Style & Design

Leonard Wong: freedom in restraint

Shanghai designer looks to break away from producing conventional collections

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

“I’m Leonard Wong … let’s meet again sometime,” beamed a digitized version of the designer’s countenance in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean as his first Tokyo fashion week show reached its dramatic conclusion.

It was a message in lieu of the customary self-deprecating bow and interview designers are supposed to grant attendees, but Leonard Wong’s eponymous label is not a brand to play the fashion game. It was also a bolder message than the cavalcade of strict geometric-clad models he sent down the runway in a city where feminine means frills. Speaking directly to the East Asian market in attendance, Wong acknowledged the audience’s presence and welcomed it in a manner surprisingly rare in a week where even a multilingual press release is a rarity.

“To be honest I think the runways of Tokyo fashion week have been a bit boring up until now, too conventional,” Wong says in a rare interview from his Nihombashi atelier. “A runway show is a place where you display not just the collection, but the concept behind it. The composition of the show itself should be as important as the clothes.”

Wong saw the handover in titular sponsorship of the week from Mercedes-Benz to Amazon as a chance to bring his version of a fashion show to the week.

“I want a show that speaks to an audience as art,” Wong says, “but as I begun my preparations, all I could see were limitations, bureaucracies and rules. Naturally, I wanted to break them.”

It was an experience all too familiar to the Shanghai designer who only came to Japan seven years ago, first to enter language school and then to study fashion at Shinjuku’s prestigious Bunka Fashion College. “I always wanted to study at Bunka,” Wong says. “I grew up admiring the work of Yohji Yamamoto, among other Bunka graduates, so I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. There is no doubt that Bunka is seen as the top fashion school in Asia, but from my perspective it is also the place that has spread East Asian fashion around the world.”

As most Bunka graduates will attest, however, this path is rarely an easy one. “I know if I had gone elsewhere I would have had more freedom,” he says. “Bunka locks you down with limitations on what you can create and how to create it, but if I hadn’t have been through that Japanese fashion education experience, I wouldn’t have become the designer I am today. Those limitations broke me and I had to rebuild myself — that is why that school produces so many rebellious and revolutionary designers.”

As both Bunka Fashion College and Tokyo fashion week attempt to become more global in stature, designers such as Wong are success stories for a generation of international talent that don’t come to the city as well-established brands.

Instead, they are raised from the ground up by a system usually only accessible by Japanese students, and are all the more assured of a place in domestic fashion because of it.

“I feel my design work is Japanese in nature, tailored by being aware of so many cultural restrictions,” Wong says. “But within those limitations I can run free — that is why when it came to founding my brand I had to do it in Tokyo. On graduating, a lot of my friends thought it was reckless to put my own name on my brand; after all, if it fails you fail. But I like that sense of challenge, like my life is on the line.”

However, Wong’s output isn’t just about risk, even if the gothic anime-infused world he creates in his showpieces is rarely ready to wear.

“Without good business sense you can’t have a brand, so I structured my brand with two lines right from the start, as I had seen other brands in Japan do — an experimental line and a more wearable second line,” Wong says. “Of course, I don’t want to stop experimenting, but I have to be realistic. For example, I use Chinese production when it makes business sense, but for some of my technical finishes and construction I need the kind of quality that ‘Made in Japan’ is symbolic of.”

With this predominantly Japanese approach, how does Wong conceive of his own brand? “I know I am Chinese, even at this point, but I think the notion of a Japanese, Chinese or Korean brand is dated,” Wong says. “We should be thinking as Asian brands, that is the only way we can take the fight to Europe and compete with the old guard. Saying that, I always use models from different backgrounds, so I demonstrate that my clothes are not just for Asia (and) Europe, but for the world.”

It is an attitude that has more in common with the generation of Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto who made Paris their battleground in the 1980s. To do this from Tokyo, however, is a challenge shared by many on Tokyo fashion week’s official schedule. “The only way to get people to come to Tokyo over Paris, or Shanghai or Hong Kong for that matter, is to make the shows interesting,” Wong says. “That is what I want to do at Tokyo fashion week — break through the restrictive status quo and build a base for more experimental fashion shows that can attract attention from abroad. I can’t do this alone, but if I shoot first, other brands will hopefully follow my lead.”

With his dynamic show featuring dancers literally breaking free from a cage, he certainly made his mark during the collections on display at Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. However, the next hurdle in his path might be a little harder to get past.

“I can change the fashion world, but the customers themselves are another thing entirely,” Wong says. “During the peak of Alexander McQueen, the economy was good and business was good because people wanted and could pay for a new frontier in fashion. Fast fashion grew out of the economic state we are in now, and people don’t have the money, so settle for less.

“I don’t think customers realize how close they are to losing brands such as mine. Fast fashion has lowered people’s standards and their self-esteem. I need to make fashion that makes them realize this and strive for more.”