Akira Isogawa is one of Australia’s most iconic designers. Born in Kyoto, Japan, Akira moved to Australia in 1986 to study fashion design in Sydney.
Since 1996, Akira has shown his designs during Australian Fashion Week and from 1998, he’s shown his collections in Paris. He’s been both internationally and domestically recognised for his designs over the years, winning Designer of the Year, Womenswear Designer of the Year, the Inaugural Australian Fashion Laureate Award and the Award for Fashion Excellence. He’s even been honoured with his image on an ‘Australian Legend’ commemorative postage stamp!
When we heard he was in town for a visit to his Brisbane store at 705 Ann Street, we couldn’t let the opportunity pass, so we stopped in for a chat.
You design all of your fabrics – where do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration can be found on a daily basis, for example, in the studio. We work in a two-storey warehouse and upstairs we have a few thousand garments that are archived collections. I found that revisiting my archived collections can be quite inspirational, seeing what we’ve done maybe 15 years ago and bringing some of those elements back to combine them with my current emotions and ideas.
I find travelling can also be quite inspirational, for example, visiting different cities in Europe. I visit Paris twice a year and even walking down the street in Paris can be inspirational to see how people dress.
Visiting my family in Kyoto in Japan gives me inspiration as well. I always make sure that when I visit Kyoto, I go to the flea market that happens once a month. You can source all sorts of vintage kimono textile fabrics and I find it very interesting to look through the different styles, textures, colours and print motifs you can source.
You design three collections annually – why three, what are they and do you have a favourite?
I used to design a collection specially marketed to Australia, because the weather is so different from other countries, but now I have consolidated it into just one collection. I produce three collections a year – Spring/Summer, Resort and Autumn/Winter.
In terms of favourites, I like showcasing Spring/Summer, not just personally but as an Australian designer. Coming from a country like Australia, which is quite warm all year round compared to the northern hemisphere, I find it’s one of our strengths.
How do you think being born and raised in Japan has influenced your work and designs?
I think it’s actually a combination of my Japanese heritage and the Australian lifestyle, which is very casual and laidback when it comes to attitudes and clothing. For example, you could probably wear your favourite denim jacket to the opera – which I’ve seen before!
My Japanese heritage is far more formal, and also quite strict, especially being born and raised in Kyoto, which is a very traditional part of Japan and my parents were quite religious – Buddhist. This sense of discipline has given me a particular work ethic and a specific style that I apply to my vision and collections. For example, the colour palette, while very broad, isn’t crazy. We don’t offer 50 shades of a colour – we’re quite regimented in terms of organising a colour palette in a way that people can relate to.
I think my clients can probably answer this more than I can. When they compare my designs to other Australian designers, I know it’s quite different.
Ethical clothing is really important to you – can you tell us about this?
As designers, I think we have to make a point of why we design and produce collections. I don’t see the point in simply making more garments for the sake of it, because there are enough clothes already produced – just take a walk through the Brisbane CBD; there are plenty of department stores and boutiques.
We see so many products, so I think we don’t need more clothes; this is part of the reason why I don’t mass produce – my designs are one-of-a-kind. I design and produce garments specifically for our boutiques, so when people visit our store they are seeing something exclusively designed.
If we want to produce more clothes, I think we need to remember why we design clothes and what the point is.
For me, this translates into designing garments that are fundamentally timeless, so you can wear them one season and they can be worn five or 10 years later as well.
I also feel like consumers need to be more responsible when it comes to fashion and think more ethically when they buy products.
How do these beliefs affect the production of your clothes?
We hear horrific stories of large companies producing garments off-shore all the time, where they are not treating workers fairly by not paying them enough and making them work within terrible circumstances, like overcrowding, which impacts on their safety.
I think that’s really outrageous, and as a designer it’s something we should take responsibility for and ensure that from a manufacturing point of view, everyone involved in the production process is treated fairly.
You have two boutique stores – one in Brisbane and one in Sydney. Have you found there are differences between your Brisbane and Sydney clients?
In Brisbane, clients have a particular appreciation for bright colours and bold prints. I don’t think people in Brisbane are afraid of dressing up to the point where they look very individual and very boldly noticeable. Even the climate, compared to a city like Melbourne, is very sunny and bright. When you compare Brisbane to Melbourne and Sydney, you really see that there is a fun quirk to Brisbane fashion.
Some of my clients are in Melbourne and they are completely opposite to Brisbane clients. The tones in Melbourne are more sombre, generally speaking. From fashion to interior design, you’ll find a lot of monotone colours, like black, grey and white.
Sydney, where I’m based, is very much in between. You can really see the differences between Brisbane and Sydney in the CBDs – when men dress up in Brisbane, they will wear a tie but it’s more colourful than what men wear in Sydney.