|

THEATRE PRODUCTS

No curtain call for this duo

by Martin Webb

The world of fashion is no stranger to an excess of marketing hype surrounding creations with a singular lack of substance, and Tokyo is no exception.

Now Theatre Products, a prime example of a fashion brand that is talking loud but not saying very much, is the subject of a three-week-long exhibition starting Jan. 12 at Shibuya’s Parco Museum.

While the label can boast of a pleasing aesthetic, slick promotion tactics and some high-profile champions, its designs, and the shows in which they are presented, don’t come anywhere near doing justice to the peripheral elements.

Defenders of the Japanese fashion industry claim that European companies’ stranglehold of the top end of the market forces homegrown firms to deal principally in less expensive, and therefore less spectacular, garments. That may be true, but another major reason for the low standards is an enormous domestic market that makes it perfectly possible to run a profitable fashion business without ever having to contemplate exporting overseas, thus eliminating the need to stage a world-class catwalk show.

In effect, you can get away with staging shows on a shoestring budget and still market yourself as a “collection” brand.

Theatre Products and its menswear offshoot Kingly Theatre Products, which are frequently trumpeted by JFW organizers as one of its most promising brands, is a prime example, having served up a series of pointedly uninspired shows during its four years in existence.

Never mind that this fall’s collection was shown using just four rock bottom-budget models who were made to change outfits onstage, or that their latest outing featured bizarre frosted hair and makeup and sickly sweet dresses that were almost universally panned by critics, by keeping sweet the suits behind the government-sponsored Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo event, designers Akira Takeuchi, 30, and Tayuka Nakanishi, 29, have done quite well for themsleves. Their deference has been rewarded by a deal with UNIQLO as a participant in the Designers’ Invitation Project, whereby they are handsomely remunerated for designing a capsule collection that the “fast fashion” retailer manufactures in China and flogs at a knockdown price.

Of course, shi-a-ta, as it is known here, is not a high-end brand; its designers are nice people making inoffensive clothes for well-mannered young boys and girls; their shows are, appropriately enough, pieces of theater, and they represent a light side to fashion not really up for earnest critique.

But even though it’s a given that in the fickle rag trade many labels disappear before ever turning a profit, given the huge amount of publicity that Theatre Products has received, the fact that they are still unable to channel resources into their runway shows can only point to a singular failure to produce desirable threads.

Publicity — principally being featured in magazines — is vital to the success of any fashion business, and Theatre Products was founded, in 2001, with this very fact in mind. Significantly, although Takeuchi and Nakanishi, who met when he asked her to model his fashion-school graduation collection, are behind Theatre Products’ nerdy look, the label actually boasts another member credited as a third of a trio of equals but whose role is that of PR and planning manager.

Completing the triumvirate is Kao Kanamori, a graduate of St. Martin’s College, London, who worked for cult publishing firm Little More before quitting to set up shop with Takeuchi and Nakanishi. The resourceful Kanamori has managed to establish fruitful relationships with some of Japan’s coolest creators and orchestrated a relentless promotional campaign centered, as so many of these things tend to be, around collaborations with creative luminaries.

Foremost among these is artist-turned-film director Nagi Noda. Theatre Products supplied costumes featured in a music video for J-pop singer Yuki, which won Noda a New York Art Directors Club prize. In addition, they have done costumes for several stage productions and held workshops at the HQ of trendy Osaka furniture firm Graf as well as staging a minifilm festival in conjunction with art-house movie theater Uplink Factory in Shibuya.

Music is also a key part of this crew’s activities, and to that end they established record label and store Theatre Musica in conjunction with composer and multi-instrumentalist Umitaro Abe. Specializing in upbeat contemporary classical sounds, the label has so far staged concerts and events with the likes of sound artist Eric Nagy, “hyperbeat” big band Chanchiki Tornade and pianist Takeo Toyama.

This relentless, genre-hopping brand-building effort is now culminating in an exhibition devoted exclusively to the brand at the Parco Museum, run by Shibuya’s Parco shopping complex chain, which welcomed a Theatre Products store to its Part 1 building in March last year.

Being held for 18 days from Jan. 12, the exhibition showcases past collections, an installation entitled “Forest of Skirts” and lots of photographs of the team posing with a multitude of coconspirators including stylist Daisuke Iga, illustrator Audrey Fondcave and Miwako Ichikawa, the model-turned-actress who starred in last year’s hit comedy drama flick “Memories of Matsuko.”

The exhibition also incorporates a show titled “New Item Design Check” by performance artists Kathy on Jan. 21 and a piano recital by Theatre Musica maestro Umitaro Abe and pianist Shuhei Hosaka on Jan. 27.

The exhibition will then tour Graf Media GM in Osaka and the Mitsubishi Jisho Artium in Fukuoka.

PR wizard Kanamori has called on her former employer, the publisher Little More, to put most of the images on show into a 136-page book edited by Masanobu Sugatsuke of cutting-edge culture magazine Invitation and designed by award-winning art director Ryosuke Uehara.

Crosspollinations with top-flight talents like these represent everything that is great about the Tokyo fashion scene. It’s a shame that the two designers at the heart of the project have not been able to produce clothing sufficiently attractive to live up to the hype.

When I think of Theatre Products, I can’t help recalling a brief exchange with one of Japan’s most highly respected, and more often than not highly intoxicated, fashion journalists. “It’s a farce,” she said of the label. “You would have thought that with two of them they’d be able to come up with some decent ideas, but there’s absolutely nothing interesting there and the shows are so lame.”

Let’s hope that this exhibition — and the recent cash injection from that UNIQLO deal — will provide enough of a boost to turn the brand into a hub of style innovation, because it’s high time Theatre Products started living up to the hype.