The Sacai Century
Tiffany Godoy Visits the Studio of Chitose Abe, a Designer Who Reflects “the Multidimensionality of Women”
- Interview: Tiffany Godoy
- Photography: Motohiko Hasui
Chitose Abe’s world is one of intuitive balance, and this outlook has served her well. Over the last few years her Sacai shows have become Paris Fashion Week must-sees, her clothing a staple of striking, off-beat, 21st century femininity. Her design language is complex and sophisticated, reflecting, as she puts it, “the multidimensionality of modern women.” She has just launched a new line of bags, and earlier this year her menswear line made its runway debut.
Her list of collaborators is large and ever-growing, from established names like Nike and Tatami by Birkenstock to budding cult labels like Ambush and Hender Scheme. The story behind Sacai actually starts back in 1999, when Abe had just launched the label as a knitwear brand. It was around this time that we first met. 18 years later, Sacai has come a long way, but Abe’s work is far from over. Abe welcomed me into her Aoyama offices and shared her formula for balancing art and commerce. In true Tokyo style, she greeted us with gusto despite recovering from a late night out.
When did you first discover fashion? Have you always wanted to dress well, even when you were young?
I really hate looking the same as someone else. Bellbottoms were the big thing when I was in elementary school. I thought that was really boring and had my mom take in the legs on all my bellbottoms to make them slim. When I wore them to school, my friends in class copied me and had their moms make the same. I got angry and said, “I’m going home!” [Laughs] Even when it came to hairstyles, I would do my hair in strange ways and my friends would start to do the same. I couldn’t forgive that kind of thing. It made me want to scream. I was always saying, “I’m leaving, I hate it!” and would stomp home. I’m not super passionate in such an emotional way now. It strikes me as silly when I look back on it.
Where did you get your inspirations? From magazines?
From magazines and TV. I’d style everything my own way. At school, we had to wear hats during PE class, but I couldn’t wear the hat with my hair done, and I’d refuse to take the braids out, so my mom would get super mad at me. Apparently this was a recurring thing.
Hardcore fashion babe.
[Laughs] Totally! I think I’ve calmed down now.
What was your next phase? Did you want to study fashion?
When I was in 5th grade, I would see Issey Miyake introduced on a TV commercial as a fashion designer and had this epiphany, “Wow, being a fashion designer can be someone’s job!” That became my dream from then on. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve never once even considered doing something else.
Did you study design at Bunka Fashion College?
No, but I wanted to go to Bunka. I’m from Gifu, above Nagoya on the map.
In the countryside.
It’s extremely countryside. My parents wouldn’t let me go to Tokyo, and the train to my school in Nagoya took two hours. But I still commuted each way for three years. I really wanted to move to Toyko, but was told that it was out of the question. Evidently my parents thought I would give up, but of course I didn’t.
How did you dress then?
At that point Vivienne Westwood was popular, so, you get the picture.
Platform shoes, of course, right?
Right. I was pretty famous in town for being this bizarre girl. Everyone was taken aback and didn’t know what to make of me. My family, and in particular my mom, didn’t want to walk with me when we were out running errands and things. She apologizes to me now for it.
I only do what I do because it’s truly necessary.
What was your dream back then?
After graduating from design school, I did a very ordinary thing and found a job with a large apparel company. Back then, rather than going to work for a designer brand, you were considered more elite if you were hired by a big company, and it was good for the school, too. I didn’t know any better back then. There was a Comme des Garçons nearby the office. At lunchtime, I’d longingly watch the people with their white collared shirts, black pants, and bob haircuts coming down Kotto Dori at noon, and I wanted to work for Comme. I quit my job after about a year.
And then you went to Comme des Garçons. What was the number one thing you learned there?
The most important lesson I learned was that I wasn’t just working for any other brand. How can I put it? At Comme des Garçons, my existence wasn’t dictated, I didn’t have to do this or that, or be the same as anyone else. You understand, right?
It was about an original perspective or talent.
Yes! It was about being an original. Another thing was business. Fashion is business, and I learned how to strike a balance between business and creative. I think that might be the biggest lesson that has stuck with me throughout the years.
When did you feel it was the right time to make your own brand?
I was having a great time working at Comme des Garçons but then I became pregnant. I felt that after having a child I wouldn’t be able to work the same way at any company so I left. At that point I wasn’t thinking about starting my own brand. I ostensibly quit in order to raise my daughter, but once I had quit, I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being a stay-at-home mom. Of course, I loved my daughter, but I felt isolated. Then my husband said, “Look, you used to be in this world of Paris Fashion Week, where hundreds of designers trot out hundreds of pieces. If you, by yourself, were able to make maybe only three or five pieces, only a few pieces but ones that are very special and your own, maybe someone will notice and give you the validation you need.” I thought, “Oh, he’s right.” I really did make only five pieces. Even so, this ambition to make something special is how it all started.
I want to become resolute. Firm and unshakeable.
I first discovered Sacai right at the beginning, about 18 years ago. They were knits that just looked interesting, even if you folded them up.
Wow, so nostalgic! Something interesting about our pieces is that they’re difficult to fold, right? I really enjoy that. I don’t think those kinds of knits existed at the time. Now, there’s a ton of hybrid knits and other clothes, but at that time, knits were nothing more than knits. I was really only thinking about creating unique pieces, even when I first went overseas.
That’s right. You’ve done your research. Even at that time, I was able to get my pieces into some of the stores that I wanted, so the next step was a nebulous interest in expanding the distribution routes. I wasn’t hellbent on getting my line to Paris Fashion Week or anything like that. From the beginning, I wanted to break away from the cliché, from the preconceived notions in fashion. I wanted my brand to make people think, “Oh, there’s a different approach!” I was very small. Typically when you have a little traction you make a store, then a bag, then a fragrance, or go to Paris. I wanted to reject that progression and instead do things my own unique way. Well, I still feel that way today. I hate that kind of “everyone else is doing it so I’ll do it, too” kind of mentality. I only do what I do because it’s truly necessary.
Speaking of hybridity, I think that Sacai is feminine but strong enough that you can wear one look from morning to night without having to go home to change. I think that you were able to capture women’s hearts because you have a profound understanding of the lives of women today.
Yes, but I think that’s because I might be the same. I’m not making these clothes because I am a psychic and understand how everyone feels, but rather because I am the same way, and there are people who connect and can share in what I make. Fundamentally, I make the clothes that I want to wear. No matter how fresh and innovative a design may be, I ask myself whether I would wear it when going about my day in the city, and if the answer is no, then I won’t make the piece. As a result, Sacai’s clothes might seem unrealistic to someone uninvolved in fashion, yet the clothes are very realistic for me. I’ve always thought that a collection is a balance of betrayal and stability. Stability is adhering to the Sacai style, and betrayal is an element of surprise.
Are you the type of person who gets bored with something easily?
No! Not at all! I never give up easily. I’m a very serious person. [Laughs] I’m very diligent and spend a lot of time thinking about things, so even though my decisions are informed by instinct, I don’t skip from one project to the next.
So, what is the next step? How do you feel right now?
I feel there is less that should be changed. I now care less about whether the editor of a famous magazine comes to my show or not. What do I want to do next? What kind of vision do I want to see in the future? I honestly don’t know yet. I guess I’m searching for that now. If this were five years ago, I would have said that I want to be seen by more and more people, that I want to make my brand bigger. Now, I’m more interested in becoming more authentic. I’m not an imposter now or anything like that, it’s just that I want to become more and more real. It’s hard to articulate. “Authentic” might not be the right word. I want to become resolute. Firm and unshakeable.
Earlier, you said that you wanted to make the kinds of things that only Sacai can make. What do you want people outside of the brand to feel regarding Sacai? At the end of the day, Chanel has a certain identity as a brand. What about Sacai?
I’m still in the process of creating it. As I said earlier, the only thing I was thinking about was that I wanted to succeed in a way different from everyone else. Would it be haughty of me to say that I want to be respected? I want to be distinctive. I want people to think, “Oh, I like the way Sacai does things.” “It’s possible to succeed by doing things that way.” If there are any young people out there who feel that they can’t start something on their own because they don’t have any money in the early stages, I think they might be off the mark. I want them to look to me as an example of another way to go about things, both the creative and the business elements. I’m not yet 100% there. In order to reach that level of existence, there is still a lot of work left, a lot of play left.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to go out drinking. I wonder if maybe it’s time for me to grow up and start acting my age, but I sometimes even party all night. But these activities bring me a chance to meet new people. It’s good to get out and see new things rather than staying behind this desk all day. I’m also making an effort to travel abroad as much as possible. Nowadays, you can see everything on Google maps, right? There’s a ton of information. But you can’t truly understand a place until you go there and see for yourself. I really learn a lot from the feel of a town, the lifestyle pace, the women.
What was the most important point in your career up until now?
When I went to Paris. It wasn’t for a show, but rather when I went to Paris for sales and met good clients. We really go back. It’s been a long time, and my relationships with them still continue to this day. I think that would have to be the first point. Then of course when I did the show, but more importantly when I met Karl Templer.
What did you learn?
Karl taught me that my sensibilities as someone from the East are a tad different than those of people abroad. The question in an eight minute fashion show was: “How was I going to express myself? What message do I want the guests to take home?” After all, they see a lot of shows, so they don’t remember every tiny detail from each one. But it’s the air, the atmosphere, the music. Making quality clothes is a given.
I’ve always thought that a collection is a balance of betrayal and stability.
- Interview: Tiffany Godoy
- Photography: Motohiko Hasui