“I have seen and worked with Sacai’s clothes before. But this time, seeing them worn by models, I noticed how elaborate the designs of the back part of each garment really are. In fashion, the rear view is rarely interesting. Here is an exception.”
In March 2011, this text ran as part of my review of Sacai’s first fashion show in Paris. Regarding that collection, designer Chitose Abe said, “The concept of Sacai has always been about taking a familiar or classical idea and merging it with a completely different textured idea or sometimes merging several different categories into one.”
Abe started Sacai (a play on her maiden name Sakai) in 1999—after spending eight years as a pattern maker for Rei Kawakubo and on the Junya Watanabe design team at Comme des Garçons—selling a very small selection of knitwear out of her Tokyo home. “When I started Sacai, knitwear in general was very flat and did not seem conceptual, I wanted to create a more three-dimensional knit,” Abe said over tea at the New York Edition hotel when she visited last November for a trunk show and dinner at Bergdorf Goodman.
“At the very beginning, knits were the bases of the concept, but since then, it has been about merging various types of categories,” Ms. Abe continued, “The idea of combining different ideas into one garment was something that I started from the beginning and has become my main focus.”
“My ideas usually start in my mind—my inspiration comes from my daily life in Tokyo and what I experience—and sometimes I sketch them out and begin discussing it with my pattern team to arrive at the final design. These sketches are notes to myself rather than formal fashion sketches,” she emphasized. “In order to come up with these designs it is necessary to understand how clothing is made in order to deconstruct and reconstruct.”
Incredible research in fabrics is the genesis of Sacai’s clothes: “Most of the fabrics are developed specifically for the collection. For Spring 2016, I developed a print based on a vintage souvenir scarf that I found at the thrift store. I took this fabric I created and had a special lily pattern embroidered and cut out to create a lace-like effect. It allowed me to use two different versions of the fabric, each with contrasting drape and texture.”
The Fall 2013 show crystallized Abe’s long term design vision. Highlights were staples like trench coats and Chesterfield hunting coats that metamorphosed under Abe’s hands into velvet short dresses with trench-inspired capes and collars, and green plaid and orange lace jackets. These are Sacai’s recipes for a vocabulary of new classic garments that are conceptual but still wearable.
Abe’s design philosophy permeates all of her endeavors, including last year’s collaboration with Nike. “I have always liked Nike products, the collaboration developed organically when I talked with a friend who worked there,” she says, “I approached the Nike designs like my own, I took classics like the Windrunner and worked with the Nike experts to develop technical fabrications that allowed me to make my own versions of the classic. I wanted the items to look like both Sacai and Nike.”
By innovating and reinventing rather than recycling history or embracing current pop culture, Sacai clothes are relevant to customers seeking originality in fashion. Abe eschewed the usual fashion business model of a startup brand that attempts to make a splash before establishing a solid business structure. “I did not have a preconceived plan in place when I started the brand with five styles of knitwear and I knew this was a different way of starting a business. I tried not to be tied down to how a fashion business should be but rather focus on what I felt was important and try to move forward at my own pace. I knew I wanted to do things my own way and to have a unique business model.”
“It took me 12 years of having the Sacai collection until I thought it was the right moment to stage a runway show.” Since that debut show in March 2011, business has expanded greatly with now over 90 major international retailers carrying Sacai. In September 2011 the brand opened its first free-standing store in Tokyo’s Minami Aoyama district, a shop in Hong Kong’s central On Lan Street followed last year.
The men’s launch for Spring 2009 began as a capsule collection developed especially for 10 Corso Como Aoyama in 2006 which grew organically into a wider offering of men’s clothing consisting of utilitarian knits, woven jackets, layered shorts, and cargo pants.
A gray cotton striped coat with flap pockets on one side and a belt that loops under and inside the other side was a signature combination from Spring 2015 of two different coats into one demonstrating Abe’s consistent design ethos, which extended to the hybrids of her Spring 2016 collection.
Sarah Andelman, the owner and creative director of the concept store Colette in Paris extolled, “From the beginning, Sacai was a success. No need for the designer to be well know or to do fashion shows, Abe’s collections immediately found fans.” Jennifer Sunwoo, EVP and GMM of Women’s at Barneys New York echoed Andelman’s sentiments, “Sacai has had incredible growth over the past years and the strength of the brand is its ability to speak to an incredible breadth of customers.”
Fashion has been in Abe’s veins since she was young, “My mother was a clothing maker so I was surrounded by sewing machines and fabrics, and I think I was naturally drawn to fashion.” Looking back at her unique design and business acumen, Abe credited the valuable life lessons she experienced working at Comme des Garçons. “I learned the importance of creating something truly original. The challenge isn’t just to create something new but to keep in mind that we are not creating new things for the sake of it being new but there has to be a balance between the design and wearability of the item. I was also definitely influenced by the way the Comme des Garçons business was run and I think it greatly influenced the way I conduct my business for Sacai.”
Photographer: Ralph Mecke for Thomas Treuhaft, New York.
Style Director: Long Nguyen.
Associate Fashion Editor: Zaquan Champ.
Hair: Claudio Belizario For jedroot.com, New York.
Makeup: Paco Blancas For jedroot.com, New York.
Photography Assistant: Stewart Isbell.