Chitose Abe of Sacai: Fashion that deconstructs the familiar, intrigues the eye

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

PARIS — The Japanese designer Chitose Abe begins crafting a garment by ripping another one apart. She sometimes starts with a leather biker jacket, a canvas military bomber or perhaps a wool car coat. In her hands, each is little more than a toile — a version of a garment in its infancy, something still being considered. Abe deconstructs it, lowering the waist or shifting the position of the shoulder or hacking off the entire back panel and replacing it with a block of shaggy teddy-bear fur.

Abe doesn't sketch. That's far too sedate an activity for someone who is unabashed in her desire to demolish and rebuild. Her philosophy is simple but daunting. "It's about taking something familiar and making it into something unfamiliar," Abe says.

Her label is called Sacai, a play on her maiden name, Sakai, which rhymes with "sigh," and her clothes — beautiful, delightful, bold — are the result of aesthetic grafting. From the front, a woman wearing one of her garments looks as though she's slipped into a simple cotton shirtdress, but the back view suggests that it's actually an oversize sweatshirt pulled low over a lace skirt. So is she wearing three pieces or two? Or just one? Abe enjoys tricking the eye with clothes that make an observer strain to suss out the reality. Which begs the question: Why does it matter? The answer: Because clothes provide a shorthand declaration of a person's public identity. Abe makes understanding that identity a more complicated and engaging proposition.

Abe doesn't indulge in these tricks because she's an impish tease or a self-absorbed artist. She's a focused and successful entrepreneur who owns her company and answers only to herself. She is part of a grand lineage of Japan-born designers whose urbane, non-Western ideas wield global influence. And she is a working mother, aiming to create clothes that make sense for a wide swath of women — who she hopes will slip into her garments "and feel powerful and comfortable and confident."

Her work is born of a desire "to do something different and fun and not always elegant" — at least not in the traditional girly sense. "A lot of the pieces come from menswear," Abe explains. "They're things that have been spliced together." There are activewear references, military flourishes, Yeti allusions and a hint of the rebellious flower child.

Her clothes, which range from $400 for a mixed-media T-shirt to well over $4,000 for a lace-paneled coat, have found an audience among fashion aficionados, Washington locals, Grammy-winning musicians and stylish women west of the Mississippi. Even first lady Michelle Obama has worn a Sacai belt. Abe's work sells.

"People love the classic yet updated look. They love the quirkiness," says Nancy Pearlstein, owner of Georgetown's Relish. "And they love the ease of it."

And the clothes work for a multitude of occasions. "These clothes have gone to the grocery store, to a board meeting, to a TED talk," Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman says. "It runs the gamut."

When the White House celebrates Japan's economy, history and culture with a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, fashion will be in the spotlight — not least because Obama typically chooses a gown with the honored country in mind. Chitose Abe (pronounced Chee-TOH-say AH-bay and no relation to the prime minister) is one of dozens of Japanese designers who present their collections in Paris, the fashion industry's most international stage.

It is dangerous to generalize based on national origin, and certainly, Japanese designers who show collections to a global audience offer a variety of sensibilities, from the haute couture-influenced tailoring of Yohji Yamamoto to the street-inspired classicism of Undercover's Jun Takahashi.

Yet as a group, Japanese designers bring a less trend-driven approach to design. They offer a non-Western relationship to the female form, steering clear of overt Hollywood sex appeal and sexual provocation.

"The Japanese are very good at taking English classic tailoring and making it new and innovative, whether with the fabric or the design. They do it in a fabulous way; no one can touch them," Pearlstein says. "My eye is immediately drawn to it. I need that foundation of the past — otherwise (a design) just looks too way out."

Abe's bomber jacket "is a very classic thing. She adds an underpinning that's quilted. She uses colors that are saturated but understated," as well as a cloud of fur attached to the collar, Pearlstein notes. "But, somehow, it all works."

Japanese designers began showing their work in Paris in the 1950s. One of the earliest was Hanae Mori. Kenzo Takada made a name for himself in the 1970s with the vivid floral patterns in his Kenzo brand, now owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and designed by Americans Humberto Leon and Carol Lim.

The 1980s brought the most influential wave of Japanese designers. Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo upended the traditions of Western dress with an approach to fashion that does not always regard beauty as the end goal. Kawakubo, in particular, emphasizes the personal space that surrounds the body, not merely the body itself. In her hands, black was no longer the color of mourning, rebellion and practicality, but a uniform of edgy chic. She shredded knitwear and called the tatters lace. Today, her clothes entertain the mind as much as — perhaps even more than — the eye.

Kawakubo's collections often deal with subjects such as loss, homelessness and independence. Her work has caused more than one observer to wonder how a business that trades in dresses with stitched-in humps, coils and protrusions could survive — let alone thrive.

But while Kawakubo might create conceptual fashion, the Comme des Garçons business is not theoretical. The clothes — from the flagship collection to T-shirts and sneakers — pull in revenue of $200 million annually. Desirée Rogers, the former White House social secretary, wore a Comme des Garçons gown to her first — and only — state dinner. It was an evocative ivory dress pressed behind a scrim of pale peach netting and adorned with pearls. So far, it has been the most avant-garde gown ever worn to such an auspicious event by someone representing official Washington.

Comme des Garçons is also an incubator that has nurtured an influential generation of Japanese designers. Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara of Tao and Noir's Kei Ninomiya all worked with Kawakubo and went on to launch signature collections under the umbrella of the Comme des Garçons brand. And Abe stepped down from a more senior role as a designer at another company in Japan for the opportunity to serve as a pattern-cutter for Kawakubo.

In contrast, apprenticeships are anathema for the rising generation of American designers in an impatient, entrepreneurial culture. Most want to hang a shingle immediately after graduating design school. But Comme des Garçons still cultivates the benefits of standing alongside a master for as long as five to seven years.

"Training under someone like Rei is a gift. It's like learning under Michelangelo," says Goldman, the Chicago retailer. "She's capable of pulling out the best and challenging (assistants), and they have become the extraordinary designers we see now. She makes them find their voice."

At Comme des Garçons, Abe was educated in the importance of "creating original clothes, of doing things that have never been done before." Abe pointedly does not try to mimic her teacher. "If you're really going to believe in originality," she says, "what's the point of doing something that's just what Comme des Garçons would do?"

After almost a decade, Abe left Comme des Garcons in 1996. She'd gotten married and had a daughter. She founded her business in 1999 out of her home in Tokyo with five pieces of knitwear — the easiest entry-point for the stay-at-home mother.

"I wasn't planning long-term. I was just being a mom and raising a child," Abe says. "I just wanted to create something."

The collection grew, and she brought her clothes to Paris in 2010; mostly, the media didn't notice. She put the clothes on the runway in 2012; her reputation began to soar.

Abe, 49, is petite with thick, cascading black hair. She has an elegant, lineless face with wide-set eyes and a resting expression of intensity. She does not speak much English and describes her life and work with the help of a publicist who translates. Abe is a terrific representative for her clothes: Her behemoth coats with insets of thick fur look just as good on someone of her modest height as they do on her elongated, bird-like models.

Abe doesn't think her collection is distinctive to Japan so much as to a hectic, urban existence — life in Tokyo but also Washington, London or Paris. "You dress for work and take the train to work, and you don't have time to change for every function," Abe says. "I wanted to create clothes to be worn on any occasion." She wanted clothes that defy categorization. Not little black dresses or day-to-evening suits or glorified yoga pants, but something new.

"The clothes are intuitive. I can't explain what's right or wrong about them. Of course, I look at the balance sheet, but it shouldn't be about the balance sheet, it's about what works and what doesn't," she says. "If something doesn't sell, it's my fault."

Perhaps most important to the aesthetics of her brand is Abe's independence — a business lesson she took from Comme des Garçons. While other designers of her generation seem in constant pursuit of investors and collaborators, Abe has steered clear of partners. "I didn't want to be told that something's not good for sales."

On the day after her fall 2015 fashion show in March, retailers descended on Abe's temporary Paris showroom on Rue du Mail to make their selections for the coming season. Sacai has grown significantly since those first five pieces to include audacious runway showstoppers as well as simpler garments that hang in the showroom.

"If you have a PTA meeting, you can still wear Sacai," she says. There's a secondary line, menswear and a flagship store in Tokyo, too. Annual sales have been reported at $25 million, although the privately held company doesn't comment on revenue.

The collection isn't finished. It never is. Abe continues to evaluate each piece, adjusting the fit, perhaps adding a zipper to make a coat more practical or a dress easier to slip into. One season informs the next.

Her admirers are numerous. On a wooden table off to the side, there's a glass vase filled with dozens of flawless, long-stemmed white roses — a congratulatory gesture from Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. And her influence has trickled down to everyone from J. Crew to Anthropologie. This low-key designer, based in Tokyo, wanted her unique voice to be heard. At last, she's got folks listening.

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