Tokyo and the Future of Fashion: Saito Osamu's View from the Forefront of Style

How is Japan's fashion influence seen in the world today? We asked Saito Osamu, who has been active on the Paris scene since the 1980s and once directed the global strategy for the world-renowned brand Yohji Yamamoto. Today, he is also involved in cultural projects alongside his design-related work.
Fashion brand doublet’s Fall/Winter 2020-2021 collection. The brand is produced by Ino Masayuki, winner of the 2018 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Photo: Courtesy of doublet

—What sort of potential does Japanese fashion hold?

In the 80s, Miyake Issey, Kawakubo Rei, and Yamamoto Yohji were the "big three" of Japanese fashion and went on to take on the world. These designers had a global impact, bringing a new sense of aesthetics and way of thinking to Europe that the region hadn't seen before. Kawakubo and Yamamoto, for example, crafted pitch-dark worldviews with the heavy use of black in their clothes, which was considered taboo at the time. Issey, meanwhile, stunned people with pleated clothes no one had ever seen before. Japanese fashion's latent potential lies in this subversive, out-of-the-box approach.

Yamamoto Yohji's 1981 fashion show held at the Denen Coliseum tennis court in Tokyo. Photo: Mainichi / AFLO

Expectations are still high for Japanese brands. In 2018, Ino Masayuki, the designer behind the fashion brand doublet, became the first Japanese winner of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Their Fall/Winter 2020-2021 collection, which marked the brand's debut at Paris Fashion Week, was full of creative surprises. It had denim with bread and sushi appliqué, and bags that resembled pieces of plastic models before they've been cut apart. In terms of potential, there's probably more room to venture into with men's wear, which is a latecomer in the history of fashion as compared to women's wear.

—What sort of impact can Tokyo as a city have on fashion?

Even if a designer is from Tokyo, that doesn't mean much to people overseas. I think there's a stronger perception of their nationality than of the fact that they're from Tokyo. That's due in part to the fact that relatively few designers assert their Tokyo identity very firmly.

That being said, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is backing the Fashion Prize of Tokyo and Tokyo Fashion Award initiatives. It has also started accepting applications for a fashion designer contest for students, Next Fashion Designer of Tokyo in July 2022.

In my opinion, this is an industry that requires a long-term follow-through commitment since you can't cultivate a brand in just one or two years. People think that Yohji blew up in an instant, but it took three to four years before his work really started to flourish. His brand was initially criticized for its "raggedy look," but more discerning journalists and buyers began to take notice of him, and his 1984 Spring/Summer collection launched him to fame.

—So the key to success is to make clothes with a global audience in mind.

Exactly. Unfortunately, Japanese students' lack of schooling in this regard really stands out. A lot of them don't understand the differences in stature between Japanese people and people from other countries. Differences in chest measurements, shoulder muscles, and leg sizes from the thigh to below the knee need to be carefully studied before you can design clothes. To sell something, it needs to be wearable. The most eye-catching products are usually those with a strong design.

Also, one of the biggest problems brands face is operating costs. Unknown designers need to pay upfront to be supplied with even just a single piece of fabric. Financial support makes a huge difference to whether a designer is able to concentrate on their creations. TMG has a program called Fashion Designers Accelerator Tokyo that offers designers educational opportunities and the chance to receive assistance in building up their sales channels. Paired with a subsidy, this support for developing a sales channel helps brands find their way to future success.

—What do you expect out of the star designers of the future?

Charisma. The "big three" I mentioned earlier all have charisma. More recently, I was also wowed by Morinaga Kunihiko, the designer behind Anrealage. There's a really unique vibe to his work. He's great at the way he presents his collections, and he offers a range of interesting pieces with a particular focus on the materials. You could say he's a sort of Miyake Issey-type.

Anrealage's Fall/Winter 2021-2022 collection. The theme of the collection's video premier was the "reversal of gravity," with models walking the runway upside down. Photos: Courtesy of ANREALAGE
The TAAKK Spring/Summer 2023 collection. Designed by Morikawa Takuya, who worked for Issey Miyake Men before going independent, TAAKK is one of the Japanese brands that has caught Saito's attention. Morikawa has come up with a number of new ways to express different materials. Photos: Courtesy of TAAKK

Other than that, I expect stunning designs. Designer Satoh Kohshin once said, "We've already run out of new designs." I think he was right in a sense. To deliver novel surprises, it's important to think about your own personal interpretation of the revivals we see in fashion trends. Get a firm grasp on the pieces of the past, and derive a new design that shows that you know your stuff. Aspiring designers need a broad education. What's happening in front of us right now is important, of course, but there are lessons to be learned from the past. Getting a grasp on those ideas and elevating them in your own way will open doors in the future.

Saito Osamu

Established Yohji Europe S.A., the French arm of Yohji Yamamoto, in 1980, bringing the brand to the European and U.S. markets. Took up the role of CEO at Issey Miyake Europe S.A. in 2007 (retired in 2009) after working as President at JOSEPH Japon. Uses his influence to promote exchange and partnerships between companies and schools in France and Japan. Awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres ("Order of the Arts and the Letters") in 2008.
Interview and writing by Kuramochi Yuji
Translation by Amitt