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Chitose Abe of Sacai Says It's About Following Your Instincts

BoF speaks to Japanese designer Chitose Abe about how she grew her label, Sacai, into a burgeoning fashion business that has attracted an unlikely chorus of cheerleaders, including industry titans Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld.
Chitose Abe | Source: Courtesy Photo
  • Robb Young

TOKYO, Japan — A crescendo of applause has been her constant companion ever since deciding to give into pressure and start showing Sacai on the Paris runways four years ago. For all but the most fanatical of fashion editors, Chitose Abe's name probably barely registered before then. But in the span of just a few seasons, the Japanese designer has become the subject of gushing reviews from notoriously hard-to-please insiders.

The latest to join this chorus of unlikely cheerleaders — which includes Sarah Mower, Anna Wintour and Suzy Menkes — is Karl Lagerfeld, who declared Sacai the most interesting brand of the moment, emphasizing his affection by wearing a Sacai blazer to a Chanel press event, last season, after showering Abe with flowers.

All this might imply that the turning point for Abe’s 15-year-old brand was, in fact, linked to her recent ability to impress key industry titans — or perhaps to her belated realisation that, despite her distaste for the fashion show format, Abe would be limiting Sacai's prospects if she continued to keep her collection locked away from the press in a sales showroom as she had done for the first decade of business. But neither of these was the real key to Sacai's bourgeoning success story.

"Needless to say, I was incredibly happy when Lagerfeld and the others gave Sacai their support. And yes it's true that everything is a bit amplified now that we're on the catwalk," says the affable 48-year-old. "But to be honest, it wasn't as if Sacai was struggling during the first ten years and is only now reaping the rewards. On the contrary, we were fortunate to be able to grow our sales and distribution quite substantially every season from the very first year that we began chasing international sales. And I think this is down to the power of word of mouth among a few key buyers very early on."

Abe describes the retail domino effect that often takes place after one or more highly-influential buyers gambles on an unknown, untested young designer. And, in Abe's case, the first domino to fall was Peter and Suzanne Burstein of Feathers, a London boutique, back in 2003.

"You see, after selling mostly by appointment from my apartment in Tokyo, my first step abroad was actually to New York,” recalls Abe. “I'd joined a well-known multibrand showroom there even though I had qualms about starting in America because I was pretty sure my designs would appeal more quickly to European tastes. At the end of the sales week, as I'd feared, not much had really happened for me there so I went to Paris," she continues. "I was in the elevator of the hotel where I was staying and a man asked me what label I was wearing. I somehow managed to explain that it was my own design. When he said he was from a shop in London called Feathers, I gestured to tell him that the collection was upstairs in my room if he wanted to see it. Luckily, he did and he placed an order then and there.”

The following season, Abe made a move that some might call foolhardy. Without an experienced sales person or access to international contacts, she put all her chips down on an impressive show location: a lavish room at the Hôtel de Crillon, where Abe must have hoped the magic of being in close proximity to where key international buyers were staying would rub off once again.

"We saw Feathers and a few others, but it was pretty slow until the very last day and suddenly, we were packed,” she remembers. “I asked a few of the buyers how they heard about us — because in my rush and naive way I didn't even know then how to list my showroom with Modem. They told me that there had been whispers about me over at the big trade shows. Apparently, word had gotten around because buyers in different countries who weren't competitors with each other shared tips."

In its second season overseas, Sacai had won over 15 clients outside of Japan, most of which were gateways into the world’s most important markets — including Biffi in Milan, Colette in Paris and Joyce in Hong Kong. Within a year, Sacai’s international doors had doubled — including a dozen in the US — and two years later it had quadrupled to 60. Today, the label has over 90 international doors and 35 in Japan.

In the intervening years, most of Sacai’s clients remained loyal and their orders grew steadily as the collection matured, Abe says. The superior quality and reliability of Sacai’s production, based mostly in Japan, has been one of the company’s key advantages, although the knitted and embroidered ranges are made in China and India. But more importantly, with a design palette based on the intersection of familiarity and novelty, fabrication plays an important role — and, in the case of Sacai, it’s become a unique selling proposition valued by retailers and consumers alike.

"I don't buy fabric; I have fabrics made exclusively for me," Abe says. "Except for lace, 100 percent of them are unique to us. Only textile companies in Japan can do this with such small production runs of a few rolls."

Abe has been able to expand horizontally into other fashion categories through her more streamlined Sacai Luck and Sacai Men's lines. These two collections now account for 35 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of Sacai's total revenues. As a private company, Sacai does not release sales or profit figures, but the firm is still 100 percent owned by Abe, which suggests it’s either performing reasonably well, or that she has very deep pockets.

"I've got no managing director overhead telling me what to make in order to meet sales projections or how to behave based on market research. My collections are based purely on my creative instincts. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I am a firm believer that if you're producing well-designed products at the right price that your business is destined to flourish. The same goes for business. Trust your personal instincts. Of course I sometimes have reservations or get worried, but at this scale of business, it means I can still do things in a believable and meaningful way."

Although she claims that she is not actively looking to hook up with a big group or investors, she is reticent about how, when or where she plans to deploy the retail rollout she has hinted about on several occasions.

The brand's first venture outside of wholesale channels came in 2011 with the opening of its flagship in Tokyo's Minami-Aoyama district, just a stone's throw from the iconic Comme des Garçons boutique, which is probably no coincidence. Abe worked there for eight years — first as a pattern cutter under Rei Kawakubo and then as part of Junya Watanbe's design team — before opening her own business, after the birth of her first child.

"Obviously, I have so much respect for that company.  But more than learning my trade as a designer or how to marry creativity with business, do you know the most important thing I learned from Comme des Garçons? How to catch when a new kachikan (personal value system) is born and how to express it through fashion."

Abe is a designer with the ability to transform wardrobe staples into hybrids that are so delicate and desirable that they are often dubbed neo-classics. Her approach seems to take the process full circle by tempering the experimental spirit of some of Japan's conceptual and avant-garde masters with a strangely timeless quality.

"Typically, the Japanese market is so fast-moving because of the culture of the cult of the new. That's why the consumer has a very short attention span. Before they've even gotten accustomed to what they've bought, they're already sick of it and on to the next thing,” she says. “Although this is changing a bit now, Japan was still very skewed in this way — which is one reason I continue to be so focused on international markets."

Despite its many design merits and seemingly solid business performance, some of the recent international interest in Sacai is, no doubt, based on the current absence of other progressive Japanese designers on the international fashion scene, following so many decades in which Japanese designers played a leading role.

"How I see it, it's just a fluke that I was born in Tokyo. Yes, Tokyo is the hub of my business and yes it's true that I've been mostly alone apart from overlapping with the careers of Jun Takahashi of Undercover and a few others. But the eras of Kawakubo, Miyake, Yamamoto and the like were dramatic moments in fashion history. It's not that I'm distanced from any of them but that I'm simply different," she says.

"Japanese-ness may be important for some when selling to Europe and maybe some Europeans do actively look for that Japenese-ness in design but, whatever their reasons, for me it's not important. I think it says something that I'm the only Japanese brand that many of my stockists carry."

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