"Hong Kong is still the fashion capital of Asia, with Tokyo," says Ennio Capasa, founder and creative director of cult label Costume National (and diffusion line C'N'C), as he inaugurates the opening of two Hong Kong stores this year, with more planned for Shanghai.
The softly spoken, stubbly Italian, who once worked with Yohji Yamamoto, has championed a clean, graphic aesthetic since starting the label with his brother in 1986. Costume National has since expanded to include menswear, womenswear, accessories, and streetwear. The label has a strong following in Asia, especially Japan. But despite its minimalist, hypermodern and rock 'n' roll image - beloved by fashionisti like Mick Jagger, Orlando Bloom, and Keith Richards - Capasa prefers more abstract associations.
"I like it when you can catch the feeling but without putting too much into it," he says, dressed in trademark black.
"Edgy chic is at the core of my brand."
Capasa's been catching the right - and innovative - feeling from the outset. Born into a fashion family in Leece in the Apulia region of Italy, his parents still run (his mother is 78) a store that sells brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Japanese labels. Despite a predilection for fine art, which he studied at Milan's Art and Design Academy, Capasa swapped canvas for cloth after graduation, drawn by fashion's "magic and escapism". Influenced by the exotic of the orient he left Italy to work as assistant designer with Yohji Yamamoto in Japan.
"It was like going to the best university at the right time," he says. "For three-and-a-half years I learned the discipline of work - and a lot of technique. The studio was very atelier-like - very old couture style."
Working alongside Yamamoto allowed Capasa to culture a love for simplicity, "this essence of oriental feeling", still a major influence today. "But then, I'm Italian - I love rock 'n' roll," he laughs. "So I incorporated it all together." That juxtaposition has won a cult following. Few menswear designers of his generation - outside Japan and Antwerp - were combining such disparate fashion ideologies.
Capasa returned with an original stylistic language, a reaction to the excessive and "over-the-top" fashion pervading the West in the '80s. Soon after, in 1986, Costume National was born. "I changed the silhouette so that everything was very skinny," he says. "I wanted to make clothes that you enjoy for yourself, not just for the ego of the designer. I think we were very radical in that way."
"I still think it's important for me to make clothes that people can wear every day," Capasa says. "You know, the relationship with real life, the street, with useful clothes, is one of my main objectives."
The nineties defined Costume National, whose influence grew. It was the new urban, minimalist antithesis to the frivolity of the 1980s. Costume National was to menswear, what Kate Moss was to supermodels: the more interesting alternative. This cleaner, more simplified style, was part of a design evolution which permeated photography and product design. "People," Capasa says, "needed something more authentic and true."
Nowadays, the Costume National brand has developed into a futuristic, urban cool with increasingly sophisticated details. A more youthful, street line C'N'C was launched online in 2004. Technology has been a driving factor in design too. Capasa designed a radical, award-winning 'Solar Bag' in 2009, featuring solar panels that allowed phones, iPods and numerous digital accessories to be charged in the bag.
Costume National was also the first brand to ever live-stream a fashion show in 2001, says Capasa. A strong web presence and social networking allows direct contact with what he calls "our people".
"Today we live in a society of communication - everything is very fast and the planet is going in a very, very ultra-superficial direction," he adds. "When you are an independent brand like us, I think we have to find the right tune."
Whichever the decade, Capasa favours timeless clothes over fleeting trends. He admires Coco Chanel because "she was so cool and didn't care at all. Such people are consistent for decades and I think fashion is coming back in this direction."
While Capasa's influence and fame in fashion is assured, few in the public realm recognise his name. Does he regret not naming the company after himself? "This was a big mistake, if I think about it now," he laughs. "With a name, it's much more valuable."
"When we started the label, I was 24 or 25. My brother gave me this beautiful 100-year-old French book on uniforms called Costume National.
I said: 'This name looks amazing, let's use it.' The things that you do when you're young."
Although it's his fourth decade in the business, Capasa says he found a new burst of motivation a few seasons ago, though he doesn't know why.
"I guess when you mix street wear, rock 'n' roll, tailoring and couture together, there is a lot to say."
While he says the natural practicalities of designing for men make it "more conservative" than for women, Capasa sees possibilities for reinvention in the growing men's sector. He also welcomes the "less stale and more relaxed" postmodern state of men's fashion. As an unlikely point of reference, he cites Mark Zuckerberg's iconic zip-up hoodie at the Facebook IPO launch.
"The new generation want to be more themselves, which is great. It's exactly how it should be. When I started, my dream was to suggest a style where each woman, each man, must represent themselves - and I think today it's possible."
Above and top right: looks from Costume National Homme's AW/12 collection. Photos: AFP
Costume National diffusion ready-to-wear line, C’N’C, launched in 2004, has a similar aesthetic to the main brand, mixing rock ’n’ roll with minimalism, appealing to the young and fashion conscious. Capasa’s designs merge day and evening wear, creating a “street-couture” focused on structure and texture. The new autumn-winter 2012 men’s collection features a black, grey and navy colour palette in signature slick and sportswear shapes. This season updates classics such as blazers, parkas and knits with slim contemporary silhouettes and contrasting textures. Leather, metallic denim and matte fabric are exploited heavily and the garments have subtle button and zipper detailing. Leather jackets with shearling interiors and pinstriped hooded blazers are paired with denim shirts or jeans, and combat boots – a look that merges rugged street-wear with a sophisticated futurism. “It’s post-punk, post-chic but above all technological,” says Capasa. Victoria Kung