From Manga artist to designer

Japanese designer Tsumori Chisato is describing the magical moment that inspired her latest forest themed Pre-Fall 2015 collection.

"I visited a beautiful national park in Bussaco, Portugal, in October. The forest looked like a secret garden and there was a castle in the middle of it. I found some chestnuts on the ground, picked them up and ate them," says the 60-year-old in a mixture of halting English and Japanese through a translator. She was in town last week to launch her latest collection and also to mark the 25th anniversary of her label.

To re-create her experiences in Portugal, Chisato came up with a fairy-tale forest print for the Pre-Fall collection as well as bold flora and fauna patterns; including an abstract spiny chestnut that adorns a shirt.

There is something child-like about the designer, from her candid answers to how she stacks two pastel candy-coloured pearl bracelets and a watch with a cat-shaped face on her wrist. For this interview, she is dressed in a multicoloured printed silk tunic from her Pre-Fall 2015 collection and black six-inch satin wedges.

Chisato has garnered a cult following for her pieces that are almost always covered in whimsical prints, either printed or embroidered on, or in sequins. In typical Chisato fashion, her latest collection is decorated with comic book motifs as well as "flying pizzas, unidentified flying objects in the shape of red lips, and a cat that needs to be rescued".

"Through my cartoons, I want to bring my customers closer to their childhood," says the mother of one.

While growing up, the designer had dreamt of becoming a manga artist. But that idea was abandoned when she realised that cartoonists have to draw all kinds of characters and landscapes and she was interested only in sketching pretty princess-like dolls.

"I was also too lazy to think about storylines," she adds with a laugh.

Her pragmatic mother advised her to pick up a skill and so she trooped off to the prestigious Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo to learn how to sew.

The cartoons she draws in her Tokyo studio now end up as prints on clothing, accessories and shoes. But while Chisato's prints are colourful and over the top, the silhouettes of the designs are kept simple.

"The shape of my clothes are always flowy, like a kimono. I also like straight-cut or cocoon-shaped pieces because they are not too cute and frou frou," she says. "The simple silhouettes balance the prints."

She did not start off with her current style when she launched her label in 1990. Before that, she worked for Japanese designer Issey Miyake as head designer of the Issey Sports diffusion line in the late 1970s and 1980s.

She launched her own line with a "high-end wire dress".

"The dress was made with wire loops and plastic beads of different sizes. It was expensive to make, but the wire broke and the beads fell off during my first runway show.

"The early Tsumori Chisato pieces were too artistic," she recalls.

And so, she switched tack and focused on making "fun, happy, colourful and cute clothes" that she wanted to wear.

"I like pieces that allow movement and freedom. And then I realised a lot of other people also liked such clothes."

Chisato's bohemian designs were a refreshing departure from the structured and technical pieces being turned out by other famous Japanese designers at the time - Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons and Issey Miyake.

By 1999, she did well enough to open a boutique in Paris. A men's line was launched in 2003.

Today, Tsumori Chisato is stocked in more than 40 stores across over 20 markets including France, the Middle East and Hong Kong. In Singapore, the Tsumori Chisato standalone boutique is at Forum The Shopping Mall.

Her advice to up-and-coming designers? "Try doing whatever you dream of, but always be unique. With the Internet, consumers have a wider choice these days. If you are not unique, you will not survive."

This article was first published on September 3, 2015.
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