Akira Isogawa is one of Australia's foremost fashion designers. Having immigrated from Japan in the 1980's, the Kyoto born designer's legacy and vision combines the aesthetic and philosophical traditions of his ancestral land with a striking modernism, making for captivating garments. As the honoured guest of the Bundaberg Regional Gallery for Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion, Akira was kind enough to share his insights with me, and to discuss the ways in which nature has played a part in his design process.
Akira Isogawa, I would like to thank you again for being our guest of honour for Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery. To start, what do you think of Bundaberg’s style?
So, I arrived in Bundaberg at 3:30 in the afternoon yesterday and went straight to my hotel and checked myself in, and in the evening I had the privilege to attend the special Gala Dinner. This morning I came straight to the exhibition from my hotel, it was just a two-minute walk and so far that’s all I’ve experienced of Bundaberg. But what I saw was glamorous women, dressing up. I saw women in fully sequined vintage garments, others in beautiful original handmade clothing, and others in commercial clothing, but still very up-market and beautiful. There is a genuine interest in fashion, I feel, and it shows actually how many people are interested. This morning (at the Flora & Fauna Floor Talk) so many people turned out, on a Sunday morning! So it’s great to see that, and I don’t have much knowledge of Bundaberg, I don’t even know the population of Bundaberg, I imagine it’s not a big city. So it’s quite interesting to realize that the larger percentage of women are genuinely interested in beauty.
Could you tell me a bit about your own label Akira and your creative vision?
I started my own label more than 20 years ago and when I was studying at TAFE, where I trained myself to sew and make patterns. I had a vision of becoming a designer before I enrolled myself, 6 months before I landed in Sydney. I realized that I needed clothes for myself and that’s how I started. I always thought that there was no point in designing something that already exists in the market. I suppose I could say that my philosophy is actually designing something that is unique and timeless, and something that women can keep for a long time and treat as if it was a gem. I do believe that good design doesn't date. I think it is a sign of success as a designer, when you see women wearing some clothes that I designed more than a decade ago.
I had to question myself when I was starting out about why I wanted to get involved in fashion, because there’s enough clothing in the world right now really, and a lot of clothes get wasted. Why are we adding more to what we have enough of? So my answer to that is that I am offering something that you cannot find anywhere else.
This exhibition, Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion, contains an array of garments spanning almost 200 years, which have been inspired by nature. How are you influenced by nature, by flora and fauna?
I think the transient way of nature, especially the seasons, the idea of seeing something so transient like flowers, some of which last only a few days, or even one night, has a certain beauty due to it’s short life. I find that story quite inspiring. The colours always change to. This is my first visit to Bundaberg and now we see greens, but who knows if I come back in three months’ time, if I come back in 6 months’ time, I’d see some other colour palette in a garden. So the ever-changing nature of flora and fauna is inspiring, like the nature of fashion. It’s an ever-changing industry. Nothing stays the same, as does nature.
You have a piece in the exhibition which uses a pattern by Mount Perry born textile designer Florence Broadhurst. Could you tell us a bit about the piece and why you chose that particular Broadhurst print?
I was just saying to people this morning that I wouldn’t have known of Florence Broadhurst if I hadn’t been invited to see her work back in the late 90’s. Also in the late 90’s, and though she had been very active in the late 70’s, I think her name had been nearly forgotten. A company got the rights to use her artwork, and had access to hundreds of her designs. They explained to me that they hadn’t shown Florence’s work to anyone. They wanted to test it with me. It was like a first trial for them to see how a designer sees Florence’s work. I selected a number of oriental designs, Chelsea and Nagoya, because they reminded me of Kyoto somehow. The interesting thing is Florence Broadhurst’s story. She was a well-travelled lady. In fact, she actually went to Shanghai, but didn’t make it to Japan. I feel she was eager to draw inspiration from the East but because she didn’t go to Kyoto, she used her imagination to come up with these particular designs, Nagoya for example which reminds me of a garden in Kyoto. I felt that I connected psychically with her imagination.
The piece is called water garden. I designed it in 2007 and it has a slight Japanese element to it, though not as profoundly as the original colours and features of Chelsea and Nagoya. To me, it was a Zen garden with pebbles and stones representing water and trees. It was a single colour print, but I thought rather than using bright colours, I felt that I wanted it to stay monochromatic, but with some sort of vibrancy so I included silver in the print.
You design all of this wonderful clothing, yet you as a designer choose to dress very simply. Do you have a particular philosophy behind that?
I try not to make much fuss about it. In Japanese there is a word for it. They say kuroko, meaning the son of blackness, that is meant to hidden. I feel that those garments are the most important thing and then then the creator of those garments is always behind the scenes. I just feel more comfortable to dress in a darker colour palette with no embellishment or no print for that reason.
What is something that you would like to be remembered for as a designer?
It is a big question actually. I'm still in action and I haven’t really thought about after I’ve finished. I feel that I’m a part of a special movement in Australia. Back when I arrived in Australia in the mid-80’s, as I look back on it now, what we wore and the environment that we were surrounded by, our house, our food, cities themselves like Sydney have changed so much. We have more access to things. So I would like to be remembered as someone who was a part of the movement to free the concept of Australia being simply mono-cultured, and I would like to be remembered as someone who expressed multiculturalism and freed things up in view of opening one’s mind.
Flora & Fauna: The Nature of Fashion is on display at the Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery until the the 12th of June.