The notoriously private fashion designer Akira Isogawa opens up his studio and reveals a rare insight into his life and past.
By Helen O'Neill
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It is perfect Sydney beach weather and a public holiday but Akira Isogawa is working. The celebrated Japanese-born designer is in his creative headquarters, a former factory in the inner west suburb of Marrickville, and he has a lot going on.
Downstairs, seamstresses are breathing life into his latest fashion range, a vivid collection which will premiere on the catwalk of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia on May 17. Upstairs, curators from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences have been sifting through the hundreds of garments that make up Isogawas archives. The museum plans to host a December exhibition, and publish a book, to celebrate the designers retail milestone of 25 years.
Amidst this and the roar of planes (we are under the Sydney Airport flight path), Isogawa is doing his best to concentrate on our interview – a discussion about his life, work and what its like being eternally surrounded by fragments of beauty. Suddenly, it sounds as though heavy rain is hitting the steel door of his warehouse.
“Someone is weeing,” the 53-year-old says with an apologetic giggle. A nearby building hosts dance parties and when hes working late, which is not uncommon, “this sort of activity happens all the time”.
Isogawas new fashion range is based on prints from 1980s vintage textiles, which seems to slightly surprise him: “I never thought 80s was old enough to be vintage really because if you lived the 80s, does that make you vintage too?”
His concept revolves around a girl marooned on a tropical island who is “a bit dishevelled … all the clothes that she is wearing are a little faded”. Her garments are beautiful and she is stylish, accessorised in edgy adornments such as ear-cuffs, handcuffs and rings fashioned from silver and pearls – a new jewellery collection Isogawa created with Sydney designer Jan Logan. But fashion is not on the girls mind.
“She is thinking how is she going to survive?” Isogawa says, pinpointing “a sense of survival [in] the current mood, generally speaking”. “And being in business for so long … I feel, My God, I survived.”
In fact, since Isogawa arrived in Sydney from his birth city of Kyoto in 1986, he has done much more than that. He studied design at East Sydney Tech and in 1993 opened his first boutique (which he quietly closed last year) in Woollahra. Three years later he showed at the inaugural Australian fashion week. By 1998 he had hit Paris and was presenting twice-yearly collections on the international scene.
He branched into costume design (think Sydney Dance and the Australian Ballet) and homewares (such as designer rugs) and attracted accolades (one of which saw him in 2007 crowned Australias first Fashion Laureate) and attention from cultural institutions. Exhibitions took place everywhere from the National Gallery of Victoria to Sydneys Museum of Contemporary Art and, thanks to Australia Posts 2005 Australian Legends series, he even appeared on a stamp.
How all this happened is intriguing given that high fashion is a landscape of peacock provocateurs. Yet Isogawa comes across as ego-free, only mildly engaged by social media and relatively uninterested in trends. His beautifully crafted designs are timeless and his approach unusual. As he puts it: “A garment can transcend, giving it a soul.”
Stories swirl around him. Of the fashionista who has every Akira garment she buys copied, so she can wear the replicas and archive the originals. Of the early catwalk show when Isogawa realised he couldnt afford shoes so he dressed all his models in bright red socks. Of the later show, when he uncharacteristically lingered on the catwalk, apparently lapping up the applause. To some, it seemed Isogawa was finally accepting acclaim rather than hiding. In fact, he had almost broken his leg the night before and was in such pain he couldnt walk away.
Isogawa doesnt do things the easy way. He has long-time creative collaborators (key among them stylist Kelvin Harries and artist Christiane Lehmann) but no business partner, and there is evidence of strain. When asked if he owns this warehouse, he responds by saying, “Its mortgaged”, laughingly putting both hands to his throat as though he is throttling himself, and adding, “Yeah. So. Thats how it is right now.”
Nonetheless, “in terms of the vision … there is no compromising or surrendering. Those words do not exist.”
It helps that Isogawa needs only five hours sleep a night and possesses a formidable work ethic, something he puts down to his upbringing. Although he draws the line at discussing his personal life, about which he will say no more than that he has a partner and lives in Sydneys Surry Hills, he is happy to rake over the past. As he does so, another theme emerges – that of being an outsider.
Isogawa was born on December 25, 1964 into a Kyoto family where tradition was everything, discipline was high, expectations were fierce and much remained unsaid. Isogawas mother, Tomiko, never talked about the fact that her own mother, the long-term mistress of a rich businessman who lost her home when her lover died, adopted out Tomiko at the age of four.
Isogawas father, Hisao, belonged to a clan that was profoundly protective of its bloodline. Isogawas had lived in the same location for hundreds of years but male heirs were in short supply. The birth of Akiras brother, Takeshi, in 1960 was “a big deal”, marking the first child of its generation who could carry on the family line.
“I remember seeing pictures of my grandmother holding him at a Shinto shrine and blessing him,” says the designer who recalls realising there was no such photograph of him.
“I dont think they bothered,” he says. “It would have cost them a lot of money to do that so they would have kept a record of it. But I couldnt find it, so they didnt do it.” He shakes his head. “They didnt do it.”
Neither Takeshi nor Akira were what their parents expected. The young Takeshi was violent and disruptive so by the time the introverted Akira was born their mother had quit her job in the Japanese bureaucracy to spend more time at home. She started a home-based drycleaning business, and Akira grew up surrounded by kimonos, refusing to do sport and spending his time drawing.
“Since I was little, I knew I didnt fit in,” he says. “I remember being told by my brother when I was in primary school, You are strange, really strange … He told me, Do you know you are not part of our family? You were found under the bridge.”
His father was “quite absent … he always worked,” Isogawa says. “Hed often come home at midnight or 1am … often really drunk. One night I got up and I went to the bathroom, it could have been two in the morning and he was sleeping in the hallway. I thought he was dead.”
High school did nothing to alleviate the sense of entrapment. One of the cleverest boys committed suicide by jumping from a school window.
“He always had the best mark, we couldnt believe it,” says the designer. “But he would have [been under] an enormous amount of pressure.”
The teenage Isogawa became enamoured by designer clothes (walking into Kyotos Comme des Garcons store proved pivotal) and rebelling. By 20 he was working as a waiter in a karaoke bar, desperate to get away.
He arrived in Sydney on a working holiday in February 1986 with little money and no English. He quickly discovered the Recreational Arts Team, an eclectic group now credited as pioneers of Sydneys dance party culture, and started designing costumes for their so-called RAT parties. Some of those he met then remain friends to this day.
In 1987 he briefly returned to Kyoto and realised “I wont survive there”.
Fashion journalist Marion Hume discovered his work 10 years later, shortly after she arrived in Sydney from London to edit Vogue Australia. Hume put supermodel Naomi Campbell in a beautiful red Akira dress, had the image shot by top international photographer Peter Lindberg and ran it on her new magazines cover.
“It was a turning point in my career, it exposed me to the world stage,” says Isogawa. “I find that is more unbelievable than when I think about that than what is happening now.”
Says Hume: “I chose him because I saw talent, originality, a sense of history in the beautiful fabric, modernity in the shape of the dress.” She remains a steadfast champion, describing him as “the ultimate ethical designer in that he makes everything to last as long as Kyoto”, a practitioner who is “an artist” who continually experiments, who is “not remotely motivated by money” and whose work has “enormous integrity”.
“He cares about women,” she says. “Notions of size or age or cool dont even enter his head … [and] I think people miss how funny he is.” He is also, in her mind, “loyal and grateful”. She cites what happened two years ago when the British fashion retail pioneer Joan Burstein, known in the business as “Mrs B”, turned 90.
“Akira had no time and he never has much money,” Hume says. “He flew in economy to London, arrived at ours about 10am, was out all day, went to the party at Claridges, danced all night, slept about three hours on our daybed and flew back to Sydney.”
Burstein helped launch in the UK designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Donna Karan, and had also supported Isogawa, who had once created a wedding dress for her granddaughter.
Bridal gowns remain an important part of his business. He has created dresses in “black, purple, red, pale pink, all sorts of colours … we get enquiries almost every day”.
“The best customer is really the one that [has been] married already and got divorced … because they dont bring any friends or family,” he adds. “Also she is more confident. The second marriage is best to dress, not the first. The first is too big a deal.”
He laughs again: “I like alternative brides, second marriage or pregnant. They are the most pleasant brides you can imagine. Its true.”
True, too, is that Isogawa is at peace with his family. His mothers death from cancer in 2002 was a watershed moment and he maintains in regular contact with his brother and his 87-year-old father, stating, “in fact we are now close”.
Isogawa wants to get back to work but politely tries to articulate what it is that keeps him going.
“Thats an interesting question which I dont normally ask myself,” he says. “Its a bit like … What is the meaning of life?”
He bursts into yet another round of giggles: “Too deep. Why do I continue doing it? I feel, actually, why do you keep breathing. It is just what I do.
“I cannot see any other way.”
Akira Isogawa will show his latest collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Carriageworks, on May 17. A retrospective of his work opens at the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo later this year.
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