sacai’s Chitose Abe Is Leading Japan’s Next Generation of Designers
If your fashion radar is more in tune to the streetwear side of the industry, you might have only encountered sacai a few years back. Starting with a groundbreaking women’s collection created in collaboration with NikeLab back in 2015, the cult Japanese womenswear label has established itself as a vanguard of the rising movement of designers creating slick, stylish streetwear with distinctly feminine sensibilities.
And yet, despite the impact the brand has had on the fashion landscape in recent years, both sacai and the designer behind it remain relatively unknown – at least, in comparison to equally influential designers such as Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER, or fragment design’s Hiroshi Fujiwara.
The reality is that sacai is now in its 20th year of operations, and label founder Chitose Abe has a career that connects her to many of the biggest names in Japanese fashion and streetwear writ large. Virtually every Japanese designer that we now consider to be one of the greats is noteworthy for bringing a certain fresh perspective or vernacular into the frame, and Chitose Abe is no different.
But more interestingly in Abe’s case, that special touch was something that many major brands are still struggling with today – women’s streetwear that doesn’t sacrifice the things that separated streetwear from its stuffy, high-fashion counterpart in the first place.
Born Chitose Sakai in a city called Gifu, just north of Nagoya, Abe’s mother was a seamstress, meaning she encountered fashion and textiles from a very early age. Growing up in a relatively remote part of Japan (her daily commute to school in Nagoya was two hours every day) she was fascinated by Tokyo’s bustling fashion industry, and developed a reputation as a trendsetter, getting her mother to adjust and tailor her clothing to stand out at school – at least until the other kids started copying her styles.
As she got older, Abe supplemented her fascination with fashion through magazines and television; she cites seeing a commercial for Issey Miyakeon TV as the moment she realized that “fashion designer” was a possible career path. After graduating from college in Nagoya, she went to work for World Co. Ltd, a large corporate apparel company that produces a long list of high-street fashion labels.
COMME des GARÇONS
As is the case in much of Japanese culture, it’s considered prestigious for graduates to find employment at large, well-established companies, so Abe’s move to World Co. was a promising start. She remained fascinated with Japan’s burgeoning avant-garde fashion scene however, and harbored a desire to work under Rei Kawakubo’s COMME des GARÇONS label, which was taking the fashion world by storm at the time with its iconoclastic designs. After a year of working for World Co., Abe departed for COMME.
Needless to say, the work environment at Kawakubo’s burgeoning fashion empire was very different from Abe’s previous workplace, and she was encouraged to explore her own independent visions (“the main takeaway from my years at COMME des GARÇONS is autonomy.”) while learning to strike the fine balance between business and fashion that has made COMME’s sprawling empire of labels, diffusion lines and Dover Street Market stores one of fashion’s biggest success stories. She worked as a patternmaker for Junya Watanabe, who hired her when he started his own label.
Founding of sacai
Understandably, Abe found it difficult to adjust to a life without a creative outlet, and in 1999 made the decision to launch a small, home-run label where she could create a limited run of pieces. She named the label sacai, a play on her maiden surname, and released an inaugural collection knitwear pieces, making everything at home – as well as answering phone calls and heading up the business operations as well (it would be three years before she hired another employee, Chico Hashimoto, who is still at the company today as Textile Developer).
Slow & Steady
sacai’s founding was rooted in the idea of Abe having a small outlet for creating limited pieces with deep significance to herself, and this remained central to the brand for a long time. In 2003, she opened a small, affordable studio in Tokyo’a Daikanyama district, and developed a reputation as one of the “second generation” of great Japanese designers, following in the footsteps of Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake.
A handful of overseas buyers such as Barneys New York and colette in Paris were early supporters of the label. She also collaborated with Italian concept store 10 Corso Como on a men’s capsule collection for their Aoyama store, known as Sacai Gem. In 2009, 10 years into the brand’s history, she took her first major step towards global expansion.
Abe had always intended for her label’s operations to be unorthodox compared to the general flow of fashion. Her transition to Paris was no different. Thanks to earlier co-signs from the likes of COMME mastermind Adrian Joffe and Sarah Andelman of colette, sacai had already built a comfortable name for itself, so in 2008, they presented a lookbook, followed by a presentation in 2010 and, finally, a full runway show in 2011. As has been the case for many Japanese designers, this marked the moment when sacai really grabbed the attention of western buyers and press. The brand experienced rapid growth from that point onward.
Despite achieving both domestic and international acclaim, it wasn’t until 2011 that sacai opened their first flagship store in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. The space had previously hosted a restaurant and had been left derelict and in a state of disrepair for many years; in fact, the walls of the former kitchen were still coated in oil and grease. The interior was designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, a young designer who had designed a number of noteworthy buildings in Japan and, in 2013, designed the outside pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens. Reflecting the light-hearted and uplifting spirit of the clothes themselves, the white, open space remains open today and continues to be a must-visit spot for Tokyo’s fashion-forward cliques.
NikeLab x sacai 2015
Considering the Swoosh’s longstanding history of collaborating with COMME des GARÇONS and its various offshoots and subsidiaries, it’s no surprise that the brand would be interested in working with Chitose Abe’s label. Starting in the spring of 2015, sacai and NikeLab revealed a series of collaborative collections that united Abe’s vibrant design language with Nike’s extensive sportswear archive, inaugurated with a launch event in London that was one of the most hotly-covered events of the year.
Staple sportswear pieces like track jackets, sweatsuits and running gear were adorned with frills, laces, fishnet fabrics and asymmetrical details to add a delicate twist to Nike’s athletic pedigree, all presented in striking colors that brought a new perspective to Nike’s fashion portfolio. Each collection’s blend of practical design and aesthetic flare encapsulated what has made so much of Abe’s work so alluring, an artistic approach to fashion that never loses sight of the fact that, ultimately, you’re designing something to be worn; “Pieces can have an artistic edge, but at the end of the day, they’re not art pieces. They may look like art pieces in a fashion show, but they have to be wearable.”
This continued throughout the year, and arguably marked sacai’s definitive entry into the mainstream, helping to expose the brand to a new audience of male and female customers beyond the fashion world intelligentsia.
sacai x Pendleton
The next big-name brand to tap sacai for a stylistic update was historic American textile manufacturer Pendleton. A perfect fit for the Chitose Abe treatment considering the vibrant, colorful patterns of their traditional Native American fabric designs, Pendleton enlisted Abe with creating contemporary takes on a number of menswear staples such as military jackets and parkas. Military green pieces were adorned with tassels, patches and unexpected panelling to create a compelling blend of the two brands’ DNAs, and presented Pendleton’s familiar geometric motifs in a totally new context.
Since breaking into the mainstream, sacai has been fortunate to take part in many other collaborative projects too numerous to unpack in detail here, but they’re so diverse and varied that just their names alone give an impression of how versatile and applicable Chitose Abe’s aesthetic is in virtually any context. Since 2011, Abe has worked with the likes of Porter, Gloverall, Dr. Woo, Beats by Dre, CLOT, Ugg, and even America’s “paper of record,” The New York Times. “It’s important to have fun,” she explains. “If it isn’t fun, I don’t tend to do it. We’re an independent brand, so we can do whatever we want. This gives us the flexibility to work with sportswear brands or boutique labels. Having autonomy is important. Sometimes the best collaborations don’t have a commercial goal but exist to create something new.”
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