Akira Isogawa, fashion designer, 53
Your birthday is on Christmas Day – was that annoying when you were little? Christmas is all about exchanging gifts and parties in Japan, not so much about visiting church or family lunch. So all of my friends were receiving gorgeous gifts on the same day – it did make me feel completely flat.
After arriving in Australia from Kyoto in 1986, you worked as a tour guide… Yes, until the mid-1990s there were a lot of Japanese tourists, more than now. Even in the first years of my label, 50 per cent of my time was devoted to tour guiding – that’s how I earnt money. In Japan, the guide is considered a source of entertainment for the tourists, so I had to lead them in singing Waltzing Matilda, that sort of thing. It was really naff.
What were the ’80s like for you, fashion-wise? When I came here I couldn’t find shops I liked. Then, about six months after I arrived, someone took me to a RAT party – short for Recreational Art Team – and that’s when I felt, “This is it.” Everyone made their own clothes and looked fabulous. It was a turning point for me creatively. I started studying fashion after that.
Your work is often described as a true expression of your Japanese heritage and Australian home. What does each bring? I follow the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which is very humble – you appreciate things as they are. If there is a crack in the teacup, let’s glorify the crack and mend it with gold. Wabi-sabi feels as if it relates to the movement of sustainable fashion. And Australia for me means freedom, not having any preconceptions of what things are meant to look like. With the styling especially, it’s the colour combinations, or layering short and long-sleeve T-shirts. It’s about a sense of the unexpected.
You dug into 25 years of archives for a new exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. Were there any surprises? I pulled out one piece to show curator Roger Leong that was quite experimental, using latex over printed organza. The latex completely disintegrated in my hands in front of us. Roger wasn’t surprised – he knew it could happen – but I was really embarrassed.
What’s the earliest piece in the show? It’s a top from 1994, heavily inspired by [Belgian designer Martin] Margiela. When I first saw Margiela garments I nearly fainted. I had never seen anything like it: jeans and jackets all hand-painted in heavy pigment. This top is made with silk georgette varnished with liquid shellac that made it rock hard – it could stand up on the desk. After I used it in a show I thought it was garbage, so I threw it in the bin. Christiane [Lehmann, Isogawa’s muse and artist] thought it was good enough to keep, and pulled it out.
You travel a lot for work. Any tips? Because I usually stay such a short time I never adjust to local time, so I haven’t dealt with jet-lag for a long time. And they say it’s best to stay alcohol-free on the flight, so I’ve learnt to do that. But then I cheat a little bit because before the flight I have a few gins…
You still make wedding dresses for clients – is that a different kind of pressure? There’s definitely a sense of responsibility, making sure the brides are totally happy with what they’ve got – because it’s meant to happen once in a lifetime. But my favourite is the second marriage bride. They are less nervous and do not seek approval from anyone. Akira Isogawa’s exhibition is at MAAS (Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney from Dec 15. maas.museum