I never really design with a specific person—or culture—in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally. The big challenges for me are really just conceiving fabrics and pattern techniques that haven’t been done before—which usually, for me, involves reinterpreting classical or traditional aspects of clothing.Chitsoe Abe
It’s been Japanese designer Chitose Abe’s mission to constantly reinterpret and reinvent her signature knitwear and mixed-texture collections since her label, Sacai, debuted in 1999. The 44-year-old Abe, who cut her sartorial teeth working with the likes of Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe, has remained steadfast only in her decision to keep her clothing away from the fashion world’s spotlight, quietly garnering a global fan base that only swelled when she presented her Autumn/Winter 2010 collection in Paris this year. She spoke recently with Sarah of the chic Paris shop Colette about the inspirations behind Sacai.
Sarah: What are the best lessons you learned from working alongside Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe at Comme des Garçons?
Chitose Abe: The importance and gratification of designing clothes that have not been done before.
Sarah: Why did you choose to tackle knitwear first for your brand?
Abe: When I started, about 10 years ago, I felt that there wasn’t much that seemed new in knitwear. But it really wasn’t that I set out consciously to be a knitwear designer per se, it just happened to be what I chose for my first collection.
Sarah: You have all of your clothes made in Japan. Is that important for you in terms of quality or culture?
Abe: It’s really not so important in and of itself for me-although the quality is very high-but more just because I am based here.
Sarah: When you design, do you first envision a Japanese or a European customer? Or does this consideration not factor in at all? What is your aim?
Abe: I never really design with a specific person-or culture-in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally. The big challenges for me are really just conceiving fabrics and pattern techniques that haven’t been done before-which usually, for me, involves reinterpreting classical or traditional aspects of clothing and synthesizing ideas. For example, in the fall collection, I combined a traditional bouclé jacket without sleeves with a silk blouse made with that matching bouclé pattern. In another turn, I made a dress that appears from the front like a very simple rib-knit wool sweaterdress, but from the back is a poplin shirt with a wood-tweed miniskirt. The whole idea is to create a different sense of volume and shape by juxtaposing these different patterns and ideas.
Sarah: For your men’s collection for Spring/Summer 2011, the theme was “inside out.” I think you’ve always developed beautiful pieces from inside to outside. Has that been a consistent approach for you?
Abe: I think that approach of designing from the inside out ultimately comes from the fact that I believe that clothing is not art, but something that is meant to be enjoyed by wearing it. That’s why I pay attention to the inside of the garment.
Sarah: You’ve never done a full-on fashion show and have chosen to remain very discreet so you could build a strong business with retail shops first before going out to get press coverage. Is that part of the secret of your success?
Abe: Of course, to show one’s collection is very important, but I don’t want to do a show solely because that is what is expected. Every decision about the brand is made carefully. Since I started, I’ve been determined to express or show my collection in my own way, which may be different from what others may be doing. The fall collection was only my second presentation ever in the 10 years I’ve been in business. This time I chose a gallery space that was like a white box and used very strong lighting from one direction to enhance the dimensions and detailing of the clothes.
Sarah: Where do you look for inspiration?
Abe: I often get inspiration from my daily surroundings. They may derive from a small thing that I noticed or felt-even the most mundane. One example is thinking about people’s faces, what makes them interesting is that they are not symmetrical.
Sarah is the co-founder and creative director of the Paris-based boutique Colette.
Photos: (left) Sacai in Paris, March 2010. All clothing and accessories: Designer’s own. (right) All clothing: Sacai Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. Collar piece (at right): Stylist’s own. Hair products: Redken, including Glass Look 01. Hair: Brent Lawler for Cutler/Redken/Streeters. Makeup: Stevie Huynh/The Wall Group. Models: Bonnie Chen/Next, and Yvonne Mao Bin Si/Wilhelmina. Casting: Michelle Lee/KCD, Inc.
Sacai’s designer Chitose Abe is like a girl who can’t decide what to wear. Instead of piling on too many clothes, she simply selects what she likes, the back and sleeves of a cardigan and the sheer front of a chiffon blouse with pin tucks and covered buttons say, and turns them into one intriguing piece. A necklace for Abe might be a detached coat collar covered with a three-strand pearl choker. But more than just combining disparate pieces, Abe folds and twists so that her combinations seem to be blowing artfully in the wind. A longtime collaborator with Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, Abe has kept her brand quiet for eleven years and in that time she has managed to sell the world’s top stores (Dover Street Market, Barney’s Maxfields, Colette). Now the secret is out and we should be hearing a lot more from her in the future.