To watch the breezy collages of eyelet lace, flying pleats, and cotton shirting waltzing out one sunny september afternoon in Paris, you couldn’t detect a single visible clue that this was anything more profound that just a happy, career-crystallizing moment for Sacai Chitose Abe.
For leader put out 30 looks for her Sacai collection, each one an accomplished trompe I’oeil hybrid of the kind she’s been evolving for years. But this, Sacai Chitose Abe fifth outing in Paris, was definitively her best yet: fashion of the ilk that had spectators offering up the silent verdict “So fresh and original. I want it!”
Sacai Chitose Abe, who is in her 40s, is a designer who’s reached clarity about herself. “I want to make things that are interesting but easy to put on. It’s important that it’s not just about being ‘creative’,” she says, laughing, “because I don’t want to be tormented by my clothes all day.”
Sacai is a look made out of many parts; the front is different from the back, the top from the bottom. Pieces fuse knitwear with silk, with shirting and chiffon with lingerie-lace trim. The components come from generic-seeming pieces (sweaters, men’s striped shirts, camisoles). But the magic is the way Sacai Chitose Abe puts them all together in a single garment, as simple to shimmy into as a dress.
That level of sinesse is all the more amazing and symbolic of Japan’s heroically resilient nature when placed in the context of when Sacai Chitose Abe was designing this collection.
In the immediate aftermath of the Tohoku kanto earthquake on March 11. It hit at 2:46 p.m., registering 9.0 on the Richter scale and sweeping away large areas of the densely populated northeast coast in the ensuing tsunami.
“I was in the office,” Abe remembers. “School was finished and I didn’t know where my twelve-year-old daughter was. So i went to search for her. I found her on the sixth floor of a department store, where she’d been stuck for four hours.” A mother’s intuition? She bends her head, smiling. “I knew she often wen there to look at the bookstore.”
Her calm recounting of the appalling events is typical of what has since become celebrated in the rallying cry “Ganbare Nippon!,” a catchphrase for the optimistic will to work together. When the radiation threat from the broken Fukushima nuclear power plan, some 150 miles away from Tokyo, seemed worst, she sent her daughter temporarily to a town outside Nagoya.
But how did the disruption, the aftershocks, power outages, the terrible news coming from damaged coastal cities like Sendai, affect her business? “Well,” she says, “we were closed for one month.”
Just like the rest of Japan’s fashion community, Sacai Chitose Abe went back to work, producing something such quality and refined detail, it almost reads as an act of creative defiance: Do what you do best, and help rebuild Japan.
“They thought what they could do was fashion design,” observes Mitsuko Watanabe, editor-in-chief of Japanese Vogue. “Beside that, they worked on charity project”.
The country’s biggest clothing company, Fast Retailing, which owns Uniqlo, distributed 300,000 items of clothing (including their famous HeatTech Thermals: Hundreds of thousans were left homeless in the vicious winter) and donated ¥300 million (almost $4 million) to the Japanese Red Cross, with an additional ¥1 billion (more than $13 million) from the president, chairman, and CEO, Tadashi Yanai.
In just over a month, Comme des Garçons had reopened its store in Sendai, draping the shop with inspiring-slogan flags. Hirofumi Kurino, creative adviser of United Arrows, a large design company and retailer, says, “We reopened our shops to provide hop for people, through fashion.”
Hope through fashion? The twin engines of fashion morale-boosting, hoding out the promise that life will return to normal, plus a bit of fantasy-escapism on the adrenaline-pumping side, were swiftly revved.