LONDON CALLING

The U.K.'s capital is home to many Japanese fashion designers. So how is it that, even amid a Japan craze in Britain, their labels are suddenly gone from the catwalks?

by Martin Webb

Home to some 50,000 people born in Japan, London has been well served for some time with aspects of culture and lifestyle from the Land of the Rising Sun.

But during a visit to last month’s Canon Fashion Week — formerly known as London Fashion Week — those links seemed to have mushroomed: Ramen chain Wagamama continues to get ever more high profile, and already has 43 outlets nationwide; double-decker buses were emblazoned with ads for Uniqlo; posters of a mural at Gloucester Road Station in Kensington by artist Chiho Aoshima were plastered all over the Tube system; dozens of young Japanese designers were being feted at London Design Week; and an exhibition of photographs by Magnum agency veteran Hiroji Kubota was on display outside the futuristic new City Hall building near Tower Bridge.

But ironically, while Japan’s emblematic Canon corporation has acquired the naming rights for the British capital’s big fab fash bash, Japanese names have disappeared from the Fashion Week schedule. Half-Japanese duo Blaak may have left for Paris a year ago, but up until last season there were no fewer than four design duos featuring a Japanese person active in the city — not to mention Michiko Koshino, the youngest of the three fashion-designer Koshino sisters, who has been based in Britain since 1975.

“Not just yet,” according to Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto, who by merit of having launched their Eley Kishimoto brand in 1992, count as the pioneers of the Anglo-Japanese designer-duo phenomenon.

Had the London-Japan style connection suddenly expired?

“It’s just the nature of the business,” said Eley matter-of-factly when quizzed about the struggles of bicultural labels.

His and Kishimoto’s label, Eley Kishimoto, is best known for brightly colored graphic prints that have been used by designers like Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen. The prints — resplendent with lightning flashes, repeated ovals and blocks of primary colors — began as textile designs, pure and not-so simple. Now, they are applied to lines of everything from shoes to wallpaper to teacups.

The pair, who also do nicely out of a line they design for sportswear brand Ellesse, explain their catwalk hiatus both in terms of creative disillusionment with the whole show thing (“we’re not about a polished glamour”) and having allegedly been “shafted” by their Italian manufacturing and distribution partner.

Disgruntled or not, the couple were definitely in a buoyant mood as they sat back in a shabby but spacious London loft — at a signature Eley Kishimoto table with an Eley Kishimoto lampshade overhead — as fitting models paraded their latest collection, titled “Back to the Drawing Board.” It turned out that their smiles were partially thanks to a “major deal” with a “big Japanese company” due to be inked any day, and also because they’d just opened a new shop and launched a new Web site and eyewear line. All that, and because they’re just generally nice, happy people, too.

The pair started out creating clothes in a London squat after graduating from fashion school there, but they now seem as interested in their “lateral activity” as their pret-a-porter lines. “Fashion definitely seems like the easiest medium for getting your name known,” said Kishimoto. “I don’t think an interior designer could start a clothing brand, but it’s OK to go the other way.”

As to why so many Japanese choose to study fashion in London, particularly at the world’s number one fashion school St. Martin’s College, Kishimoto said it’s simply a reaction to the underdeveloped system at home. “Here, it’s a legitimate part of the academic structure, whereas in Japan it’s more of a vocational, skills-base thing.”

While the Eley Kishimoto brand is known for its sweet, cutesy aesthetic and playfully kitsch and exuberant designs, London’s other demi-Japanese clothes combos are characterized more by their crazy punk-inspired outfits.

However, exponents of this look Toshio Yamanaka and Sarah Swash, who together run the Swash label, and Yurika Ohara and Steven Hall, of the Hall Ohara brand, have so far met with little success — hence their suspension of catwalk activities from this season.

Things are working out far better, though, for the Rubecksen Yamanaka label, designed by Norwegian Hilde Rubecksen and Japan-native Tomoko Yamanaka.

Their folksy looks, with plenty of snug knitwear and wholesome linen creations have proved to be a hit with discerning consumers in Japan and Europe. Hence their low-key fashion-week show, featuring leggy Scandinavian models, was staged in a 19th-century sales gallery for arts and crafts — apparently all the better to impress a few important Japanese boutique buyers and their friends, as well as Norwegian Embassy types.

The Rubecksen-Yamanaka partnership, like that of all the other half-Japanese duos, grew out of London’s internationally acclaimed fashion education system: they met while studying fashion as mature students at The Royal College of Art. Yamanaka is quick to point out that theirs is the only coupling that is not based on being a couple — she and Rubecksen both have husbands working in London.

“People do say that there’s something Japanese about our work,” said Yamanaka, “and we do sell mostly to Japan. But some also say it looks Scandinavian.”

Aesthetics aside, perhaps the most valuable thing that Japanese designers bring to Britain is their connection to the lucrative Japanese market.

Rubecksen-Yamanaka, for instance, export more than 60 percent of their output to Japan, while long-term London resident Michiko Koshino has more than a dozen license deals in her homeland and neighboring Korea — for everything from underwear to umbrellas that bear the Michiko London logo.

This year, though, Koshino was another who canceled her catwalk show. In her case, that was apparently so she could focus on her new concept store off youth culture’s famed Carnaby Street. Aimed at introducing cutting-edge Japanese labels to the European market, the store is perfectly in step with a marked increase in Japanese brands becoming available in Britain’s boutiques and department stores. Besides streetwear labels like A Bathing Ape and Evisu Jeans, this includes catwalk brands like Undercover, Tsumori Chisato and Number (N)ine. These Japan-friendly days, such lines can now be found not only in chic little shops but also in the flagship Selfridges and Liberty department stores, which both have large sections devoted to labels from Tokyo.

But Japanese stylistas are not limited to creators of pret-a-porter: Milliner Misa Harada and accessories designer Chica Sato are foremost among London-based creators who have found a ready market for their wares back in their homeland.

Conversely, one designer who has found more success in Europe than in Japan is Naohito Utsumi, the man behind the Rust Made in England jewelry line.

Having quit a vocational school in Japan, where he was studying electronic engineering, Utsumi moved to London to learn shoe-making at age 17. Now 26, he has spent his entire adult life in England, where he fell into jewelry after setting up a stall selling handmade aluminum rings at Spitalfields Market in central London. Though he started doing that as a way to pay his pricey rent, he eventually ended up designing accessories for Paul Smith, before setting up on his own in 2002.

Utsumi focuses on traditional English hallmarks, those often quite artistic official marks stamped onto British gold and silver articles as a guarantee of genuineness, and which are changed to indicate the year of issue. Using old sovereign coins, medals and cameos found at antique markets, he handcrafts jewelry for men in his tiny workshop in London’s jewelry quarter. The look has gone down much better in Europe and America, where his line is carried in over 30 stores, than in Japan — where he’s stocked at just three outlets. “European people understand what hallmarks are, but Japanese have no idea, so there’s a lot less attraction,” he explained.

Utsumi cites antique markets, galleries, museums and architecture as the things he loves most about London. “Here,” he said, “art, business, the government and the media all mix together in a very positive way — that makes it a better place to live.”

Though London Fashion Week proceeded without any Japanese designers on the official schedule, concurrent with the event, Japanese artists were grabbing the spotlight across the city. Besides Kubota’s photos and Aoshima’s mural, Eri Itoi’s kitsch drawings were on show at the supertrendy David Risley Gallery and London newspapers were raving about eccentric Japanese artist Shimabuku’s video installation exploring the relationship between fish and chips at the Liverpool Biennial — which in 2004 was dominated by the controversy over Yoko Ono’s banners depicting breasts and vaginas.

Given the warm reception that Japanese aesthetics — from noodles to conceptual art — now enjoy in the U.K., surely the current absence of the nation’s fashion designers from the runways won’t last long. If past form is any guide, London catwalks will soon be seeing more expatriate Japanese design born of the ongoing and vibrant Anglo-Japanese cultural exchange.