There’s a glass slab supported by three painted plastic gnomes at the far end of a showroom in the Shibuya section of Tokyo, Japan. It would be unremarkable, were it not placed amidst the high concept, often delicate designs of Sacai, the line created by Chitose Abe. The kitsch of the table and accompanying shiny black gnome stool isn’t what I would have expected in the headquarters of the Commes des Garçons and Junya Watanabe alum. Abe’s own look is also a little surprising, but in the best way. She’s wearing a navy and black stripe tee, a sheer black lace skirt, both of her own design, and high-heel sandals. Her toenails are coated in the fiery iridescent polish of a Japanese gel manicure complete with ruby disc paillettes. She’s wearing a platinum Cartier panther ring, black Hermes cuff and oversize watch, its face framed with square cut stones. The ring finger and thumb on one hand and the pinkie and thumb on the other are manicured with tips in the same shiny style as her feet. I’m sure she’s left her other six fingers bare as a radical statement —there’s that subversive spirit!— but she laughs and tells me the polish has simply fallen off. She’s busy and hasn’t had time to fix it. It’s forgivable considering the knock out collection for fall (Sacai’s signature hybrids seem to have crept onto other runways this season, as well) and that she’s preparing to open her first store this September in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. Sou Fujimoto was the architect behind the space, which, I’m told, may have a few gnomes of its own.
It’s a well-deserved milestone for Abe who at ten years old decided she wanted to be a designer after watching an Issey Miyake documentary. She went on to work at a commercial company for eighteen months before heading to Commes des Garçons where she began as a pattern cutter. After nine years, she was part of the design team. “It was quite scary, obviously,” she says. “Rei (Kawakubo) taught me what the fashion business is all about.” She doesn’t mention avant-garde design, rather the other side of things. “Rei denies mainstream, but in her own way she’s sort of mainstream.” A company has to make money to keep going. “But, it’s about gradually building.” After over a decade of small presentations, Sacai had its very first runway show last season in Paris. The company didn’t have a press agent until a year and a half ago. When Abe first started out, a New York showroom thought her collection was not commercial enough and too expensive to sell to clients. So, she met with buyers herself and Barney’s and Maxfield’s picked up the clothes. Her approach has always been to keep it real with a dose of reverence for her mentors, like Kawakubo who still sends advice by fax.
“’Everything has meaning,’ is my philosophy,” says Abe referencing, as example, her chiffon trimmed sweaters. “I don’t just put on frills. This is the lining falling loose, not a simple detail.” Even her excitement about the store comes from an unexpected place. It will be the perfect means to display her three collections: womenswear, menswear and Sacai Luck (“not a diffusion line, but for different occasions”) all together. She plans to mix the them up on the mannequins. “If we are lucky enough to have the chance to have a store in New York or London, we will play will be merchandising in a different way.” Abe feels it’s very Japanese to combine clothes like this, a Sacai mens sweater with a women’s dress over Sacai Luck lingerie, though she also likes to defy the cultural expectation. She’s the little rebellious sister of la famille Kawakubo. “Everyone expects me to be Commes des Garçons cool,” Abe says smiling. “It’s not like that; I like cute.” She’s charming in this admission, even more so as she runs to her office to return with evidence. There’s a knit camera from the Paris shop, Merci; a yellow pigtailed key cozy; an acid colored matryoshka doll pochette; and a Chanel Union Jack purse that matches the red, white and blue stones on her watch. Despite what she says Abe is cool, unafraid to share her taste for whimsy, which, in effect, explains the gnomes. She’s still part of the Comme-Junya clan, even if she likes a little femininity and kitsch. “Rei doesn’t wear heels, I do.”
- Stephanie LaCava