On the eve of the “The Future of Fashion” event, Japanese designer Kei Kagami takes stock of his career, talking about his designs and his iconic heroes from the worlds of fashion and architecture.
Text by Anna Battista
In our times and society fashion is mainly considered as a disposable industry and rarely seen as an intriguing form of art. Yet there are some contemporary designers who have brought exciting developments into this industry. One of them is eclectic Kei Kagami who conceives himself as a genuine artisan and creator, working in a small studio with right-hand man Yoshi Yamakuwa. In the last fifteen years, Kagami has created clothes, shoes and conceptual pieces characterised by striking forms and unusual materials. Anatomy, biology, ecology and futurism combined in his more surreal designs in which glass tubes, vials and magnifying glasses were used to break the traditional boundaries and tackle themes of transformation and garments interaction with the wearer Kagami graduated in architecture, worked with Japanese iconic architect Kenzo Tange, but then decided to pursue a career in fashion, enrolling at Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College. After moving to London he worked at John Galliano’s and then enrolled at Central Saint Martins, where he completed an MA in Fashion Design in 1992. In the ‘90s Kagami launched his label, started his collaboration with YKK, a world leader in fastening products, creating for them also a collection of zip-inspired pieces, and exhibited his work in museums and galleries all over the world, from Belgrade to Tokyo, Milan and New York. His pieces were recently featured in one of the Oxford Street windows of department store Selfridges as part of the “Bright Young Things” project. The store also dedicated to him a retrospective exhibition at their gallery space.
Zoot Magazine: This year your house celebrates its 10th anniversary, how do you feel about it?
Kei Kagami: I’ve actually been running my own label for 15 years, though I’ve been creating shoes for 10 years now. Nothing really has changed with myself as a designer since I started. My attitude and mentality are still the same for what regards fashion and creation, but also the financial side of my business is the same, since I’m still poor, though I work really hard. Yet I love having a creative job and would be happy to continue doing it for another decade. So there are definitely no complaints or regrets!
Zoot Magazine: Your creative process begins with an idea that continues into production and ends only once the creation has come into being: what inspires this idea and what’s the first thing you do when you start working on a collection?
Kei Kagami: I just try to express my feelings or thoughts at the time of the creation. First of all I always analyse myself and try to understand what I’m interested in, what I think is beauty, what makes me angry or what impresses me at the moment. Then I find the themes, concepts and stories I would like to tackle and opt for the strongest ones, following them. I never look at trends or at what people wear and find fashionable while I’m creating. Yet I keep myself informed about what is happening around me when it comes to economy, politics and society. I enjoy a lot watching BBC News, in fact I think this is the only program I watch!
Zoot Magazine: Do you sketch a lot while preparing your collection?
Kei Kagami: I usually spend more time deciding the theme, concept and story. That’s the most important moment because they set the mood for the entire collection and if they are very strong, the collection is strong too. Once I decide about the themes I start sketching, then go back to the theme, concept and story. I repeat this process several times. Of course during this process I also do other things like researching materials and experimenting on a dummy. After this stage the creative phase becomes more real and I start making outfits, from the strongest or the most expressive one that usually decides the direction of the entire collection, gradually moving onto the other ones, toning down my creativity and looking for more commercial pieces.
Zoot Magazine: Is it truly possible to express emotions in fashion design, especially in our times when we seem to be more focused on fast trends that only last for a few months?
Kei Kagami: That’s a tough question to answer, but a good question nonetheless. I’m sorry to say this, but I think that people nowadays seem to be lazier. Even fashionable people do not make much of an effort to be genuinely fashionable or to be different from others. I am not sure if it is still possible to express emotions in fashion designs with them. In fact I think there would be no point in trying to make it work because probably those people wouldn’t really bother or care about fashion. Yet I personally believe it is still possible to do so and also think that there are people who truly understand genuine fashion creation. These are the people I have in mind when I create and I would be really happy if more people would understand that following a trend doesn’t mean being fashionable or stylish. If they don’t realise this, fashion will die and the same will happen to culture.
Zoot Magazine: When you create your pieces, do you feel more like an artist, an artisan or a fashion designer?
Kei Kagami: I would say I feel like a creator. But for me there are really no boundaries between such professions.
Zoot Magazine: You have a degree in architecture and also worked with Kenzo Tange: would you ever collaborate with an architect or an interior designer?
Kei Kagami: As I said, I don’t see any boundaries between fashion and architecture – though I don’t think the two disciplines are the same. So I would like to work on such a collaboration one day.
Zoot Magazine: Is architecture on your mind while you create and who are your favourite architects?
Kei Kagami: No, I don’t feel like an architect, but I just approach the challenge as a creator. But I still enjoy talking about architecture with my friends who are architects. Regarding my favourite architects – and please don’t say I’m conservative in my tastes! – I prefer Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier, but I also like Louis Kahn and Luis Barragán. I was also influenced by Team Zoo, a Japanese cooperative of architectural offices. I like their attitude and they were one of the few architectural groups who did not go for Postmodernism and I also love their use of materials and craftsmen. I’ve always liked Togo Murano, too. A lot of buildings he did were against Postmodernism and I’m not really that much into Postmodernism as you may have understood! He was probably the only architect who could do both traditional Japanese and modern architecture. Among the modern buildings he designed my favourite one is the Yatsugatake Art Museum which is not so far from my hometown. The traditional Japanese buildings he did are all fantastic with amazing craft works that not many carpenters can do anymore. I actually preferred Murano to Tange and I guess that if I had grown up in Osaka I would have worked for Murano. Mind you, then I may have not have gone into fashion!
Zoot Magazine: Which is the most unusual material you ever employed for your creations?
Kei Kagami: Watercress! I simply grew watercress on cotton fabric and made a dress with it. What I liked about using this material was that the roots went through the weave of fabric and became part of the texture. Watercress only lasts for 7 days and has a nice fresh smell, but when it fades and becomes dry it’s still beautiful. I guess that was also the healthiest conceptual piece I have ever done!
Zoot Magazine: What’s your favourite piece you did so far?
Kei Kagami: My favourite piece is “The Water Dress”, which is actually not wearable since it’s a fountain! It was an installation I was commissioned in 2009 by Arnhem Mode Biennale. I wanted to do something totally unwearable against commercial fashion.
Zoot Magazine: John Galliano has been your mentor, but who has been the greatest influence on your career?
Kei Kagami: In 1989 I came to London to work for Galliano: I adored his work, it looked like couture to me, though infused with a punk spirit. Yet I would say that Yohji Yamamoto was a great influence on my work. If he had not existed, I wouldn’t have been interested into clothes. He is my hero!
Zoot Magazine: Will you be showcasing any of your designs at the next fashion weeks?
Kei Kagami: I present my collection every season at Paris’ Tranoï but I haven’t done anything here in London for nearly 8 years. Yet this year I will be the creative director for an exhibition called ‘The Future of Fashion’ hosted by YKK. The event will showcase the works of ten London-based young creators and my new installation. The exhibition will be held from 18th February to 10th March in St Martins’ Courtyard, and I would like to invite all your readers to come and see it as the ten creators involved are very talented!
Zoot Magazine: How do you feel about the retrospective exhibition recently organised in Selfridges and will there be any other exhibitions soon?
Kei Kagami: It was nice to see 10 years of my shoes together. A lot of memories and emotions were collected in the gallery space. I must thank Selfridges for giving me this opportunity. I must admit I was really surprised when they approached me as I never thought department stores would be interested in my work. Last October the creative director Sebastian saw my collection by chance in Paris and he arranged a meeting with me in London. This summer I will be presenting my conceptual pieces at group exhibitions in galleries in London and New York.
Zoot Magazine: Can you tell me more about the collaborative project “A decade of Kei Kagami creations”, what is it about?
Kei Kagami: Photographer Enamul Hoque (http://hoque.carbonmade.com) has been taking photos of my work for a long time, almost 10 years. We are planning to publish a book about a decade of my shoes some time soon and there is a possible publisher who could do it, even though we may go for a self-published volume since we are aiming at a readership more focused on culture and education than on fashion.
Zoot Magazine: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Kei Kagami: I would say that continuing to create in a sincere way is often the most challenging and difficult aspect of my job, physically, mentally and financially. I just hope I’ll be able to go on doing what I love and surviving for another decade. Having survived in this business for over a decade I have learnt that fashion is definitely not everything in my life!
Zoot Magazine: What plans do you have for 2011?
Kei Kagami: I have got two more projects with Selfridges this year – a pop up store and a Christmas project. In March I will go to Japan to give a lecture at a college in Tokyo and then another lecture awaits me in May in Singapore. In July I will also be a member of the Jury at the ITS fashion competition that is currently in its tenth edition.
“The Future of Fashion”, hosted by YKK, kicks off tonight with a launch party. The event will be on from 18th February to 10th March at St Martins’ Courtyard, Covent Garden, London.
Credits: All images courtesy of Kei Kagami; “Water Dress” by Ernst Moritz; Selfridges shop
window by Anna Battista, close up images of shoes courtesy of mirjainberlin.blogspot.com