Will the time come for Japanese designers to shine?

Courtesy of KENZO
Outfits designed by Nigo for the collection of Kenzo for the Paris Men’s Fashion Week in January

I have been covering fashion and apparel businesses in Japan and abroad for 40 years, and I am a bit disappointed that there have only been a few Japanese designers — such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto — who have been highly regarded overseas.

A benchmark of an internationally acclaimed designer today is, in a way, being appointed the artistic director of a luxury brand, if I may put it simply. Yet such creators from Japan have been hard to come by, even though the number of Japanese designers taking part in Paris Fashion Week every year is, surprisingly, second only to that of designers from France.

I once heard from Jean-Louis Dumas, the fifth chair of Hermes, that Yamamoto was a finalist when Hermes appointed Martin Margiela as the chief designer for women’s fashion in 1997. Kawakubo, the founder designer of Comme des Garcons, is a flag-bearer of avant-garde fashion, so it is uncertain whether she has had such an offer. But Junya Watanabe, the designer of Comme des Garcons’ Junya Watanabe brand, seems a perfect fit for such offers as he has created a wide range of collections from elegant to casual fashion, yet that has yet to happen.

My dream of seeing a Japanese designer become the creative director of a luxury brand finally came true when Nigo, whose real name is Tomoaki Nagao, became the artistic director of LVMH’s Kenzo, taking over the post from Felipe Oliveira Baptista. There is almost no common denominator between Nigo, 51, and Kenzo Takada, the founder of the Kenzo brand, except that they are both Japanese and graduated from the Bunka Fashion College. Nigo is a fashion designer, but he is a DJ and a producer of a curry restaurant chain and sake alcoholic drinks. A multitalented artist married to popular actress Riho Makise, he has collaborated with Uniqlo, Nike, Jins and other major companies. To LVMH, which has proposed to many of the brands it owns to pursue a street-luxury line, Nigo must have looked like a perfect fit. But I bet no Japanese fashion journalist, including myself, expected this move. Maybe we are too harsh when it comes to appreciation for our compatriot designers.

On Jan. 23, Nigo’s debut show as the new Kenzo designer took place at Galerie Vivienne in Paris, which played a pivotal role in the brand’s evolution. At the event, Nigo used music from “I Know Nigo,” his first album in about 18 years. Given the occasion, the show looked a little timid and reserved to me, but apparently the event was generally well-received.

Chitose Abe (born 1965), the founder-designer of Sacai, is also seen as likely to become the creative director of a luxury brand. Sacai has grown into one of the most popular maisons at Paris Fashion Week, in which it has taken part since 2011. The brand is doing well in terms of business and has easily surpassed the ¥10 billion mark in its annual sales. The company has worked with other top brands on projects that are far more than mere collaborations. Moncler, which may be categorized as a high-end brand, and popular sports brand Nike are among Sacai’s partners in those enterprises.

Be that as it may, Sacai released in March the “Trinity for Chitose Abe of Sacai,” a limited six-model collection of Cartier’s iconic Trinity accessory series. Collaborations between top brands are proving popular these days, but this latest project is a bit different from mundane projects meant to earn collaboration fees. For one, Sacai’s partner in this project is Cartier — the main pillar of the Richemont group, which is one of the three major luxury brand groups alongside LVMH and Kering. Therefore, this collaboration seems to be an important step for Abe as it may lead to a great future for her. The Richemont group employed the late Alber Elbaz to start AZ Factory. After Elbaz’s sudden death on April 24, 2021, at the age of 59, AZ Factory appears destined to be suspended. The important thing here is that the Richemont group intends to own another full-fledged brand in the area of fashion and leather products, in addition to Chloe. Am I going too far to suspect there is some farsighted scheming by Richemont hidden behind the Sacai-Cartier collaboration? I bet no one can deny this project has the possibility of becoming a viable tie between Richemont and Sacai.

It seems the new age for Japanese designers has finally arrived, or so I lately like to think.

Akira Miura

Miura is a journalist and a former editor in chief of WWD Japan.