February 2012

Arts & Letters

The Bride Wore Black

By Peter Robb
Fashion icon Akira Isogawa. Image courtesy of Akira Isogawa
Akira Isogawa

Think ‘dress designer’ and what comes to mind? Not a whole lot of fun. Think of the last picture you saw of Karl Lagerfeld or John Galliano.

I approached Akira Isogawa with great caution and serious questions. How was it that a designer so absorbed in the history of Japan and its ancient silks – their spinning, weaving, dyeing, their cutting into hieratic costumes of gorgeous formality and subdued splendour – should have found his first, best and most loyal buyers in the land of the T-shirt and the thong?

Akira fixed me with black, contemplative eyes: “I do big sizes, you know.” The eyes shattered into brilliant shards of laughter. A young woman strode past our table behind a hunting dog. She was tall, blonde and had a swimmer’s shoulders. Over her black slacks she wore an almost transparent top in a pale mauve-ish mushroom, whose high wide undulating collar opened like a flower. She waved cheerfully at the man who’d conceived and made it, and Akira waved back.

Akira himself is not particularly tall, and a lot slenderer than any other 47-year-old Australian you’re likely to meet. He looks half his age and dresses in dark unstructured monochromes. He talked about the silks of Asia, about the qualities of the artisan textiles he’d found on long exploratory trips through Korea, China, Bali, India, Vietnam. Akira is connected personally all over Asia. He comes from Kyoto and spent his first 22 years in the ancient capital.

Yet Akira’s engagement with the traditional arts of his culture only happened because he was able to escape. Japan was stifling him. He was born in 1964, five years after his elder brother Takeshi. Akira’s father served the vast and intricate Japanese bureaucracy and was determined that his sons too would be functionaries of ‘social welfare’.

His mother ran a dry-cleaning business out of their modest home, and the infant Akira made himself skirts out of tea towels and was tortured for it by his big brother. Their father later watched Akira sketching clothes with intense displeasure.

Akira was 15 in 1980. In the decade when Japan became immensely rich, Akira and his school friends became precocious consumers of high-end fashion. Life was tough for teen shoppers in conservative Kyoto. They had to leave home with their gear in a bag and change in public lavatories. Akira worked in his school holidays for a family who made noodle dishes, delivering the meals around Kyoto on a bicycle. The noodles subsidised his early forays into fashion. His designer idols were Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, the woman who created Comme des Garçons.

His grandparents always wore kimonos, and when his mother did her hair and put on hers, Akira thought how much more beautiful she looked. His father too wore a kimono when he could. Akira recalls himself dressed in one for a special occasion when he was five. I asked if he had a photograph, and he told me that in his parents’ home he’d found hundreds and hundreds of pictures of his brother Takeshi, the firstborn, and none at all of himself.

In 1983 Akira went on to study social welfare administration at Bukkyo University. He was 18 and announced he was leaving home. He stayed in the neighbourhood and paid for his freedom by working through university as a waiter in a tonkatsu pork restaurant.

After three years, Akira felt he’d had enough. He never did the fourth. He and a friend decided to visit Australia. The friend pulled out at the last minute, and Akira arrived alone in 1986. He visited an uncle who grew mushrooms near Mittagong and in Sydney worked his way through a string of restaurants as a kitchen hand. He gravitated into the orbit of the alternative party circuit that was being born in the eastern suburbs and made friends with Christiane Lehmann, another questing soul new to Sydney. She remembers “little Akira running round with his two words of English”.

Akira and Christiane worked with Jac Vidgen and his Recreational Arts Team on Sydney’s alternative RAT Parties. They’d started as an underground thing and by the early ’90s had evolved into giant dance parties with budgets knocking half a million dollars an event. Akira was a spectacularly good dancer. The costumes he made for these parties are now in the Powerhouse Museum.

Akira found Australian clothes unwearable and bought himself a domestic sewing machine. Twenty-five years later he still makes what he needs for himself but dressing the Australian male body has zero appeal. When he designed new black performance wear for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s players in 2009 and went to the inaugural concert at the Opera House he still found half the audience in shorts and T-shirts.

In 1988 he started a design course at East Sydney Tech, where he got to use industrial sewing machines. He was on his way. He finished in 1991 and started sharing a house with Christiane in Darlinghurst. They called it the Farmhouse for its outside dunny, and its dining room became their cutting room.

Akira and several other young designers had a group show. All the money had gone on the clothes, and after dressing 15 models Akira had no money for their shoes. He put them in thick red socks, and years later what everyone remembered was the red socks.

Over years of money worries the red sock factor of Akira’s inventiveness kept turning up emergency solutions. In 2004 he opened his Melbourne shop in the redeveloped GPO and left the premises entirely unfinished. The distressed walls and floors, holes in the ceiling and sagging air-conditioning tubes made his clothes look all the more beautiful.

His first shop had opened in Woollahra in Sydney. Queen Street in 1993 had no commercial buzz and rents were cheap. Neither were there many garments on sale inside. After a year there were enough for Akira’s first solo show, Not Made in Japan. It happened at the right moment. Australians were starting to feel connected with Asia.

Akira brought back heaps of old family kimonos from Kyoto. He deconstructed them and made dresses out of the aged silk of their linings. Then he started making dresses from the kimono fabric itself and when family clothes ran out, he found more in the Kyoto flea markets.

He studied the worn and aged fabrics, their spinning, weaving, dyeing, cutting. He looked into Asia’s pluri-millennial tradition of silks and cottons. Unpicking old garments, he understood the hidden art of their making and how to make it modern. The edgy look of alternative young Sydney fed into clothing styles that had been evolving almost forever.

When Fashion Week started in Sydney a couple of years later, Akira became a regular presence. In 1997 Vogue Australia showed the supermodel Naomi Campbell on its cover, wearing a stunningly fresh and simple red dress Akira had made from the fabric of an old family kimono. In Australia he was recognised as an artist. His work was shown at the Powerhouse and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and collected by the National Gallery of Victoria. 

In 1998 Graeme Murphy asked Akira to design costumes for a Sydney Dance Company production of Salome, and designer and choreographer began a series of collaborations, the most recent of which has been Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet last year. Sometimes he thinks of working entirely in the theatre: “For a few years, and then come back. I like the idea of starting all over again.”

That same year Akira began showing seasonal collections in Paris. In Asia he’s had one-off shows of his collections in Singapore, Manila, Bangkok, Delhi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Seoul. His work’s been seen in Milan, New York, London. En route to Paris, Christiane has more than once visited the Isogawa family home in Kyoto. Akira’s father, now 80, surprised her with his height, his good looks, his charming, hospitable and decisive manner. Takeshi too is tall, strong and “incredibly handsome”. You think of the child Akira growing up in a household of overbearing men, sustained by his mother’s “free spirit” and his own stubbornness.

The applause of the discriminating, the endless awards, the art world’s respect, his face on a postage stamp and his dresses in museums – none of these translates necessarily into commercial strength. No large corporation shelters the atelier. Akira remains a dangerously free spirit himself, more interested in making beautiful clothes than in establishing a global label and selling to a mass market. Christiane worries about the expansion of his activities as a lone designer and marketer: “He works all night, lives in planes, forgets to eat.”

Two years ago Akira moved his operations from sociable Surry Hills rag-trade country in Foveaux Street to a light industrial building in Marrickville. The new place stands on a deserted street corner – no identifying mark of any kind, not even a street number, no windows at street level – in a post-industrial wasteland of discoloured brick, rusty metal frames, filthy glass and no sign whatever of human presence. When my cab sped off on a sunny morning I felt a moment of panic and desolation.

It used to be a factory making Australian souvenirs. When the industry moved to China, Akira got the building for a relative song. He opens the massive and thickly rusted steel door and I see big work tables, a few computer terminals, industrial sewing machines. Racks of dresses on wheels. Five other people are scattered around the hangar-like space.

Things have been a bit erratic since the chief cutter’s sex change. The cutters are all part-time now and only Jessica is there this morning. Akira’s young PA Steve is the sole full-timer. I hear a loud monologue in what sounds like Cantonese. An elderly Central European does the books a couple of days a week up on the attic level. Only a tin roof, some silver insulation material packed under the rusty rafters and a few metres of air separate him from the deafening aircraft noise. The languid overhead fans won’t have a chance against the heat this summer. The kitchen and its rusty fridge seem preserved intact from the souvenir factory days. The place is weird. And out of this desolating space come dresses of indescribable beauty.

About a quarter are wedding dresses. Beautifully simple, classically draped long dresses in tones shading from the most candid white toward richer hints of neutral, ivory, champagne, café au lait or eau de Nil. The bride models are young, slender, innocent of make-up, hair chastely pulled back or childishly tousled, as if they had just naughtily pulled their big sister’s wedding dress over their head. They stare in frank uncomplicated ways straight at the camera.

Click to enlarge and some of the diaphanous innocence of the bridal page in Akira’s online Look Book evaporates. Not all the dresses are long and not all of the brides look sweet and wistful. One stands hand on hip in a dress like a silk slip, spoiling for a fight and wearing tough black suede ankle boots. Another shows rather more bare midriff than you expect to see under a wedding dress. Some brides wear giant clog-like platforms on their feet.

Two of the dresses are black. Among the white they look, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, “about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”. Akira sent me an email at 1.27 in the morning: “Black wedding dress is designed to accommodate for an alternative type of bride.” Killer brides. Like Jeanne Moreau in François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. Noir brides.

Most of Akira’s customers are people Christiane describes demurely as “grown-up women”. Grown-up women with money. These women are not all looking for things to wear. The dresses vanish and Akira thinks some buyers collect his work as art, to hang and enjoy in their vast walk-in closets. One gets all her Akira clothes meticulously copied, and wears the copies, keeping the originals tagged and filed away in boxes. Akira’s eyes widen in puzzlement.

Other women do wear them, and adore them. The complexities beyond the wedding dress are many, starting with colour. Akira’s clothes have an intensity, a vibrancy, a richness you have never seen before. Maybe it’s vegetable dye, or the way certain dyes go with certain fibres, certain weaves. Ancient wisdom in modern dress.

The fabrics – mainly silk – float, fall, fold, flutter. Often they do these things in layers, making the body beneath more present and more elusive. There are two things the grown-up woman does not want. Exposed flesh and materials that adhere. Akira’s dresses express a female eroticism unknown in the West since the end of the French dix-huitième. The ineluctable metaphor is the flower. The overlapping petals, the seductive colours, the opening outward around the central fleshly fact of sex.

The meticulous renderings of beautifully cut and exquisite fabrics remind me of shunga. Akira’s eyes widen again: “You mean the very detailed …?” Yes, I do. The erotic prints that show male and female genitalia vastly enlarged and maniacally detailed. Every fine black pubic hair, every little raised vein on a huge engorged phallus. The myriad folds of a moistly receptive vagina. Impeccable coiffures, the intertwined folds of rich silks. Sex as an expression of the social arts.

A deep eroticism is at the heart of Akira’s dresses and their appeal for adult women. In one beautiful image from a follower of Hokusai, the woman is on all fours, seen largely from behind and her hindquarters are at the centre of the image. A mostly concealed man delicately probes the pleats of her vagina with his fingers. A commentary explains redundantly that “the focal point of the scene is the female genital organ, re-echoed in the sexual symbology of the oysters next to the basket.”

This delicate and voluptuous image leaps to blazing life in its single piece of fabric, a shred of it still wound around the woman’s waist, the rest cascading to the floor between the two bodies. It’s a beautiful plain deep red, and its outline seems almost jagged because the fine material has been treated to create an expanse of tiny peaks in its surface, like a distant mountain range. I’ve just seen this colour and this material on one of Akira’s racks.

Leaving Christiane in Akira’s Woollahra shop one day, I find I want to wear a dress. Not just any dress but an Akira dress. Not any Akira dress but the red one pinned out against the back wall. A deep full red, with a dense and intricate shibori knot at the breast in the single swatch of cloth descending to a long fanned-out skirt of exquisite little pleats. It’s a dress to wear, as a beautiful horse is to ride, a mountain to climb, or a clear pool to dive into.

The sky is darkening and the palm trees of Centennial Park are shaking in the coming rain. It falls like the rain you see in shunga prints, soft, warm, steady lines of water dots, just off the vertical, enhancing the nearness and intimacy of the couple entangled on the verandah, in their complex unity of bare limbs, enormous genitalia and gorgeous cloth.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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