sacai. We don't want to expand business-wise, but we'd like to at least tell people more about Sacai."