Tokyo, Japan

A Conversation with Tomo Koizumi

Interview by Arieh Rosen and Photography by Noam Levinger

Tokyo-based journalist Arieh Rosen interviews Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi ahead of his 2022 presentation, offering a glimpse into his world of inspirational celebrities and the trademark Ruffle.

Arieh Rosen: Tell us a bit about your upcoming collection, Tomo-san.

Tomo Koizumi: The theme of this collection is the ‘red carpet’, which is very easy for everyone to recognise. I was inspired by the Eiko Ishioka exhibition at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT). She was a costume and advertisement designer, and I find her work really amazing. She made many costumes for Hollywood, in films such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which garnered her an Oscar for Best Costume Design. She was also famous for her commercial work with companies including Shiseido and Parco. I didn’t actually know Ishioka that well prior to the exhibition as she’s older than me and not from the same generation, so that was really cool. My collection that showed in Kyoto last year was already inspired by Ishioka, and the inspiration is still very present in my mind. This time, the collection I’m presenting alludes to my dream of working in Hollywood.

AR: That’s your dream?

TK: Yes. I’ve been working as a costume designer since the beginning of my career, more than 10 years now. That’s why I guess Hollywood would be the highest goal for me to achieve. Over the last two years, I’ve gotten the chance to dress many international celebrities. However due to COVID, I cannot physically be present and handle things because of the difficulty of travelling outside of Japan, which frustrates me over the missed opportunities. I hope the new collection can be some kind of message or chance for me to dress more celebrities in other countries.

AR: You told me before that for this coming show, you’re not going to have models walking but celebrities instead. Can you try to explain your fascination with celebrity culture?

TK: Every time I have my own collection or fashion show, I try to make it different and surprising. That’s why I chose celebrities instead of models this time. I did it in New York as well, with Gwendoline Christie from the Game of Thrones, but it was only her. This is the first show where all the models will be replaced with celebrities. I work a lot with celebrities for editorials and advertisements, so for me it feels very natural. They inspire me a lot. I love watching movies and I love listening to music. Celebrities from the entertainment industry here in Japan and beyond are a big part of my world. In this show, there will also be one really cool young Kabuki actor.

AR: I’m a bit curious to know how you define yourself – a fashion designer, costume designer, celebrity?

TK: Me (laughing)? I’m not a celebrity. I would describe myself as a dress designer, because I only make dresses…even though I think what you said is all correct. I make dresses for people in entertainment, I create costumes for advertisements and so on. I actually made my first tailored suit for this collection, for Nakayame Satsuki, an openly transgender actor.

AR: When I look at your work, I also think about you as an artist. You developed a very specific form of art, more than a dress. You take it beyond fashion, for example, in the collaboration you made with the Kyoto-based sweets company.

TK: I do everything that sounds fun. Including food. My aesthetic and technique of making the ruffle, which has become my signature design, can be applied and consumed easily. And it’s very recognizable. Saying that, I feel like I need to be careful with collaborations. I don’t wish to create an overly commercial image.

AR: You mentioned that you’re going to have a transgender actor modelling in the show. Here in Japan, where sexuality is such a private issue, I’m not sure if this falls into the category of ‘fun’ you just mentioned. For me, it feels like you’re intentionally making a statement.

TK: Satsuki inspires me a lot and that is the main reason why I casted him for this show. And yes, there is a message and a statement here for the people who will watch the show, very much about the fact that he is openly transgender. There are some transgender actors in Japan, but they are mostly considered to be comedians who people think are funny to watch. I think there should be an alternative view on transgender life, something other than comedy. I respect Satsuki and want him to be part of what I’m doing, and share the stage with all the other celebrities I cast.

AR: How do you feel after these past two years about the idea of further developing your international career?

TK: For me, working in Japan is getting easier as I’ve created really recognizable works, such as the dress for MISIA (who sang the national anthem) at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony. I feel like I’m gaining more popularity here. I wouldn’t say that working in Japan isn’t fun, but I would like to test my potential on an international level. I would love to travel outside of Japan this year, but let’s see how it goes. Travelling has become a bit easier, but I’m not sure it’s the time for me to do it. Japan is easier for me in terms of language, network, etc., but I feel that working abroad will be more exciting for me.

AR: Who’s the most inspiring woman for you?

TK: There’s no specific figure I can think of, but in general I’m inspired by many different entertainers. There’s something about their physical energy. I’m inspired by women with attitude, which to me is more important than their outer beauty.

AR: Do you feel that working with so many celebrities somehow affects your creations? They come with an attitude that can inspire as you mentioned, but sometimes they also come with a manager or an entire entourage that can set limits.

TK: It really depends on the person, but to be honest I kind of like working within limits. In a way it’s easier working with limits, because there’s a great starting point. Since the beginning of my career I’ve been doing a lot of costume design, where limits are necessary. This can come from the way the entertainers operate my dresses on stage or any other type of input from the director.

AR: The ruffles are definitely your signature style of creation. Was it always there from the start?

TK: Not really, no. My initial works were a bit more robotic in style, very futuristic. Then I moved to make designer inspired collections, custom made for stylists, which is how I made a living in the early days. The technique of the ruffle is something I started using as a tool of artistic expression about 6 years ago.

AR: Are you exploring new techniques or are you sticking with the ruffles for now?

TK: I always try to explore and use new techniques and materials, but it’s not always easy. Every time I try something new, I realise that for me, the ruffle technique is more beautiful.

AR: I feel that within this technique, you’ve managed to establish a wide range of different creations.

TK: That’s one of the reasons I’m sticking to it. I feel it allows me to achieve a lot.

AR: Maybe that’s a kind of boundary you’ve set for yourself.

TK: I think it is something that most designers deal with. It’s not that easy to create something new, especially once you get your signature style. Why change it?

AR: Many people ask that?

TK: (laughing) Mostly older people ask me questions like, “Why don’t you create a new style?” But creating a new style is so hard.

AR: What I find really interesting in your process is that the way you cut fabric makes it seem like there’s no end to it. It’s somehow metaphorical, as if there’s no boundaries to the dress itself, but still created within a very specific set of boundaries.

TK: I never thought about it that way but it’s very interesting. For Japanese people, making things in the most proper way is sometimes easier than making something more fragile or delicate.  Take UNIQLO as an example of something very accessible yet very properly made. They sell very stiff and solid clothing. But I don’t have to make those kinds of garments – they already exist.

AR: What kind of new things will we see in this show?

TK: The organza fabric that I will use in this collection is new for me. I always use organza for creating the ruffle but I chose a different type this time. There’s something about the way it catches the light and the variety of colours that it expresses. The use of rhinestones is also new for me, and I feel it’s perfect for the spotlight.

AR: Seems like you’re planning something quite glamorous…

TK: Yes! It’s all going to be a red carpet vibe, very fun and very dramatic. Apart from the show, we will have a separate space where the celebrities will do a photoshoot with Mika Ninagawa, with a special flower installation by Makoto Azuma.

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