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Akiko Aoki

青木明子
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Akiko Aoki is a Japanese fashion designer whose work exhibits a unique balance between technical and creative logic, fine-tuned during years of study in Tokyo and London, where Akiko attended Joshibi, Central Saint Martins and Coconogacco. She launched her eponymous brand, AKIKOAOKI, in 2014 after a short spell as assistant to Mikio Sakabe.

Akiko’s unique background and international perspective allow her to step away from the industry, to understand how fashion is perceived by the world at large. She aims to redefine the designer’s role in our society, going beyond making clothes. In this interview, she tells us about her student days, explains her sadness about the state of fashion today and exclusively describes how this frustration has inspired her A/W 2017 collection.

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What do you do?

I run a Tokyo-based label called AKIKOAOKI. I showcase collections for the Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter seasons. 1

Artistic Background

The first university you went to, Joshibi, 2 is mainly an art school and not a design school. You’ve said that you went to an art school on purpose. Why is that?

I was initially very interested in philosophy. Even within my interest in fashion design, as well as technical skills, I wanted to approach fashion design through different perspectives – its context, its ‘values’ and its history. I went to an art school instead of a design school because I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where they let you express yourself through different practices to fashion, such as product design, graphic design, painting and sculpture. What I realised when I got there, though, is that Japanese art universities tend to consider ‘art’ as relating only to the artist’s own sensitivity and self-expression.

After your BA at Joshibi, in an environment that seems relatively insular, how did you become interested in going to London?

I’d been wanting to study abroad for quite a while and at Joshibi, I had the opportunity to speak about this with Ichizō Ando who was a teacher there and the founder of CORK ROOM. 3 He kindly invited me to a lecture by Nobuyuki Ōta, who was at that time the CEO of Issey Miyake 4 because many young graduates from CSM and Antwerp 5 who were starting their own brands were expected to be there.

I was able to meet Mikio Sakabe, 6 Yoshikazu Yamagata 7 and Kentaro Tamai from writtenafterwards 8 there in person, as well as Taro Horiuchi. 9 Soon after that, an exhibition showing some of their work was announced at the 21_21 Design Sight gallery. 10 While I find that in Japan, we tend to focus a lot on the importance of creating ‘objects’, their work was completely different to anything I’d seen before – it took in different elements while keeping the human at the centre of the idea, exploring the human environment, human habits and the human form. Their work just seemed really cool to me.

For the first time, I realised that if you could take the same approach in fashion, keeping the human at the heart of it, fashion could become something else entirely: fluid, risk-taking. It’s like asking something more of the person who wears your clothes – asking them to be deep enough to complement the clothes, to make the clothes more interesting through the person who is wearing them. And that’s why I thought that in places like London and Antwerp, the way they teach fashion must be so different to how they do it in Japan, and I became extremely motivated to study abroad.

You did a Graduate Diploma at Central Saint Martins. 11 How did you find London?

It was a massive culture shock, it wasn’t the London I was expecting. 12 I had almost never been abroad before so, to me, the UK was like this traditional, gentlemanly country or on the other hand the home of punk and the Beatles. At the beginning, I was quite shocked to see how ‘dodgy’ some areas in East London like Hackney and Dalston could be.

I often went East as my friends lived there and I really liked the atmosphere there. My values, ideas I had grown up with, were completely reshuffled – what I used to think of as ‘good’ became ‘bad’, and vice versa. It was extremely refreshing and I really enjoyed that feeling. The barbers in the suburbs, the stinky food markets, 13 how some street vendors were just selling pairs of shoes which didn’t even match – I ended up enjoying how unique that was. I didn’t live there for very long, but it was an important period for me.

When you returned to Japan after your year in London, did you decide to study at Coconogacco 14 because of the similar culture to Central Saint Martins?

Most of all it was because I wanted to experience how young people in Japan were thinking at that time. Obviously, during my stay in London things were changing in Japan too, and I couldn’t quite get what everyone was talking about when I got back. For example, AKB48 15 became extremely popular while I was in London so when I came back, everyone was like “AKB! AKB!” and I was like “what’s that?” *laughs*.

It was the same with fashion. During that time, a Japanese designer from Coconogacco was given an award by International Talent Support, 16 an Italian organisation which holds a fashion contest every year. When I came back to Japan, I wanted to understand what the approach to design was here. At Coconogacco, I was able to observe the values and the mood of the new generation. What’s interesting about the school is that while they teach you the fundamentals of fashion design, the backgrounds and experiences of the attendees are very diverse. From students and professionals to people coming from architecture and programming, it was gratifying to be able to exchange opinions drawn from a wide range of perspectives.

Ideas behind AKIKOAOKI

After graduating from Coconogacco, you worked as an assistant for a few years before launching your own brand, AKIKOAOKI. You said in a previous interview that a fashion designer is someone who, instead of processing current events, designs with the future in mind. 17 Do your collections have any specific messages about the future?

In all honesty, there weren’t any such messages for my first or second collections. At that time, I was focusing on making sure my brand had a strong identity. If anything, the A/W 2017 collection, has a much stronger message.

Something that you mention a lot when you speak about your latest collection is ‘anger’. Can you tell us what this is directed at, and how did it emerge?

I have the impression that fashion today has become an emblem of consumerism, where it's thought of as like a ‘stimulant’ to our daily routine. I feel like this does not reflect the fundamental beauty of fashion. I want fashion to be acknowledged not only as a human behaviour that can open up possibilities to people, but also as a culture that can feed into people’s lives.

I have the impression that fashion today has become an emblem of consumerism [...] I want fashion to be acknowledged not only as a human behaviour that can open up possibilities to people, but also as a culture that can feed into people’s lives.

As a fashion designer, how did you approach this anger you were feeling?

I became interested in embodiment. What the human body can feel, what our skin senses, is extremely primitive and isn’t influenced by any kind of information. When it’s a feeling coming from your own body, it’s inherently real, right? For example, you know how odour is strongly linked to our memory? Designing with embodiment in mind is my own kind of antidote to the way that fashion today has been reduced to just a ‘social stimulant.’

While I do feel really strongly about this, it’s not like I particularly want the people who see or wear the clothes I design to be convinced by my ideas. I simply believe that fashion is always a product of its era and the people of that time – that’s why I find it important to express my ideas through design.

Apart from making clothes, how else do you express this feeling?

While I believe in what an object can make us feel, even in today’s world where we are submerged by so many objects, I find the behaviour of spending money on mere physical material quite closed-minded. That’s why I think it’s key to add some other kind of value to that behaviour. It’s really personal, but I feel great when I spend money on an experience. So, as a designer, I think I shouldn’t limit myself to just designing clothes but I should also create things that allow the buyer to interact with designed objects.

For this reason, even though we’ve all been hearing a lot recently about how fashion shows are ‘over’, I personally really value them. As I mentioned, I really believe in how strong bodily sensations can be. It costs a lot of money, and it’s a lot of effort to organise a show every season but I find it beautiful – the ambiance, the music, the mood of the people there, the spontaneity. It really speaks to me when design goes to that level.

Does that give you any ideas for your own shows in the future?

Imagine that the first time you encountered a collection was at a show or at an exhibition – I’d like to do something to distort the temporality of that first encounter. What I mean is, let’s say there’s a song you’ve listened to so many times that you almost know it by heart, I would love to provide an experience to make you feel like it was the first time you heard it.

Are there any other brands that inspire you?

Separately to my personal tastes, I’ve been really impressed by Vetements. 18 They approach fashion from a different dimension and it’s breaking up the current industry hierarchy. It’s also impressive how much it’s influencing other labels. Vetements develops trends by carefully analysing the world today – I think that’s what fashion is really about.

Education and Design

You have quite a unique educational background as you spent fifteen years in a female-only environment. 19 Do you think that has impacted your design process?

I think so, because I think the environment you grow up in has a strong effect on you. I was raised in a very restrictive environment and that’s probably why nowadays, I find it entertaining to think of how, in situations where there are so many rules, you can find creative ways to make things happen. All those rules used to drive me crazy. I hated them so much that it felt like being rebellious was almost my reason to live, *laughs*. But also, if I was ever told “you’re completely free to do whatever you want”, I felt like that was boring too. While I disliked rules, I made the most of them and it let me find new things.

Perhaps because of that experience, when I start designing a collection, I try not to limit myself to the first mental images I have of it. I try to be strong enough to not be too influenced by those first ideas, and have the freedom and courage to blur those lines a bit. It’s about having an open mind to other possibilities.

I did have similar experiences when I was studying in London. Compared to Japan, the materials I needed were harder to find so I had to make them by myself. Even just when buying yarn, the range was extremely limited compared to Japan so I made what I needed by myself. 20 After a while, it became normal for me to make everything from scratch. As a brand based in Japan, where life is so convenient and where it’s so easy to find anything, I find it important to reflect on this approach when designing things.

Future

What do you have your eye on for the future?

I feel really strongly that designers need to start thinking early about how to run their business, especially young designers. I would like to work on designs that will resonate internationally.

I was in Japan when the earthquake happened, and even though I keep on talking about fashion [...] I didn’t take any with me when I had to flee. It was such a shock for me, so after I realised that, I couldn’t keep on designing the same way as I used to, ignoring this truth.

What are your ambitions in the long term?

One day, I would like to do bespoke tailoring. It’s not very common in Japan but, in the future, I would like to design clothes with more personal input from the wearer. This obviously comes from my own interests but also from what I experienced on 3.11. 21 I was in Japan when the earthquake happened, and even though I keep on talking about fashion now, in that moment when I faced a life-or-death situation, I realised that clothes are really just clothes in the end. I didn’t take any with me when I had to flee. It was such a shock for me, so after I realised that, I couldn’t keep on designing the same way as I used to, ignoring this truth.

I think one of the answers to this is to approach fashion through a ‘couture’ mentality. The reason why I value intricate designs is because I believe that the essence of what makes an object ‘fashionable’ comes from the thoughts and emotions that the designer felt while making it. I even believe in very roughly made designs, if the process of making it involved that attitude and those thoughts from the designer. I would like to find a way to make this approach into a sustainable business.

  1. See AKIKOAOKI’s website for her previous collections.
  2. The Joshibi University of Art and Design is a private women-only university with campuses in Kanagawa and Tokyo. It was founded in 1900 as a rival institution to the Tokyo University of the Arts, which did not accept female students until 1946. Notable alumni include Aki Kondo, who created the famous character, Rilakkuma (pictured below).
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  3. CORK ROOM is an independent fashion school rooted in the Seinen Fukushoku Kyokai (Youth Clothing Society), founded by Ando and Issey Miyake and whose members included the likes of Kenzō Takada and Junko Koshino. CORK ROOM itself was founded in Harajuku in 1977 as a network of people interested in research and strategy for fashion brands. When Akiko was a student, CORK ROOM existed as a cross-generational platform for exchange through, for example, lectures from fashion experts.
  4. Nobuyuki Ōta resigned from Issey Miyake in June 2010. Now, he runs the Cool Japan Fund, a state-owned fund investing in Japanese brands which promote Japanese culture overseas.
  5. CSM refers to Central Saint Martins, the internationally renowned art and design university in London. Antwerp refers to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, located in Antwerp, Belgium, which is another world-famous institution for fashion education. The two schools have produced a plethora of celebrity alumni, including, from CSM, John Galliano, and Martin Margiela from Antwerp.
  6. Mikio Sakabe, a graduate from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, is a Japanese fashion designer and head of his eponymous label.
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    He is a great supporter of the new generation in Japanese fashion, not only in his capacity as Coconogacco’s co-director (see the 14th footnote for more information about Coconogacco), but also as, with Yoshikazu Yamagata, head of the Tokyo New Age collective, a group of five brands by young designers – SoshiOtsuki, AKIKOAOKI, KEISUKEYOSHIDA, RYOTA MURAKAMI and kotohayokozawa. See below for Mikio Sakabe’s S/S 2017 collection on the runway.
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  7. Yoshikazu Yamagata, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2005, is a Japanese fashion designer.
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    After interning for John Galliano, he co-founded the label writtenafterwards. Similarly to Mikio Sakabe, Yamagata plays a key role in the Japanese fashion industry. He founded Coconogacco (see the 14th footnote for more information about Coconogacco) and is also, with Sakabe, behind the Tokyo New Age collective. Watch writtenafterwards’ outlandish A/W 2016 runway show below.
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  8. Kentaro Tamai is a Japanese designer who, like Yoshikazu Yamagata, studied at Central Saint Martins. He co-founded writtenafterwards with Yamagata after working in London as a design assistant at Margaret Howell. He split from writtenafterwards two years later to focus on his own brand, ASEEDONCLOUD.
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  9. Taro Horiuchi is a Japanese fashion designer who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 2007 before working at Nina Ricci in Paris and also collaborating with his friend, accessory designer Heaven Tanudiredja. He launched his own label, TARO HORIUCHI, in 2008.
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  10. Akiko is talking about an exhibition called ‘New Creators Met Together in Europe’, which took place at the 21_21 Design Sight gallery during Tokyo Fashion Week in 2007. The exhibition showcased works from different designers who had studied in Europe, including Yoshikazu Yamagata and Kentaro Tamai of writtenafterwards, Mikio Sakabe and Taro Horiuchi.
  11. In the UK, a Graduate Diploma is usually a qualification for students who have already completed their undergraduate studies and are preparing to apply for graduate degrees. As it is, in practice, possible to apply straight to Masters degrees, most Graduate Diploma students are either international students who do not fulfil some entry requirements for a Masters course, or are students from a different background intending to change their educational path.
  12. Many Japanese people, under the influence of books, film and television, develop an over-the-top fascination with the United States and Western European culture. While London is the dream destination for many of these people, Paris has always had a particularly special place in the Japanese imagination. Every year, tens of Japanese tourists visiting Paris are hit by ‘Paris Syndrome’, a sense of disillusion and shock at the reality of this often rough and dirty city which is so extreme that sufferers exhibit physical symptoms. The Japanese embassy has a 24-hour helpline for sufferers.
  13. Akiko might be referring to the Ridley Road Market in Hackney. While it’s a great, cheap food market, some stalls have been cautioned for low hygiene standards or for selling such exotic delights as rat meat. See this article from the BBC for more.
  14. Coconogacco, literally translated as ‘school of individuality’, is a Japanese fashion school which is well known for its non-traditional, experimental approach. It was founded in 2008 by Yoshikazu Yamagata (see the 7th footnote for more information about Yamagata) who, as a Central Saint Martins graduate, wanted to offer Japanese students a creative education similar to what he had enjoyed in London, an alternative to the typical research-driven Japanese institution. He says in this article for i-D: “Because the way fashion is taught in London and Japan is done so differently, I wanted to make a space where we could merge these ideals... It's a marriage of European and Japanese ways of teaching.”
  15. AKB48, pictured below in 2015, is a Japanese idol group founded in 2005 and which is today one of the most famous groups in Japan. AKB stands for Akihabara, a neighbourhood in Tokyo where the group have their own theatre, and 48 reflects that the group was initially supposed to have three teams of 16 people, A, K and B. However, AKB48 has today expanded to 118 members with three additional teams (4, 8 and a ‘trainees’ team). It’s a pretty unique operation – each year, the group organises an election, where fans can choose team members to feature on the next single. To be eligible to vote, you either need to purchase a previous AKB48 single or be part of the official fan club. While no official figures have been released, it is estimated that this club has around 1.5 million members – that’s more than the population of Estonia.
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  16. The International Talent Support, often referred to as ITS, supports young talent in the field of fashion. Since 2002, the organisation has held an annual competition for fashion design, though this will not take place in 2017.
  17. The quote was taken from an interview for SOW.TOKYO, in Japanese only.
  18. Vetements is run by Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia (pictured below).
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    Another Antwerp graduate, Gvasalia worked at Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton before launching Vetements, presenting his first collection in 2014. Since 2015, he has also held the post of creative director for Balenciaga. Gvasalia has a reputation for challenging and critiquing the old guard of the fashion industry. He shared this during an interview with 032c: “(There is) an old way of thinking that I totally do not agree with, ‘Let’s put on a big spectacle, make people dream, and then hopefully people will come to the store and buy a basic blouse.’ At Vetements, our approach to fashion is diametrically opposed to that.” We really recommend this article as it reveals the deep thinking behind the Vetements brand. See their unusual A/W 2017 runway show below.
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  19. While Japan is mostly perceived as a modern, progressive country, it’s actually pretty backwards in terms of gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2016, Japan ranks 111th in the world for gender equality, behind Swaziland, China, Russia and Zimbabwe. Many Japanese women attend single-sex primary, middle and high schools, and there are also around one hundred women-only universities.
  20. In Japan, students of art and design are lucky enough to have Tokyu Hands to help them find anything they want. Tokyu Hands is a lifestyle store, famous for not only stocking a extremely wide range of products, but also for its expert staff. Watch the video below from Monocle to see what it’s like.
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  21. In Japanese, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami is referred to as 3.11, for the day it took place – 11 March 2011.

This interview was posted on 9 November 2017 and was originally conducted in Japanese.

Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Tsukasa Tanimoto

Copy-editing (English):
Kate Reiners

Translation (English to Japanese):
Shiori Satoh

Photography:
Marina Kobayashi

Special thanks to Sidonie Boiron, fashion designer and former intern for Akiko Aoki.