Style & Design

Christian Dada's Masanori Morikawa: making his own way

Christian Dada designer has established himself at the top of the nation’s fashion industry. We look at the factors that drive him toward success

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo’s fashion fans spent six days in the middle of this month looking at the city from the lofty viewpoint afforded by Shibuya’s Hikarie building, and yet for all the excitement that was generated over the coming fall/winter collections, the rest of the city still showed general ambivalence toward Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo. It’s a situation that is frequently lamented by the industry, costing the event both publicity and international luster. It’s also a situation that is difficult to account for in a city so patently in love with fashion.

With this as our backdrop, we look to Christian Dada designer Masanori Morikawa, one of the few to transcend Tokyo fashion week on his path to Paris but for whom the event still has a place for his output. The 31-year-old designer has enjoyed a rapid rise to the top of the Japanese fashion landscape, as well as much-envied inroads in Paris — all in a mere five years. Now the brand is back on the Tokyo schedule with its first ever full women’s collection, marking this designer as an experienced navigator of the fashion system on a global scale and, most importantly, putting Tokyo fashion week back on his agenda.

“I put most of my success down to good timing,” Morikawa says. “In the first year after founding my brand in 2010, but I was basically a remake brand. My first and second season, from 2010 through 2011, were entirely repurposed vintage clothing collections, chain mail T-shirts and studded shoes. To go from that to showing at Paris … well, there’s no other way to describe it: It has been pretty fast.”

The record confirms this, with Christian Dada appearing in Fake Tokyo’s Candy outlet on its much-hyped move to Shibuya, Lady Gaga wearing the label at the height of her fame and, from there, it being picked up by the Singapore-based D’League investment group, who would go on to fund the brand’s presence in Paris. However, to say this was the young designer’s plan from the outset might be overstepping the mark.

“I started out by wanting to parody a French house’s name,” Morikawa says. “Christian Dada was my respectful riff on Christian Dior with the ‘Dada’ being a reference to my own love of the anarchy of dadaism. Unfortunately, I really didn’t think about potential Judeo-Christian misunderstandings or that, further down the line, people might assume the brand wasn’t Japanese. The time I spent in London after graduating from college was really formative for my work, but I really had no solid plan. I just felt drawn to the city and its people. I could go on a holiday anywhere, but London was the only place I felt that I wanted to experience living in. I like its fragility and bleakness — like the fact it could always rain at any moment.”

After returning to Tokyo, Morikawa briefly went into business with a close friend on women’s line Livraison but, frustrated with being unable to dictate the direction, amicably parted ways.

“At the time, Shogo Yanagi and the team at Candy were looking for new brands that were on the rise and I was lucky enough to be picked up by them,” he says. “That was at the peak of the remake boom in Tokyo and, in retrospect, I was lucky to move on when I did. Creating one-off pieces is really rewarding personally, but is not sustainable in business terms. You can live off it, but only just. My first runway show at Tokyo fashion week did feature some remade pieces but by that point they were showpieces. I am glad that I started out that way because I learned a lot — and fast! — but I needed to graduate at some point.”

So what drew the toast of the Tokyo underground to the establishment setting of Tokyo fashion week? “(I decided to join Tokyo fashion week) because there was nothing like my brand on the schedule,” he says. “I wanted to breathe some life into the event and I thought I could bring some intensity, some energy, that it was clearly lacking. Apart from the conceptually strong Anrealage, I felt like it was an empty stage. That is why I started with shows packed full of over-the-top showpieces, featuring barely any wearable clothes at all. Once again, however, that was hard to justify from a business perspective, but I found more of a commercial balance between impact and the clothes people would be excited to wear.

“At the time of my debut, I think the Japanese fashion industry saw me as an oddity. By the time of my second show, I had Lady Gaga wearing my designs and an enormous number of people wanting to come to my shows but, unfortunately, no clothes to sell them. I think the balance was about right by my third show. I noticed how much I had changed from when I went to Paris for the first time. I had the complete lineup ready, but no one knew who I was and so I had to make a name for myself from scratch.”

Morikawa moved to Paris last year after receiving an offer from the D’League group to fund his entry into the market. “Before that point, I was selling to buyers abroad but not at the level I thought I could. I felt that was where the real potential for my brand lay, so I agreed. There was some discussion as to whether I would debut at London or Paris and, while I am personally a fan of London, I thought the buyers in Paris might give me a better reception.”

In hindsight, his decision seems to have been the correct one. How prepared was Morikawa for Paris? “Sizing is an ongoing issue for us,” he says. “I did create larger sizes to match the global market — at the time of my debut, my biggest market was America — but I was thinking a large size might be a 46 or 48. Buyers, however, were expecting at least a 52. There is a limit to what you can size up and at some point you are creating a different item of clothing altogether. If I had to design something larger than a 46, I would be fundamentally changing the silhouette and direction of my brand.

“On the thematic side of things, my first collection was really Japan-focused, with cherry blossom embroidery taken from ‘souvenir’ jackets that I thought would appeal abroad. For my second collection, however, I was more comfortable in my output and produced exactly the clothes I wanted to make and wear. The problem with doing Japonism clothing is that only non-Japanese people wear it. I didn’t want to lose touch with my base in Tokyo.”

With a successful entry into the global market behind him, what is the young designer’s advice for those who would seek to follow in his footsteps? “You need a team behind you if you want to get to Paris,” he says. “Even the best designers can’t achieve this on the strength of their designs alone. Creating the right team is as important as creating the right collection.”

Despite his accomplishments overseas, Morikawa refuses to sit on his laurels, choosing to present his first womenswear collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo. “This is my first full womenswear collection and so I still feel as if I am finding my feet,” he says. “I want feedback from Tokyo before I consider taking it to Paris, although I don’t mind saying that this is my eventual plan. I value the city’s feedback and hope it will help me find out just what direction to take the women’s line. I have a muse in mind, a girl I met during my time in London, but I need to run her past Tokyo before I can think about Paris. The division between menswear and womenswear is important to me. I know brands such as Saint Laurent Paris try to aim for a unisex business, but I prefer to think of men’s clothes and women’s clothes separately. I don’t care about the gender of the person who wears the clothes, but I like that distinction in the clothes themselves.”

Regarding the difference between the two fashion weeks, Morikawa is refreshingly blunt on the subject. “A Paris audience is not guaranteed and so brands, especially new brands, really have to put on a show to guarantee they get an audience,” he says. “In Tokyo, there is much less pressure to do so. What’s more, the location of the shows in Tokyo is always fixed — this season it’s in Shibuya’s Hikarie — and so there are serious limits to the ways you can present your collection and the mood you can create. In Paris, by comparison, brands are free to pick any venue of their choice.”

Morikawa says the organization of the collections in Tokyo means that the event can appear sealed off from the rest of the metropolis, which leads to a lack in support from the city itself. “If we can’t get Tokyo excited about fashion week, then how can we expect to attract international visitors?” he says. “We increasingly need to do things like invite KISS to Tokyo in order to create some buzz at a show. There are so many people interested in fashion in Tokyo and we need to make them feel part of the week too.”

However, he was optimistic that the event had a brighter future ahead. “When I started out, no one cared about Tokyo fashion week,” he says. “I like to think this is starting to change, probably thanks to shows that Mark Styler presented around the same time time as the week, which brought in a more mainstream audience. Things are changing — slowly.”

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