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Conversations: Chitose Abe & The Key To Sacai’s Winning Formula

She'd rather make wearable clothes than "walking art installations", thank you very much. Here, we go one-on-one with the acclaimed Japanese designer.

A Sacai show is one that is always exhilarating to watch. No, there are no elaborate show sets or long, star-studded guest lists to speak of. At the achingly cool Sacai, theatricality is solely the responsibility of the clothes. No tricks, no distractions – just a slew of really great looks by creative director and founder, Chitose Abe.

While Sacai – named after Abe’s maiden name, Sakai – has been around for close to two decades, it only made its Paris debut in 2011. Five years on and the Japanese label has risen to become one of the most talked-about shows at Paris Fashion Week, a remarkable feat considering the foreign terrain and the city’s own storied fashion houses.

On the international stage, Japanese designers set the standard for what it means to test the waters and push the boundaries of fashion. Abe and her signature hybrid clothing – we like to call them “Franken-clothing” – are no different. Is that a trench coat, bomber jacket, sweater or shearling? At Sacai, it is all. Abe’s ability goes beyond the reinvention of classics. A dress from Spring/Summer 2017, for example, is a tank top, parka and striped shirt all fused into one. How badly do we want it for ourselves, you ask? Bad. Very, very bad.

Yet, while she pursues uniqueness, Abe never forgets that, at the end of the day, people need clothes that they can actually wear. It can look like nothing you’ve ever seen, but if it can’t be worn, Abe is not interested. It is this balance that marks Sacai’s triumph, season after season. Here, the Japanese designer answers questions about beginnings, the present and a possible future.

Hybrid clothing is a signature of yours. How did it first come about?
When I was looking after my little daughter after I left Comme Des Garçons, I realised I always wore basic and classic clothes such as knit sweaters, t-shirts or jeans. I thought I wanted to make something unique yet comfortable, then the idea of the hybrid to transform the pieces into unexpected shapes and silhouettes came to mind.


What is the starting point of your collections?
I start the collection with fabrics. By knowing more about the fabric – whether it is soft or hard, for example – I gradually decide the abstract image of the whole collection.


What would you say is your design philosophy? You mix a lot of things together in a collection. How do you ensure that it doesn’t become too much of a good thing?
Sacai is a collection of items that can transit easily thought a single day’s activities, not just reserved for special occasions. I try to make something unique which you can’t find anywhere else, but at the same time, I carefully seek the best balance of the elements of surprise and stability in my collections. I think that’s the reason why each piece stays really Sacai.


There are many famous Japanese designers who have broken into the international market. How does Sacai differentiate itself from the rest?
Out of all the vast amount of clothes being made nowadays, I think that Sacai needs to be true to Sacai. Rather than making clothes that leave a visual impact, I think that our designs are a result of this quest to make something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. On that basis, I think the balance is very important. I create something original that doesn’t exist anywhere else, but even if something is incredibly flashy and impactful, I wouldn’t be happy if people couldn’t wear my clothes in town, on the streets. Clothes are not walking art installations. Clothes should be something worn. I want to make clothes that make women look beautiful, that make women feel good when they wear them, that make women happy and confident. I don’t really think about just wanting to make impactful clothes.


Let’s talk about the Spring/Summer 2017 collection. What’s the story this season?
I applied Sacai’s hybrid aesthetic to a series of “all-in-one” looks inspired by pop culture characters, known not only for their idiosyncratic, distinctive personal style, but also for their game changing ideology in each of their respective oeuvres.


How do you keep things fresh, collection after collection? 
My inspiration comes from my daily life in Tokyo and the things I experience. If my team and I were not based in Tokyo, I don’t think we would come up with the same designs that we currently do.


You own your own brand and you’re your own boss. Was it difficult getting to where you are today as a designer and a businesswoman?
Of course. I had many challenges. But I’ve always enjoyed trying new things in my way. Luckily, I have many talented people who sympathise with me and support my creation and business. I believe I have to thank all of them for bringing me to where I am today.


You started your business close to 20 years ago. Have you always wanted to work in fashion?
When I was an elementary student, I got to know of fashion designing as an occupation through a TV commercial. Since then, I had dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. I’ve never once even considered doing something else.


Do you consider yourself to be a rebel?
I don’t know. But in a sense, I always seek for surprising elements, I would answer yes.


There are a lot of changes happening in the fashion industry now, and creative directors seem to change every few years. If you were asked to head a big brand, would you do it?
I enjoy being independent for now. I think there are a lot of things I can do because I am my own boss. If I were just a hired designer, I might have to try to cut down on waste. Now, I can try anything when some good idea hits my mind. Even if it resulted in nothing eventually, it’s fine for me. I can say, “Don’t worry, I’ll take the responsibility” to my team members because this is my own brand and business.


What advice do you have for young people who want to start their own label and someday take it to the international audience?
Keep working hard. No excuse.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more interviews like this, click here.

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