“As a designer, I want to make things that are emotionally or spiritually connected to people.”
Akira Isogawa is with a doubt one of Australia’s most respected and celebrated fashion designers of our time.
The rich tapestry of his work embraces a deep sense of the cultural and the historic, from his devotion and implementation of antique kimonos and embroidery into modern-day designs to the poetic creation of billowing ethereal silhouettes and his regular subtle nods to punk.
His creations are enchanting, unique and utterly unmistakable.
Isogawa has deservedly scored various Fashion Industry Awards since 1999 including the Australian Fashion Laureate Award for his contribution to the Australian Fashion Industry. In 2005 he was honoured by Australia post and his image appeared on an Australian Legend Commemorative Postage Stamp. The dance and art worlds have also welcomed him with open arms with exhibitions celebrating his work and intricate techniques at The National Gallery of Victoria (Printemps Eté which later toured Singapore, Manila and Bangkok), Sydney Festival, Object Gallery, The Powerhouse Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1998 he began designing for The Sydney Dance Company in various projects and in 2011 joined forces with The Australian Ballet designing the costumes for the ultimate love story Romeo and Juliet. This magnificent stage production was driven by the highly acclaimed choreographer Graeme Murphy AO.
I’ve never been a keen follower of fashion per se. My laziness dictates that I find it extremely difficult to keep up with the lightning speed that it all changes. I find it all so exhausting, not to mention expensive. I’d sooner spend my cash on long Sunday lunches out with loved ones than a pair of heels that I can’t walk in. The abundance of style ‘experts’ on television and their relentless advice on what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ lead me to instantaneously yawn and the fact that so many people want to all look exactly the same I find mystifying, to say the least.
Unfortunately finding an Isogawa piece in any of the numerous, upmarket pre-loved designer boutiques or savvy charity shops scattered across Sydney would be as rare as stumbling across rocking horse manure for your roses. I know because I’ve checked them all. A lot.
Isogawa’s work stands out from the crowd and herds alike. I have always associated his creations with the thinking women of the world, the chicks that think outside the box, and the ladies who yearn for an effortless ebb and flow in their lives as well as their wardrobes. No matter what type of Isogawa fan you are, you are certainly wise enough not to ever part with your treasures.
His most memorable catwalk collections are like wearable works of art, draped majestically in Japanese history, boldly framed in modern culture and float romantically between delicate and dreamy to explosive bombs of vibrant colour. Whichever way you swing with Isogawa his pieces remain true. If there is a heaven up there I want it to look like this.
The Isogawa fashion HQ is situated in an industrial and unattractive back-end enclave of Sydney. It’s basic brick exterior is covered in amateur graffiti, even the overflowing recycling bins are tagged as they sit bursting with rejected junk. This is not what I imagined at all. Now that my time with this man is done though it is exactly what I’d expect. There is no ego here, no delusions of grandeur and no air of banal superiority over anybody. It is simply a place of work and a hub of creativity.
The atmosphere is industrious and silent when I fall through the door with Toby (photographer) close behind. Our entrance is almost pantomime-like and comes with a rush of nervousness and overly loud apologies for lateness. The staff look up and smile but swiftly return to their work, their focus is clearly all-consuming and a lot more interesting than any visitor that can’t even work out the weight of the door.
Isogawa quietly walks up to Toby and I with a shy and welcoming smile. He has a cold, and I’m worried that he’s already lost interest due to the clock ticking. In my heeled boots, I tower over him and I panic that I am reminiscent to him of an overly chatty, chaotic drag queen, trashing all the chi energy floating around this modest, creative mecca.
He’s dressed in soft black, charcoal grey and midnight blue with a muted, silver silk scarf. He is perfectly understated. Despite his cold, his jet eyes are bright and sparkly, and his energy is incredibly warm. He really is quite beautiful, and everything about him is gentle.
Growing up in harsh, competitive London I mostly believed that to be super successful and powerful in the business of fashion, you had to be ruthless, cutthroat, self-obsessed and squash little people on your way up. Isogawa dispels all these myths in an instant. He is humble, integral and speaks respectfully about fellow designers and manufacturers both here and overseas. He seems to be the ultimate ‘quiet-achiever.’
Isogawa’s parents had high expectations of him dutifully following in their footsteps and entering full-time employment in their native city of Kyoto’s public service sector. This was in line with the cultural beliefs of conformity and duty within the family. The idea of these lifelong limitations in the young mind of such an extraordinarily imaginative person must have been torturous to contemplate.
Isogawa’s bravery is quite remarkable. This peaceful, quiet soul followed his heart and bit the bullet, leaving Japan along with his family and all their expectations. In 1986 he arrived in Australia age 21 knowing no one, only a few words in English and enrolled himself at the Sydney Institute of Technology to study fashion design.
He is quoted as saying of Australia at the time “It is a limitless, borderless opportunity.”
Today though it is clear how this challenging and tough time in his life has shaped and strengthened him despite the predictable rift and heartbreak within his family. He is positive, forward thinking with youthful, exuberant energy that is captivating as well as enchanting.
Back to the Start.
His love affair with fashion began in his hometown of Kyoto. At 15 he plucked up the courage to enter the incredibly snobby and surreal world of Comme Des Garçons boutique. “It was so intimidating, I felt so small, the staff looked down on everyone. They wore flowing black creations that billowed in the light, amazing silhouettes and shadows. The style of the boutique was incredible, sophisticated, sleek and cold with steel features and huge, overpowering mannequins. I was mesmerised.”
“Edmund Capon (former director of The Art Gallery of New South Wales) gave me the book Samuri William by Giles Milton, it’s based on a true story and set in the 16th century.”
“Modern Boy, Modern Girl curated by Chiaki Ajioka. It is a wonderful book about modernity in Japanese art 1910-1935.”
Christiane Lehmann. “Christiane is an artist and my close friend for over 25 years. In 2005 I worked with her on the Printemps Éte collection and exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria. We covered life-sized vintage paper dolls in collage with a variety of materials. Vintage fabrics, paper, jewels, all kinds of things. I then interpreted them for the catwalk collection.”
Rei Kawakubo (founder of Comme de Garçons) “I would be curious to know what she thinks of my work. I have worn Comme de Garçons since I was a teenager.”
Yohji Yamamoto, a Japanese designer, fondly named ‘The Master Tailor.’
“Moving to Australia gave me the first insight into magazines such as The Face and ID which were hugely influential and insightful to me. They opened up a whole new world both culturally and regarding fashion and style. These introductions led me to spontaneously fly to London for 2 weeks and spend all the money I had on Vivienne Westwood pieces” He giggles at the thought. “It was all so reckless. I spent money so frivolously, I’d never done anything like that before, it was ridiculous!” He giggles some more. “Amongst other things I bought a Westwood Harris Tweed cap and a jacket. I have now donated the jacket to The Powerhouse Museum.”
“I’d be in France from the 1920s-1940s with CoCo Chanel. She was a brave war-time survivor. She was driven with an amazing attitude.”
“I feel strongly about whaling and have been involved with Greenpeace and their amazing work. I am honoured to have been a part of this. Being Japanese I also think that it is important that I make a stand against this practice.”
“Global warming concerns me. This past Autumn was so warm. That worried me, what will happen in years to come? I have noticed a difference over the years.”
“I have also been involved with The Taronga Zoo Conservation Project, Amnesty International and Voiceless (Animal conservation and protection) All these concerns are important, and I feel happy to have been involved with them.”
What would surprise people about you?
“How much I giggle. I giggle a lot.” He’s right, he does love a giggle.
“I was very keen to grow up. My older brother had left home and so early on at around 14 my father would pour a whisky for us. I think I was company for him after my brother had left.”
“I attended a public school which was much more relaxed than the private schools in Kyoto. We didn’t really have a uniform to speak of. There was some experimentation with sex and drugs but nothing too over the top.”
“Many of us wanted to wear clothes that our parents didn’t approve of and we’d play it down when they were around”. He giggles “We’d smuggle bags of cool clothes out of our homes and change in public toilets. I think doing this is quite universal though.”
“I don’t really have days off. I don’t see my work as a job, I am busy every day, it makes me happy. I don’t really need time off. I sleep for about 5 hours a night, and I guess I do switch off on aeroplanes. The flight to Paris this year was a good example of that. I like to watch films, films are good.”
“Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, an old favourite.” The 1983 Japanese film is directed by Nagisa Oshima starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano.
“Babel, a brilliant film.” 2006 Directed by Alejandro Gonzålez Inñårritu. We excitedly relive our favourite scenes and discuss the Japanese cultural sensitivities portrayed in the film.
“Lost in Translation” Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and directed by Sofia Coppola. “Such an incredible film. I’ve watched it many times.” We both marvel at the glorious cinematography, the sweet and unique friendship between Bob and Charlotte and celebrate the fact that Scarlett Johansson made big knickers cool again. Which makes him giggle.
“Zazie Dan Le Metro a 1960 French film directed by Louis Malle, “a touching film about a young french girl and her adventures in the city of Paris.”
“In the Mood for Love, a profound and moving tale about unrequited love in Hong Kong” Directed by Wong Kar-Wai.
“I also love the work of Italian director Luchino Visconti di Modrone, he directed The Leopard (1963) and the 1971 film Death in Venice.”
“Growing up I loved New Romantic music and fashion especially Spandau Ballet. Also the late 70’s music of YMO Yellow Magic Orchestra.” (Kyuichi Sakamoto)
“When I work though I can’t listen to music, I need silence, I can’t concentrate when music is playing!”
“My favourite is not necessarily Japanese. I love the idea of creating dishes, fusions, colours, different ideas and cultures, East meets West but I don’t really ever do it! When we were based in Surry Hills I used to eat out with my staff at Golden Century Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s China Town as they were open so late when we all worked through the night. I like it there.”
Reincarnation and Thoughts about Life.
“I don’t believe in reincarnation really but I do believe in Karma. I believe that money is a vehicle, nothing more. When you have lived with little this makes you brave in moving forward and making choices. What do you have to lose? How bad can it get?… you have already been there. A deep satisfaction comes from creativity, inspiration brings much happiness to me. Struggles are experienced and bring intuition, wisdom, guts.”
The last time you cried.
“When my mother died.”
The last time you laughed out loud?
“Today with you.” He giggles.
Photographer Toby Burrows, Akira Isogawa and Assistant Melissa.
Akira Isogawa Images by Photographer Toby Burrows.
Location – Akira Isogawa HQ Sydney