Chitose Abe on influences for Sacai's 2015 autumn-winter line
No matter how big the Japanese indie fashion label becomes, its founder will always stick to the brand's roots
In case you haven't received the memo, Sacai mania has reached fever pitch, and we're not just talking about on the catwalks.
At Paris Fashion Week, the Japanese label's sculptural hybrid jackets became must-have trophy pieces for fashion scribes, while the line-up on the front row of its show could have passed for fashion's Fortune 500 list (even Karl Lagerfeld is a fan).
Last month the label opened its first store outside Japan in Hong Kong, then released its first coffee table book, Sacai: A to Z, published by Rizzoli. To round off a busy few months, The NikeLab x Sacai capsule collection made its debut, before selling out across the globe.
"Yes, people are always saying that we are very successful now, but they forget that I started in the industry 16 years ago," says brand owner Chitose Abe, whose youthful looks and style belie her clout. "All that's changed is how many people recognise me."
While Sacai has always had the support of retailers, the difference now is that her company is really starting to develop a brand image, she says.
"It began with the show in Paris, which was a way for journalists to discover our work. The book was the next step."
"I don't consider myself cool - I am low-key and like to keep a low profile but I want people to understand my work, so these elements are important to Sacai."
The change came in 2011, when Sacai showcased its first women's runway show in Paris. Attendees were wowed by the reconstructed silhouettes, new proportions and innovative mix of fabrics. For many, it was a look they had not seen from the brand before, although Abe doesn't see it that way. "I've always done what I want to do, and that has never changed. My work feels consistent [to me] but perhaps the consumer saw it in a different way," she says.
Inspired by her seamstress mother, Abe has wanted to be a designer since she was 10 years old. She received her fashion training at the high temple of Japanese fashion, Comme des Garcons, where she worked under Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe.
Everything changed when she gave birth to her daughter. Working at a fashion corporation no longer suited her lifestyle, so she took up knitting as something she could do easily at home. It wasn't long before she created a small collection of five pieces which would later form the foundation of Sacai.
"I am an independent designer, which means I can do what I want. It's a challenge," she says. "But it's also something that allows me to be creative."
Sacai's collections are very much based on classics, be they trench coats or leather jackets. The difference lies in the way Abe reconstructs them, often forming new silhouettes that are feminine and sporty.
"When I design, I always think of a balance between two elements - the unexpected, and the stability of the brand image. It's also important that my clothes must be wearable, otherwise what is the point? So many clothing brands exist out there - we make what only Sacai can make," she says.
For her recent autumn-winter 2015 collection, larger than life outerwear came decorated in colourful tufts of fur, while an oversized leather parka made a statement with cascades of crochet fringing.
Colourful hooded tunics and pleated white bondage -style dresses hinted at something new to come. As with all of her silhouettes, each piece comes alive on the body of its wearer.
"You can't see [what I do] when the product is worn on mannequins or the racks. Fabric is so integral to what we do, so much so that we create it from scratch. We talk to suppliers, tell them what we are looking for. It's never what you think - it may look heavy but its actually light, while something stiff is soft on the body. It's all about contrasts not only in style but the product itself," she says.
As Sacai continues to grip the fashion world, Abe has taken the opportunity to bring the brand to new audiences. Her first collaboration with sports giant Nike, for example, features heritage pieces infused with a Sacai touch - windbreakers with pleated panels fanning from the back, hoodies with peplums and tennis skirts with sheer pleats. It launched in March with more items expected to drop into stores this month.
"Sportswear has always been a key element of the brand. I've loved Nike since I was in my 20s. I used to wear the original Airmax and I would also pair Nike kids clothing with Comme des Garcons," she says.
Looking ahead, Abe is fast on her way to growing a global brand while still juggling her role as a mother (her husband is the designer behind Japanese brand Kolor and they always make sure one of them is at home with their daughter).
Top of her list is going international (her largest markets outside Japan are the US and Hong Kong) with stores planned for Beijing (in May) and South Korea. With so many big plans ahead, one wonders if the true essence of the brand will get diluted along the way.
"For me, I want the consumer to always feel surprised and discover something surprising in my clothes. Most brands today do this by changing designers, adding new groups or expanding the product line - that's how they reinvent themselves and bring newness. For me, it's different - it's through each needle, and each stitch. It all comes down to the foundation of the brand which is the cut, the pattern and the fabric," she says. "If you are creative enough you can make anything change."