Sacai label founder revels in her freedom to collaborate with Nike, New York Times, and Dr Woo

  • Japanese designer Chitose Abe, in Hong Kong to launch collaborative line with tattooist Dr Woo, says she enjoys being able to work with whoever she likes
  • She hasn’t done a collaboration with husband Junichi Abe’s label Kolor, though
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 8:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 6:56pm

Early this year, Japanese designer Chitose Abe, founder of fashion label Sacai, unveiled an unexpected collaboration at her autumn-winter 2018 men’s show in Paris.

Surprising the fashion world, Abe had teamed up with The New York Times’ “Truth” campaign, which highlights the important role that journalists play in these troubled times. Items such as T-shirts and hoodies were emblazoned with slogans such as “Truth. It’s more important now than ever”.

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Tokyo-based Abe is not new to collaborations. In her almost two-decade-long career as one of the world’s most respected designers, she has become a master at teaming up with others.

“For me it’s always something that I’m interested in,” she says when we meet her during a recent visit to Hong Kong.

Abe was in Hong Kong to launch yet another collaboration, this time with legendary Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Dr Woo, who has inked A-listers such as Drake and Miley Cyrus.

Accompanied by Dr Woo and Daisuke Gemma, her right-hand man, who also acts as her unofficial translator, Abe attributes her ability to come up with unusual partnerships to the freedom she has as the founder and owner of her brand, which is staunchly and proudly independent.

“We are very free and can do whatever we want,” she emphasises more than once during our conversation. “Nobody can tell us, ‘You can’t work with this brand or that brand’.”

Collaborations are quite common in fashion. High-end designers have been teaming up with mass-market retailers such as H&M for years, and Abe has been working with sportswear giant Nike for several seasons.

Abe says that, whether she works with a corporate institution such as Nike or an artist such as Dr Woo, the key is to keep things real and intimate.

“For this kind of project, I wanted to make it more personal,” she says, referring to her range with Dr Woo. “But working with Nike is not that different. They also have a personal approach and we always try to make our collaborations personal.”

Dr Woo created a series of tattoos especially for Sacai, adorning women’s and men’s pieces with some of his signature motifs, such as barbed wire, flowers and birds.

“I’m very selective and I only work with people I like, but I’m a fan first,” says Dr Woo. “As a fan of Japanese brands like Sacai, I didn’t expect this and when they approached me it was a no-brainer.

“I cut out a lot of my team and my management for this because I wanted to work directly with Chitose and to have a personal relationship.”

Sacai’s first collaboration, almost a decade ago, was with outerwear brand Moncler. Since then Abe has come up with her fair share of offbeat partnerships, such as with Birkenstock – before its sandals became cool – and small labels including Danish jeweller Sophie Bille Brahe and Paris shoemaker Pierre Hardy.

As for The New York Times, she says she and Gemma were quite taken with the “Truth” campaign and felt that it was important to send that strong message through her work.

If it’s not fun I don’t do it. I don’t have a strategy but it’s always something that is fun
Chitose Abe

Explaining once again that she can only do these kinds of collaborations because of her unfettered freedom to experiment, Abe brings up her recent partnership with one of the most exclusive jewellers in the world, Tokyo-based Goro’s. The brand is notorious for turning away customers, including avid fans who collect its silver feather pendants and beaded necklaces.

Abe used pieces from the company’s archives, private collections and items lent by Japanese streetwear guru Hiroshi Fujiwara to accessorise her autumn-winter 2018 men’s collection, but has no plans to sell them in her stores.

In other words, this partnership has no commercial goals, but happened out of pure appreciation for Goro’s and its handmade creations.

As for whether Abe would ever team up with her other half, Junichi Abe, founder of cult brand Kolor, she dismisses the question with a smile (the couple, who have a daughter, have always kept their labels very separate).

A partnership between the two would undoubtedly be the holy grail for hypebeasts and fashion lovers, but if it ever happens, it will be on their own – very strict – terms.

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“If it’s not fun I don’t do it,” she says. “I don’t have a strategy, but it’s always something that is fun and we do [these projects] without thinking too much about it.”