The Mixed-Up World of Chitose Abe and Sacai
The Mixed-Up World of Chitose Abe and Sacai
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date May 21, 2018
For Chitose Abe, there is nothing more important than stability. The somewhat enigmatic designer—she has, recently, become slightly more available to Western media—is proof in the flesh that, in a fashion landscape seemingly dominated by fast fashion, slow and steady can win the race. Sacai was launched in 1999 and existed in relative anonymity for a decade. But, to say that Abe and her team “toiled” in anonymity would be misleading: there were no gripes about a lack of publicity or popular acclaim and keeping a low profile was intentional.
The daughter of a seamstress, Chitose Sakai—Sakai is her maiden name—grew up immersed in fashion. Drawing inspiration from what she saw in magazines and on TV, Chitose developed a reputation as a trendsetter in school, and she explained to SSENSE that “[her] friends in class copied [her] and had their moms make the same.” When she was in fifth grade, Chitose saw Issey Miyake on a commercial and was thrilled to learn that “being a fashion designer can be someone’s job!” Becoming a designer “became [her] dream from then on,” and, according to Abe, she “never once even considered doing something else.”
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Unlike many of her compatriots and contemporaries, Abe did not study at Japan’s prestigious Bunka Fashion College, though, she desperately wanted to. Chitose was from Gifu, which she described as “extremely countryside” and her parents forbade her from going to Tokyo given how far it was. Instead, she commuted three hours to attend a fashion college in Nagoya. After graduating with a degree in fashion design, Chitose “did a very ordinary thing” and started working for a large, apparel company, World Co. Ltd, that produced clothes for a wide array of relatively nondescript brands. At the time, she explained, “[it was] more elite if you were hired by a big company [and she] didn’t know any better back then.”
Despite the well-perceived corporate design job, Abe found herself drawn towards the world of high fashion. Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons had an office near where Chitose worked and she often found herself “longingly watching the people with their white collared shirts, black pants, and bob haircuts coming down Kotto Dori at [lunch.]” She knew that she wanted to work for Comme des Garçons and, within a year, had made the jump to the directional Japanese label.
To say that Abe’s time at Comme des Garçons was transformative would be a egregious understatement. “At Comme des Garçons, [her] existence wasn’t dictated,” Abe explained to SSENSE, “I didn’t have to do this or that, or be the same as anyone else.” In short, it freed her creatively. Under Kawakubo, Chitose started as a pattern-cutter—a step down from the designer position she had held at World Co. Ltd.—but her talent was quickly identified. She was asked to help launch Junya Watanabe’s eponymous line under the Comme des Garçons umbrella. While working under Watanabe, Abe met Junichi Abe, a fellow pattern-maker. The two fell in love and eventually wed. Chitose Sakai became Chitose Abe. After having a daughter, Toko, Chitose felt that it would be untenable for both her and Junichi to continue working at Comme—a rewarding, but demanding company—and quit.
While Chitose told herself that she had left Comme des Garçons to raise her daughter, she found herself isolated and lacking a creative outlet. The Abes, it seemed, were never meant to not work in fashion and it was Junichi who convinced Chitose to start a label. Granted, this would be a small label, offering only “five or six” pieces when it debuted in 1999. (Junichi, himself, would later go on to launch Kolor, in 2004.) Using a play on her maiden name, Abe launched Sacai out of her home in 1999 and set modest expectations from the beginning, juggling "being a mom and raising a child [with wanting to] create something.”
For fans of the brand, Sacai’s growth was painfully slow in retrospect, but Abe “wanted to reject that progression and instead do things [her] own way.” For a decade, Sacai was a well-guarded secret among Japan’s fashion elite and, at first, it was a one-woman show, with “Abe-san answering the phones and making the clothes.” She also managed what little distribution there was at the time and modelled the five samples she had for buyers from BEAMS. Recounting the situation to The Gentlewoman that “[they] asked [her] what the markup was, and [she] didn’t know what they were talking about.” It took three years for Abe to hire someone, but, the slow growth paid dividends; Chico Hashimoto—the label’s first employee—still works for Sacai. Hashimoto recalls working from Abe’s apartment until 2003, when Chitose finally decided to rent a proper office in an outlying industrial area of Tokyo. Sacai’s meticulous growth and maturation in the aughts owes a lot to Comme des Garçons, according to Abe. It was there that she learned the importance of independence—conglomerates and investors place too much emphasis on rapid growth and hinder the organic evolution of the brand.
Sacai truly hit its stride in the mid-aughts, according to Abe. "The previous collections were based on hand-knitting, and they were wonderful, but you didn’t yet see the Sacai DNA,” the designer told The Gentlewoman. She began to add a feminine touch to the menswear pieces she found herself wearing—oversized sweaters, shirting and jackets—while placing an emphasis on textile innovation to the point where many of the brand’s textiles are, in fact, created from scratch expressly for Abe. She thinks that “the factory staff look terrified when [she] walks in [and] they must hate [her],” but it’s only done out of a desire to challenge herself and the brand.
Slowly but surely, Abe’s textile innovation and distinct aesthetic caught the eye of international buyers, who trickled into Sacai’s industrial office seeking to carry the brand. Over the mid- to late-2000s, Barneys, Colette, and a slew of prestigious European and American stores made the pilgrimage to open accounts and, by 2009, Abe felt it was time for Sacai to take the next step in its thoughtfully-paced evolution.
2009 was an important year in the story of Sacai. It marked the brand’s debut in Paris, where Abe showed the label’s collections in a showroom without much fanfare and with hardly any press coverage. It took two years of showroom presentations before Abe began parading her looks down the Parisian runway, and, by then, people were clamoring to get in to catch a glimpse.
Of more profound interest to us at Dry Clean Only however, was Sacai’s proper expansion to menswear in 2009, which seemed like an inevitable development. Even before offering a fully-fledged men’s collection, Sacai’s DNA had been profoundly shaped by menswear, with Abe admitting that "a lot of the [womenswear] pieces come from menswear,” in a bid to redefine traditional elegance in women’s fashion. Unbeknownst to many, however, is the fact that in 2006, Abe released a small collection, Sacai Gem, that catered to men, exclusively for 10 Corso Como’s Aoyama store; Comme des Garçons followed suit, asking Abe to design Sacai menswear for Dover Street Market. Sacai Gem is still available through DSM outposts, and should be characterized in a similar vein as Comme des Garçons’ Good Design diffusion line. It was her first experimentation with menswear and, like all things Sacai, took years to mature and come to fruition in the form of the label’s proper menswear collection.
Because menswear has been inextricably tied to Sacai from the beginning, its men’s collections have, predictably, been philosophically similar to the label’s womenswear, with staple pieces reimagined in ways that expose Abe’s creativity. Abe designs the menswear as well as the womenswear, despite the fact that, for the women’s collections, she uses herself as a muse to create garments she would want to wear. It leads one to wonder how she goes about creating the men’s collections. Abe listens carefully to her male staff, but, ultimately, she sees it as a form of “self-expression” for herself and Sacai with the ultimate goal being to create pieces that people are happy to wear and are something “that only Sacai can do.”
Like the womenswear, Sacai’s menswear has evolved methodically. From 2009 until 2015, the collections were presented in a showroom, and the label was sparsely carried outside of Japan and directional European retailers in the first few season. While buyers may have been slow to bring the brand into Western stores, Sacai’s menswear was critically heralded from the outset. Abe’s “flair for incorporating mixed textures” earned her a reputation as “a mistress of the mix, throwing together different fabrics, colors, and textures with a gonzo, though practiced, hand.”
Indeed, the inaugural menswear collections were chock-full of imaginative textile pairings, stunning patterns, and complex silhouettes. The men’s collections only started garnering widespread coverage around 2012 and 2013, but the early offerings were quintessentially Sacai and would have been widely celebrated today. The collections were small—Fall/Winter 2009 counted only 10 looks (approximately 40 pieces)—but they featured Abe’s hallmarks: panelling, fuzzy lamb’s wool and ingeniously cut garments. Some of the stand out pieces from these early days include the Fall/Winter 2009 cardigan cut asymmetrically at the hem to give the illusion of it being tucked back into one’s pants (top right of the lookbook), thereby creating a window for layering; the Spring/Summer 2010 navy lamb’s fur shorts-suit; and a white diamond-herringbone tricot blazer from Fall/Winter 2010.
They are all pieces that could easily fit into a Sacai collection today—and, to be perfectly honest, most of the Sacai archives could be reissued without being at odds with current collections. As the seasons have worn on, it has become apparent that Sacai’s DNA is Abe’s “cut-and-paste” style: Deconstructing and reconstructing pieces, applying textiles to garments they shouldn’t be featured on, marrying sweaters and jackets or shirts and hoodies and tailoring that can seem lopsided or clumsy, while still being elegant. That disheveled elegance is what best describes Sacai.
If you’re looking for a microcosm of the world of Sacai, look no further than the year 2014. Spring/Summer 2014 showcased Sacai’s whimsical nature—garments toed the line between tailoring and loungewear, while traditionally posh prints like herringbone and Prince of Wales were "layered to glossy, twinset effect” that was mesmerizing and refreshing. The seasonal collection also offered a glimpse of Abe’s sheer mastery of outerwear, with oversized jackets and what seemed to be every style of coat—from a parka to a track jacket—cut from a windbreaker-esque nylon, among the most popular pieces. Outerwear, though, is perhaps best suited to Abe’s cut-and-paste style: It allows her the biggest canvas to play with textiles, prints and cuts. This brings us to the follow up collection, Fall/Winter 2014; if Spring/Summer 2014 gave us a glimpse, then Fall/Winter 2014 was an absolute masterclass—in outerwear, yes, but also in Sacai as a whole. “[In Fall/Winter 2014] all the parts were in play,” said critic Matthew Schneier, referring to the ubiquity of Sacai’s “custom-developed fabrics, unusual combinations and collisions, and […] deconstruction.” Abe’s use of fabrics was varied, with traditional wools and knits contrasting the sheen of velvets and nylons. The juxtaposition of the two was exacerbated by the reversible nature of many pieces in the collection, and, where pieces weren’t necessarily reversible, they were conceived to look like they were worn inside out. Sometimes, it’s the outlandish things that look good—wearing a piece inside out, layering a hoodie over a jacket, wearing only half a jacket—and Sacai’s Fall/Winter 2014 collection seemingly sought to make the outlandish facile and attainable.
2014 also gave us the first taste of Sacai’s penchant for collaboration, with Abe partnering with two veritable stalwarts in the footwear realm. Spring/Summer 2014 saw Sacai partner with Clarks for a Desert Boot foursome that hinged on color-blocking and ribbon laces—Sacai’s usual whimsyl, indeed. For Fall/Winter 2014, Sacai unveiled another four style collaboration, this time with Californian behemoth Vans. Swapping out Vans’ generic canvas for luxurious suede, Sacai served up two Sk8-His and two Old Skools, devoid of laces, but featuring an exaggerated fur lining that was designed to stick out. Not only was it a novel take on a classic that was growing a bit predictable, but it got people talking about Sacai outside of fashion’s informed insiders. That Sacai started menswear runway shows in 2015 only served as a reminder that everything Abe does with the brand is meticulously planned out and calculated—2014 had elevated Sacai and exposed it to new consumers and the label was now ready for its close up.
The runway debut, Spring/Summer 2016, made it pretty hard for anybody in the industry who had ignored the Japanese brand until that point to continue to feign ignorance. Rife with clashing prints—by this point a Sacai staple—baggy tailoring and a Red Wing-inspired Hender Scheme collaboration, the collection was, on the surface, a menswear mish-mash. But, there was a method to the madness and beauty in the seemingly chaotic amalgamation of pieces. According to the label, it was “a hybrid of all periods and places and genders, a random compilation of items that somehow took direction from his own innate sense of style.” The result was described as “a beautiful chaos” by Tim Blanks for Vogue, and it progressed what Abe had learned after debuting a women’s runway show: Sacai, with all of its complexity, layering and visual play, looks better in motion.
Since then, Sacai has become one of menswear’s most feted labels with an expansive distribution list—by independent high-end brand standards, at least—and an endless stream of praise from critics and consumers, alike. As Sarah Mower said in 2017, “Sacai is established enough now for Abe not to have to keep proving that she is fashion’s original collager in chief.” (Mower may very well be fashion’s resident Sacai expert, having co-authored the label’s retrospective Rizzoli book with Abe.) The brand’s imprint has only grown over recent seasons, with the label’s collaboration with The North Face achieving a similar effect as the aforementioned Vans project and exposing Sacai to a wider audience. It didn’t hurt, either, that Abe’s former boss, Junya Watanabe unveiled a collaboration of his own with the Californian outerwear purveyor 24 hours before Sacai’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection debuted. Of course, Abe had already shown that she was adept at crafting activewear into fashion thanks to a stellar run on the women’s front with Nike, so to Sacai’s disciples, The North Face collection didn’t really come as a surprise. But, Sacai has proven capable of turning the mundane into wearable works of art, and that was certainly true with The North Face’s outerwear. By no means is Sacai solely responsible for it, but that The North Face has returned to prominence after a few years of stagnation is a testament to the power of fashion labels—like Watanabe’s eponymous line and Abe’s Sacai—to have people see garments as more than clothes.
After all, though, this is what Abe set out to do with Sacai: create pieces that were inherently beautiful but versatile. For many designers, buried in their collections are symbolic messages about politics, history, travel or personal experiences. Sacai is the antithesis to this breed of fashion and, as Matthew Schneier said, “Abe doesn't bother with themes, backstories, or explanations,” choosing, instead, to let “the clothes speak for themselves,” and lure customers by “making [them] feel happy” to buy the pieces. The lone—but notable—exception to this lack of social commentary is found in Sacai’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection in the form of a collaboration with The New York Times centred around the notion of truth in journalism. It didn’t take long for onlookers to note the sociopolitical connotations in an age dominated by “fake news.”
Today, Sacai is still independent and that, according to Abe, is what allows the label to be itself. “I don’t even mind if sales go down,” as a result of creating something out of the ordinary, she explains, noting that it’s “[her] risk to take.” That risk has paid of in spades, to the point that, over 20 years, Sacai has grown from a five-piece collect to an estimated $25 million in annual revenue. What looking back on Sacai’s archives reenforces is that there is never a seasonal theme, with Abe instead focusing on “what others have yet to do [because] creating a conceptual piece involves doing what other designers haven’t done.” The problem, though, is that other designers have begun emulate Sacai—turning “hybridization [into] the name of the fashion game,” per WWD—to the point where Abe will sometimes “see clothes that [she] thinks are [her] own, but then when [examined] closely aren’t.” But, there is only one Sacai, and there is a reason that it counts Karl Lagerfeld, Pharrell Williams, Sarah Andelman and Sarah Mower among its legions of fans. “[Sacai is] not ostentatious, not for showing off,” explained Akiko Fukai, director of the Kyoto Costume Institute—and a revered voice in Japanese fashion—“Abe-san puts odd materials together in the most delightful way, and the details are fascinating.” That, is what makes Sacai so, well… Sacai and (despite other brands’ best efforts) inimitable.