‘Without Australia, I couldn’t be who I am’: fashion designer Akira Isogawa on his 25-year journey

  • Japanese-Australian for whom actress Cate Blanchett was an early advocate runs his business himself, has no online store, and shows little outside Australia
  • He thrives on the multiculturalism of his adopted country, where his work is the subject of an exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 10:31am

Over the past 25 years there has been no shortage of ambitious Australian fashion designers who have aimed for the world stage by joining the international catwalk-show circuit and opening international boutiques. Invariably, they have taken on investors to fund their expansion.

Some have been extremely successful, a number of them making small fortunes along the way.

Many have, however, closed.

Japanese-Australian Akira Isogawa took a road less travelled, and his 25-year career journey is the focus of an exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

Running from December 15 until June 30, 2019, the exhibition, titled “Akira Isogawa”, features approximately 100 works and is accompanied by a monograph published by Thames and Hudson Australia with a foreword by Cate Blanchett.

The Academy Award-winning Australian actress was one of Isogawa’s first clients when he opened his first boutique in the affluent Sydney suburb of Woollahra in 1993.

Isogawa has eschewed not only external investment, but also expensive international catwalk shows – which he abandoned in Paris back in 2002, after several seasons – in favour of a Paris showroom, a cheaper option. He has yet to launch his own e-commerce store.

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“I thought actually that people need to feel and touch [the clothes],” says Isogawa, a traditionalist at heart.

“You might call it old-fashioned. I haven’t worked on it [e-commerce] deliberately. It’s a little bit like watching a movie at home or making an effort to go to the cinema. I think going to the cinema makes you feel much more special. I do ask clients to come to our boutique, that’s the best experience we can offer.”

Although his name might not be as well known internationally as some of his peers, such as Dion Lee, Kym Ellery or Zimmermann, Isogawa’s relatively modest 20 wholesale stockists nevertheless include almost a dozen of the world’s best stores, including Barneys Japan, Singapore’s Club 21 and The Cross in London.

In Australia, his home for the past 32 years, he is considered something of a national treasure. He has been honoured with a raft of industry awards; collaborations with some of Australia’s leading cultural organisations, such as the Sydney Dance Company, The Australian Ballet and the Australian Chamber Orchestra; and even an Australian postage stamp.

Apart from the current show, his work has featured in more than a dozen other exhibitions in Australia and Asia.

These include “Akira Isogawa: Printemps Eté” in 2004/2005 at the National Gallery of Victoria. At the time the first solo fashion and textiles exhibition by an Australian fashion designer to be presented at a major national or state institution, the exhibition subsequently travelled to Singapore, Manila, Bangkok, New Delhi and Mumbai.

The Powerhouse exhibition is Isogawa’s fourth solo show.

“We’re calling it a survey because I feel very strongly that Akira’s still got a lot more to give creatively and to me a retrospective always sounds a little bit like it’s at the end of someone’s career,” says Roger Leong, senior curator at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. He says it is hard to think of another Australian designer who has featured in as many gallery exhibitions.

“I feel like he’s the poet of the Australian fashion industry,” says Leong. “He has such an artistic approach, and I’m not saying that other designers are not artistic, but having worked in art galleries for many years and observed how artists work, to me he’s very much like an artist in the way that he thinks and works.

“Physically the way that he touches the material, he’s got this great reverence for craftsmanship and the cloth itself. He’s a very tactile designer.”

Isogawa’s East-meets-West aesthetic featured repurposed vintage kimonos long before the concept of “upcycling” became fashionable; it often also uses traditional Japanese artisanal techniques such as shibori and origami. 

The designer was born in 1964 in Kyoto, Japan’s main centre of kimono and textile production for over 1,000 years.

He dropped out of Buddhism, social welfare and education studies at the city’s Bukkyo University and travelled to Australia in 1986 on a working holiday visa, at the age of 21.

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Although he cites Kyoto’s Comme des Garçons store as a key influence on his teenage years – it remains to this day one of his favourite boutiques, he says – it wasn’t until he arrived in Sydney and became ensconced in the local underground dance party scene that he realised he was obsessed with fashion, he says.

He enrolled in what is now called the Fashion Design Studio at Sydney’s Ultimo TAFE, graduating in 1989.

The Powerhouse show features a garment from Isogawa’s very first catwalk show, called “Not Made in Japan”, which was presented at the Hogarth Galleries in Paddington, Sydney, in 1995.

His career began to take off the following year, when he took part in a group show for emerging designers at the inaugural Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia (MBFWA) at Sydney’s Fox Studios in May 1996 – famously sending his models out in bright red socks, because he had no budget left over for shoes.

In 1997, Isogawa’s MBFWA collection was purchased almost in its entirety by London fashion retailer Joan Burstein for her Browns boutiques. And in June that year, British fashion journalist Marion Hume put model Naomi Campbell in Isogawa’s red and white crane print dress on the cover of her first Vogue Australia cover, shot by Peter Lindbergh.

In 1999, by that stage the fashion editor of The Australian newspaper, Hume declared a beaded, asymmetric slip dress from Isogawa’s 1999/2000 collection at the MBFWA the “dress that saved Sydney [fashion week]”. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences acquired one of the dresses, which is also part of the Powerhouse show.

It was Burstein who encouraged Isogawa to show in a Paris showroom, which he has done on a regular basis since 1998. His catwalk shows mostly take place in Australian fashion week; he has also done one-off shows at the fashion weeks in Harbin, China, and Jakarta, Indonesia.

“You need to really turn over certain dollars to compensate [for] that huge expense [of showing internationally], it really requires investment, externally,” says Isogawa. “I’m always telling everyone I’m open to do that [investment], but it just hasn't occurred [so far]”.

I feel like he’s the poet of the Australian fashion industry
Roger Leong, curator

He adds: “Right now, running the business by myself, what I feel that I’m quite good at is not overestimating what I’m capable of, not pushing myself to the extent that the business may collapse. In a way that’s probably the reason that it’s lasted so long.”

One of very few Japanese-Australians working in fashion locally, Isogawa says he enjoys the multiculturalism of Australia – a stark contrast, according to Isogawa, to his native Japan, where he returns several times a year to visit family and buy fabrics.

“Oh my God, it [Japan] is so closed. So is China, so is Korea and so is Thailand,” says Isogawa.

“I found that actually without Australia, I couldn’t be who I am,” he adds. “It’s true that I do hear people talk about racism. But personally I’m blessed, receiving such great support.”

“Akira Isogawa” is at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum until June 30, 2019