Style & Design

Tokyo fashion week: Hiromichi Ochiai — man in the middle

by Misha Janette

Special To The Japan Times

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo wrapped up its runway shows at the Hikarie shopping complex in Shibuya Ward on Oct. 17, ending six days of presentations that showcased a wide range of collections for the upcoming 2016 spring/summer season.

Hikarie, a swanky retail complex that was completed in 2012, has proven to be a fitting location to display the capital’s biannual seasonal collections. For much of the week, industry insiders converged on the building in an attempt to secure a much sought-after seat in the front row of a show. With demand at a premium, the atmosphere was electric.

But Hiromichi Ochiai, designer of Facetasm, elected to shun the media circus at this season’s collections, deciding instead to present his latest creations on a makeshift runway in an office building in the backstreets of Shibuya. His collection was viewed by only a fraction of the audience scrambling for seats in the glitzy Hikarie office space that towered above them in the distance.

“I didn’t think it was totally necessary to do a typical show in Tokyo this time,” Ochiai tells me at his atelier, located on the fringes of Harajuku, just before Fashion Week Tokyo began. “However, I hoped people would wonder if I would try and pull something off anyway.”

Ochiai, one of the country’s most promising designers, has already presented his 2016 spring/summer menswear collection in Milan in June after being selected by Italian designer Giorgio Armani.

“I’ve done both the opening and closing shows of Fashion Week Tokyo and I’ve managed to attract 1,000 people at a time,” Ochiai says. “Namie Amuro was my guest last year. I had to ask myself if I was OK with doing the same thing over and over again, never trying anything new. And so I decided to go offsite and reduce the number of guests (to this season’s collection). I feel it’s time to go more exclusive.”

Ochiai’s star has risen steadily over the years. He first started his brand in 2007 at the age of 29 after working at a textile production company in Tokyo. He graduated from Bunka Fashion College’s apparel design course, but without any real recognition or awards to his name.

“However,” he says, “I still wanted to be a designer right away. I was a little arrogant and didn’t even bother looking for a job. But being a designer right out of school obviously didn’t work out, so I got a job at a textile company. It was an invaluable learning experience and, after eight years there, I went out on my own and started Facetasm. I still work with that company’s textiles today.”

Ochiai thrives on textiles, creating innovative textures by utilizing new technology. He is also adept at layering and his brand is renowned for placing an abundance of layers on one outfit that fit together precisely — almost like pieces in a puzzle.

Some of these “layers” are optical illusions; the pieces are attached to each other as if they are hybrid clothing. Skirts are secured to pants, shirts to jackets and scarves to tops. Heavy-handed layering is certainly a style made popular on the streets of Tokyo, and it’s a style that Facetasm has taken one step further.

Ochiai, however, looks a little exasperated when I mention his brand has been described by some in the industry as “super-layered Tokyo style.”

“I’m not conscious of this at all when I design, I’m really just doing what has always come natural for me,” Ochiai says. “Don’t you think so, too? I mean, if you have a bandana with you, you’ll want to put it on. If you have an Hermes scarf, you want to tie it on to your jacket, right? Standing between streetwear and luxury is just second nature (to Tokyoites).”

Facetasm immediately caught the eye of Yuichi Yoshii, owner and creative director of The Contemporary Fix, one of Tokyo’s most popular boutiques and an early supporter of Ochiai’s fledgling brand.

Yoshii hand-picked Facetasm to debut at Fashion Week Tokyo’s 2012 spring/summer collection as part of his push to get more talented brands on the runway. While it was Ochiai’s first show, he produced one of the most memorable looks of the season — one that saw a model lugging a leather bag in the shape of a life-size chainsaw in her arm.

Ochiai has continued to showcase his work at Fashion Week Tokyo, presenting his unique menswear and womenswear collections to critical acclaim. His dual gender collections borrow aesthetics from each other: Ochiai gives women a cool, masculine look, while men are often styled in streetwear paired with androgynous skirts.

Over the years, he also perfected his signature tuxedo shirts, in which the direction of thin pin tucks are manipulated to create abstract shapes on the bib. He admits that his designs are focused on creativity, and functionality or saleability aren’t always at the forefront of his mind.

Still, his dedication to fashion led him to receiving a prestigious Mainichi Grand Prix New Designer Award in 2013 and a Tokyo Fashion Design Award last year. The latter gave him the opportunity to take his collection to Europe, and it was there he caught the eye of Armani’s program, which chooses one emerging brand a season to show in Milan.

“The collection that got me that opportunity was called ‘Love.’ Perhaps the message really got through,” he says, smiling.

While Facetasm has conquered Tokyo, selling Ochiai’s creations to shops around the globe comes with a new set of hurdles. Sizing is one headache, and pricing is also tough to resolve. Japanese brands tend to cost 2½ times more overseas due to tax. They are often, therefore, priced similar to high-end designs and luxury brands.

“In Tokyo, we can consider street-style fashion as high-end design but overseas it’s not so common yet,” Ochiai says. “What I’m doing is not luxury, but it’s also not strictly streetwear — it’s somewhere in the middle. However, I don’t want to ‘lose’ either of them, so I have to close the gap somehow, you know, make the 250 percent price hike worth it.

“I know Tokyo-based brands can do really well (in New York, Paris, Milan, etc.) but only if they do it right. I presented my womenswear collection in a showroom in Paris this season and the shop owner who is famous for helping to style (U.S. first lady) Michelle Obama came to see it! So we’ll see how it goes.”

Ochiai has described his generation of Japanese designers as being in the “valley”; in other words, those that came before him such as Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto are placed on such high pedestals that it’s a long climb to prominence.

That said, Ochiai’s “valley” analogy might be a little off. Japanese designers are, in fact, back in the spotlight, with Undercover’s shows consistently making high fashion editors’ top 10 lists, and Sacai designer Abe Chitose being shortlisted as a replacement for the empty chief design seat at European fashion house Balenciaga.

The latter brand has something in common with Ochiai in that it relies heavily on layering and the aforementioned “hybrid” clothing, although Facetasm’s creations come with a more punchy, urban aesthetic.

Ochiai showed some restraint as far as layering was concerned for Facetasm’s latest collection, which was presented at the Hikarie complex on the opening day of Fashion Week Tokyo. Indeed, he paid more attention to avant-garde hair styles and makeup during his show, displaying a collection that seems to push his streetwear-meets-high-end design into a more cerebral realm. Titled “Ambiguous Daze for Ambiguous Days,” the standout pieces were made of linen squares tied together with ribbons, with some pulled apart and others falling off. There were nods to Tokyo’s tongue-in-cheek style of kitsch, with socks that read “Gross Face Mutations.”

“I felt so free to do this collection. It was my first time showing only womenswear, and I was able to take my experiences from showing in Milan and pour them into designing these pieces,” Ochiai says after the show.

On the pieces that were falling apart, he says, “I had been thinking about destruction and reconstruction … for a long time now.”

Now that he’s destroyed the manner in which his brand is presented, we must wait to see what he creates from the ashes.

During our interview, a pregnant woman comes in to relay Ochiai a private message.

“Is that … ?” I ask, looking at the messenger.

“Yes,” he says, “I’m going to be a father for the first time!”

It seems there are a few more significant milestones awaiting Ochiai this year. On Oct. 17, he opened the first ever Facetasm flagship store in Tokyo, just a stone’s throw from his atelier in Harajuku. Inside it’s a mix of gallery-bare design fixtures, and a wall made of a collage of art oddities, both vintage and modern. He also shares a retail space with vintage store Toro, keeping a level of street cred to his name, no matter how far from the establishment he travels.

“I won’t say that I’m leaving Tokyo next season,” Ochiai says. “I’m still thinking about what to do. However, I hope that in one year from now, more of the world will know the name ‘Facetasm.'”

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