Tsumori Chisato’s highly whimsical clothes may conjure images of the designer doing cartwheels through the studio like a Japanese Betsey Johnson. But, as witnessed recently at the fete for her 20th anniversary at the Ritz Carlton in Tokyo, she can be as sharp and deadly serious as a Bushido sword.
I spoke with Chisato at the party, where she also restaged her fall collection, her first showing in Tokyo since leaving for Paris Fashion Week seven years ago. Alas, the start of the conversation went like this: “What do you do to relax?” “I sleep.” But then, when the topic turned to her inspiration for fall, a trip to Turkey, she lit up and spoke—in a mix of Japanese and English—with the same curious wonder that wriggles its way into her fanciful designs. “Turkey was absolutely amazing,” she said. “People say that Japan is an exotic destination, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Turkey! I mean, everywhere you go it’s like you’re walking through a museum. It’s colorful like Disneyland, but so real and poignant.”
Chisato translated the embroidered rugs she found, as well as images of Aladdin’s magic lamp and striped tents of Turkish nomads into a defiantly vibrant and youthful collection, one which was misconstrued by some as having a circus theme. “It’s not a circus. That’s a mistake,” she was quick to point out.
While her imaginative designs may garner plenty of attention in Paris, the only non-Asian home to a Tsumori Chisato boutique, it takes a massive amount of stamina and loyalty to maintain a presence in every major shopping district in kitsch-saturated Tokyo. “I am perfectly aware of my job, which I work very hard at,” said Chisato, who got her start as a design assistant for Issey Miyake in the 70s. “And making people feel cheerful when they wear my clothes is in my job description. It’s about being demandingly curious, like a child. For example, I wanted to ride in a hot-air balloon, so I did. And I did it right away. I stay young by never growing up.”
Recently, one of Chisato’s former assistants started a label, Mew New York, with a similar Peter Pan quality. Asked about this, she said, “It doesn’t bother me because of course the people who like my own aesthetic are going to want to be assisting me. Birds of a feather, you know? I would love to have assistants who are totally different style-wise, just to mix things up, like a shibuya girl or macho boy. But they aren’t going to want to work for Tsumori Chisato, right? I only have girly boys on my design team. So it’s a natural process.”
At the Tokyo show, the room was brimming with reporters and photographers from Chinese media, where Chisato has been stepping up her game, along with many Japanese designers. She courteously worked through all the questions like a pro. Then a reporter from Chinese Glamour asked, “My readers usually dress sexy. What advice would you give to them to dress girly?” Chisato paused before pulling out the sword and answering, rather bluntly, “Girly? I don’t know! Don’t be young, don’t be old. Look at me. Do it like this.”