Dressing up: behind the inspiration of Australian-international designer Akira Isogawa

The fashion designer dishes on art, travel and his most treasured possessions.

By Susan Skelly 10/03/2019

His garments are inventive, artisanal and breathtakingly beautiful, as cherished as a wedding dress. The various dyeing and twisting techniques of shibori are a signature of his work.It’s more than three decades since Akira Isogawa arrived in Australia, aged 21, from Kyoto, knowing few people and few words of English, and enrolled in the Sydney Institute of Technology to study fashion design. Since then, Isogawa has won numerous fashion industry awards, been celebrated on a postage stamp, collaborated on spellbinding costumes for the Sydney Dance Company and The Australian Ballet, and been the focus of numerous exhibitions around the nation. Late last year, Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum will mount a collection of his work, and prestige publishers Thames & Hudson have a coffee table book about his studio archive in the works. Isogawa shows in Paris twice a year, goes home to Kyoto often, and continues to find inspiration in travel.

## Whose art is on your walls?

Because I spend more time in my studio than my home, mostly my art is stacked up against walls; I never seem to get to the drill! My favourite artworks are by a dear friend, Christiane Lehmann, a visual artist practising collage, photography, printing and interior design for more than 30 years. My favourite is East Meets West. In the ’90s, I made a dress for Christiane and she gave me the artwork in return.

## What do you collect?

I have a passion for textiles. I collect them during my travels (usually a dozen trips a year) to Japan or other parts of Southeast Asia, or during my shows in Paris. I can’t help myself. I visit antique fairs (great for ’40s art), flea markets for antique beads, and Kyoto for kimonos.

## Your most treasured possessions?

I am particularly fond of a 50-year-old wedding kimono from Kyoto. It’s in ivory satin embroidered in beautiful shades of pink with a thickly padded red border. I have an archive upstairs in my studio; the entire floor is devoted to my sample collections, about 2000 pieces. Another precious piece is a simple shift dress of silk georgette that is embroidered all over with tiny sequins hand-cut from wood. I found them in Mumbai and had them painted in red and in ivory.

## What is your idea of luxury?

You’ll expect me to name an object, but really it’s the concept of time. I treasure that most. I am in my design studio from nine in the morning until nine at night. I yearn for another hour, another day, to rest my mind and reflect. That’s a total luxury for me. I know that is hard to photograph!

## What city has the most appeal?

Every time I return to Kyoto where I was born and raised – I go two or three times a year – I realise how peaceful and tranquil the city is.

## What reminds you most of home?

My mother, Tomiko, passed away in 2001 and it is memories of her that I most value. Like the tiny bottle of perfume she used to wear – no name, I don’t think it’s even French, but it has meaning to me. There’s a photo of my mother with her sister, in the ’50s, and it’s the only one of her I have. My elderly father decided to sell our house and move, and got rid of everything including all the contents of my bedroom.Which international designers have had an effect on you?I have great respect for Martin Margiela, the Belgian-born designer behind Maison Margiela, and for the tailoring of Yohji Yamamoto. Rei Kawakubo, the creative director of Comme des Garçons, creates pieces of art, to be admired as much as worn. To produce what she does to such a standard is unique, especially considering she was female and working in Japan in the relatively conservative 1970s.

## Any crazy purchases?

As a (poor!) student, I was determined to visit the King’s Road in London, where I spent thousands of dollars on a Vivienne Westwood jacket I had seen in i-D magazine. It was Harris Tweed, its shape inspired by medieval armour, with detachable sleeves.

## Who are you wearing now?

I have all my clothes ready to change into on a rack in my studio. Among them a dozen or so Comme des Garçons cotton shirts, most bought in Japan. I have a fine wool dark-navy Comme des Garçons suit and one retro suit that’s black polyester with white stitching.

## What are your most indispensable gadgets?

Thread, needles and scissors. But whereas you can tear fabric by hand, you can’t really assemble garments with glue, so thread and needle are my essentials. I’ve got two different kinds of needles, both small and fine, and a palette of some 30 threads.

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