Tsumori Chisato – Fashion as Object as Art

Fashion and art frequently merge, but while painting, writing and music are (sometimes erroneously) considered primarily artistic concerns, fashion design arguably belongs to the commercial world (with architecture and graphic design). As Design Museum Director Alice Rawsthorn puts it, “[f]ashion has a practical purpose, whereas art does not.”


Tsumori Chisato forwards the notion of fashion/art collusion with a postmodern take on things; postmodernism is a great platform for marketing departments to begin selling clothing as art because postmodernist ideas, like marketing ideas can spring from anywhere.

Tsumori Chisato knows what looks great, has a variety of references (manga, pop culture, mainstream art) and wants to create clothes that she would like to wear and that are fun (and that – of course – sell). She has no intention of explaining herself beyond this.

Postmodernism influences not only the way she constructs and illustrates her clothes but is also a feature of the way they are verbally and visually promoted. In creation and promotion Tsumori keeps her references close historically (manga and pop culture, her own experiences) and her opinions simple – postmodern attributes.

Japanese art-forms that achieve recognition overseas are frequently the more democratic variants like kabuki and manga. This is partly because of the western fascination with these forms; the most visual and colourful genres are the ones which are easier to access by those who don’t read or write Japanese, and are then ascribed depth of meaning that may not be implied by the creator. 

In Tsumori’s designs we are not encouraged to search for deeper meaning. Inasmuch her clothes are perfect surface adornments, embodying the hyper-accentuated attention to immediacy and accessible visual stimuli that drives the perception of fashion as object as art.


The Evolution of a Fashion Designer (Chitose Abe of Sacai)

Fashion is not strictly a philosophy, although at times it has become a mirror of philosophical values (think Mormon costume) or has taken on a philosophical role as it (perhaps unwittingly) rides the times it dresses (Vivienne Westwood’s creations).

Neither do fashion’s practitioners speak philosophically. As much as the press and public have lauded designers as spokespeople of the 21st century (a role that has only recently been displaced by vloggers and influencers), designers themselves are often reticent – they let the clothes do the talking – speaking through their creations, committed to making and selling.

It’s journalists that weave the elaborate threads of a designer’s specific evolution and give weight to the artistic sensibilties.

But the philosophy of a designer, as hard as that might be to grasp through interviews, Look-books and the opinion of Vogue writers, is a valid concern because it takes fashion into the realms of design, into an understanding of what clothes design says about people and their outlook . And designers, although they don’t often say this, are very interested in these things.

Sacai Spring/Summer Ready to Wear Collection (2010-2018)

The Sacai Ready to Wear Collection has focused on the need to craft-ily alter classical forms either through dividing the lower and upper half of garments into seperate creations or by mixing utility, pattern and design. From the start, it has always been this intention to re-create (rather than to shock or expound) that is strongest. There is an element of handing the ‘idea of the idea’ to the consumer (‘you could do this too’) as well as providing a base from which the wearer can mix and match, layer or cover from the base concept laid about by Japanese designer Chisote Abe.

At this point, as a straight man, this principle is revelatory. Chitose Abe isn’t saying you have to break the mould or your purse strings to adhere to creative principles. Rather she’s taken established forms (jackets, tops, shirts) and utilized them sensibly but stylishly. This ‘hybridization’ is a characteristic Abe has become strongly associated with. 

By SS 2012 Sacai has upped the ante on the same theme by adding a third layer. Or one should say revealing the underlayer. This creates a sexual edge that is suffused by male tropes, subtle colouring complex patterns. The intense purple design below left is a motif Sacai would now incorporate going forward, particularly in militarized/psychedlic guise.

By 2013 and 2014 there is a continuation of the themes of layering (the asymetrical dress and jacket below left) of creations having ‘two faces’ by being different from top to bottom and/or front to back. 

What becomes increasingly evident at the London shows is the increase in utility (a mixture of masculine/feminine elements (bolder shoulders in the work-like jacket below left and work-like pinnifore below right ) that also reflects a friendlier price tag and (by 2014) a bolder, sharper colour scheme.

In 2015 – following a few seasons where her runway collections enabled her to truly make statements on signature style and motifs – lift-off: 

A fusion of those layered concepts and femine/masculine consolidation into a bold collection centred on elaborate florals or cut to miltary spec. 

2016 (below) is where – following that crystalization of said concepts – Sacai moves on to greater complexity and invention. One could argue this is Sacai’s most Japanese collection (Kimono-esque long dresses with Tiger/building images in various light colours) before seguing into higher contrast lengths. As with the previous year, boldness and complexity have increased


2017 is the most blatant exemplification of the codes and motifs of previous collections into a psychedelic appropriation of rock music costumes . You can see the reference to Abe’s early vision by returning to 2013. In Hendrix and prime Prince there was a strong militaristic reference that was evident in Sacai back in 2015.

2018 is a return to both themes (pop culture colour and militarization) but with a shift from complexity to bolder, shape-led concepts and increased volume layering. In essence, this is a look that is relatively simple to emulate if you purchase an Afghan military scarf online! This may be sacriligeous but it’s also part of Abe’s philosophy of hybridization and of using whatever you can (at whatever price-point) to feed into key concepts. Assymetrical patterns and angles held together by those ubiquitous belt straps are other Sacai traits revisted for 2019.


Korean designers making/breaking the mould

A growing economy and greater confidence on the world stage means Korean designers are making waves. The Korean ‘look’ is perhaps less well documented than that of its Japanese neighbour but those thinking Asian design can be categorized under a single Eastern umbrella are ignoring demographical differences between Korea, Japan and China. Korea – perhaps more (or more quickly) than Japan has re-centricized itself as a global fashion force without fuss or overt historical references.

Thus Korean consumers – many of them in their 20s and 30s, with money to burn and a social media sense that empowers the search for constant novelty  – want the best products from around the world; a fact that provides opportunity but challenges for those attempting to break a market where distribution is partly monopolized and trends change so quickly. 

From even the most conservative Korean designers, expect respect for market forces with a confidence to push the envelope. This is what consumers want. Welcome to the future of retail.


Eudon Choi

What can seem avante garde in Choi’s creations is – more fundamentally – a drive through primal colours and a modernist (read 1920s elegance) with an intelligent focus on the midsection – wide or slim belts; contrasting top and bottom colours, more belts that taper or hang loose that complement free-flowing colours and flaired trousers or tapered dresses.

Rejina Pyo

Where Pyo’s creations are conservative (the designer promotes a muted palette and promotes the individuation in the wearer’s interpretation and addition to her garments), they are fundamentally sensual in their simplicity. She often starts from the top down with wide shoulders, contrast in that area or trailing jackets to downplay any lower level radicalization or formal sensibilities below.

Gayeon Lee

For the designers A/W 2019 collection at London Fashion Week there were contrasting principles on show: a 1940s asthetic advocated long coats and long dresses in tweed or thick cotton that tended to arrest – even suppress – the  figure. This concept is aggrandized with parallel lines (and for this show stripes) that redifine the silhouette and ask questions about the body – whose is it, how do we perceive it?

Maxxi J

Part of a swaythe of young Korean designers with neither resource or recourse to bend to international demands. The 2019 A/W collection at Seoul Fashion Week speaks to a smart, statement-making youth with slick takes on the humble mackintosh, gigantic puff and long jackets over disassembled underclothes in either deadly serious or day glow colours. This all indicates just how seriously young Koreans take fashion and how designers have to be reflexive to quickly changing tastes.


5 western designers who sell in Japan

Jamie Wei Huang S/S 2018

In the west, we have an almost mythical relationship with – if not Japanese designers and trends – what we perceive to be a Japanese approach to style. This often has two strands: an appreciation of the historical and the Japanese focus on simplicity, appropriateness and elegance. Somewhat counter to this is our appreciation of a youth-oriented street scene that incorporates cyber-punk and anime and that forms a bridge between couture and the masses that we rarely see elsewhere.

But Japan – despite its separatist leanings during the Sakoku period, and a general conservatism a consequence of this history, character and religious orientation – has always borrowed from the west. Indeed the relationship is reciprocal, no more so than in the world of art and design since the post Sakoku period; we could cite Monet’s absorption of Japanse woodblock prints as an example of an ongoing familiarity between French and Japanese asthetics. Likewise the Japanese cyberpunk scene owes much visually – if not politically – to the punk movement of late seventies England in its apprehension and re-animating of formality.

Ultimately the relationship is a conservative one. Particularly in Japan and even modern Tokyo the sense and confidence to incorporate, even to have fun (in a foreign sense) remains a serious one made possible primarily because of one’s identity as Japanese, of the sense of communal identity and responsibility and the undertanding that where certain (unmentioned) rules abide, the ability to experiment within these rules – and to work extremely hard at it – is what characterises a true creative.

In couture we see a distillation of this sense where Japanese born designers have either moved beyond the domestic market having been educated and trained overseas before working in Europe. Interestingly the work of high-end designers like Mihara Yasuhiro, Hiroki Nakamura and Chitose Abe incorporate rich elements of their Japanese heritage into their design work as though this acknowledgement is central to their brands identity.

In the other direction, the Japanese (perhaps due to its economic strength and/or its artistic sensibilities) are keener connoisseurs of a sense of nationhood than even natives of that country; and while notions like ‘English gentleman’ may be conventionally wayward, they make many Japanese excellent proponents of good taste, as it is branded via foreign designers in multiple luxury department stores.

Years ago Japan was quietly mocked for having a penchant for expensive Swiss watches when it made outstanding timepies of its own. These days, accessories aside, the fashion-conscious individual (and there are a lot in Japan, moreso than in the UK where real fashion only exists within University campuses or a W1 postcode because Japanese women particularly have the purse and figure to wear it, as well as that forementioned artistic slant) will wear Japanese or foreign designers. A key to what they’re looking for can be found in the designs of the following five westerners, all of whom showed at LFW this summer, all of whom stock in Tokyo.

Rejina Pyo

Stocked at Isetan and other Japanese department stores.

Seoul-born Pyo’s collection ‘explores dressing as an everyday phenomenon’ with often dual-layered designs that appear full-bodied but versatile based on a fairly neutered colour scheme. Matt browns and yellows give a sense of endurance that the designer seeks to embrace. A little muted turquoise or mustard emphasize this earthiness but also hint at the possibility of individuation.

Bora Aksu

Stocked at Beams Japan and other stores.

The Turkish born designers A/W 2019 collection brings to mind the kind of snow-bound mystical animals that would appear to young Japanese (think a tapered-down writtenafterwards). Aksu is more interested in single-colour concepts – long dresses emphasized with a tapered border or strap that hints at youth before retracting into more conventional jackets and knit tops


Stocked at Isetan, Beams and other Japanese stores. I covered designer Yasuko Furuta for the Japan Times in 2009. She has always had something for bold, after-navy blue. There is a masculinity about her creations, as though she’s less interested in the female form (and certainly not in frivolity) but in intentions and futures solidly crafted.

Jamie Wei Huang

Stocked at Beams Tokyo and other stores. The London based designer appears inspired – on first look – by the aforementioned Chitose Abe school of thought – cuts of statement herringbone or tartan and asymmetrical shards of cloth that accentuate the adherence to/break with formality mentioned previously in this article. A/W 2019 emphasized bagginess; a kind of embracing of patchwork qualities that possibly mirror the designer’s approach.

Jordan Luca

Stocked at GR8 Tokyo. Paradoxically clearly Italian and yet wearing hard core cyberpunk (literally) on its sleeve. Primarily leisure-oriented, the A/W 2019 collection takes an almost reconstructionist slant on the male form before breaking it back down again with minimal shorts and tops.