Style & Design

Dempagumi.inc’s Risa Aizawa on the true power of fashion

Tokyo fashion week debut reveals idol's design aspirations

by Misha Janette

Contributing Writer

Fashion designers can be stiff creatures, especially when it comes to divulging their history or feelings in an interview. However, Risa Aizawa is not your run-of-the-mill fashion designer. She is a member of the five-person Akihabara-born idol group Dempagumi.inc, known more for it’s hard-core dedication to otaku fandom than for its runway shows. Even so, she debuted her brand Memuse on the runway during the recent Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo, and the show was one of the most buzzed about of the week.

“Hello!” I am greeted with a warm welcome and a large smile.

Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season
Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season’s Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. | SAMUEL THOMAS

Aizawa wastes no time in mulling over any questions, packing in as much information as possible in answers at a high-power speed. A laugh here, an anecdote there and always ending with a smile, she is certainly different from a typical fashion personality. And despite the stereotype of over-managed celebrities, her handlers are far off in a corner. This is pure Aizawa speaking.

“I never thought I could be in the fashion world, I felt I could never belong,” she says about her brand’s debut. “But I feel like I have stumbled upon a hole in the fence and am quietly going in and out as I like.”

Becoming an idol

The same could be said about her entryway into the idol world. Although she is a bona fide idol superstar now, she said that it was never her intention to become one, but rather that it was a happy accident.

“I was obsessed with voice actors and anime, so I took a part time job at a maid cafe in Akihabara,” she says.

Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season
Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season’s Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. | SAMUEL THOMAS

However, when that first cafe was closing down, Akihabara DearStage, a newly opened bar and concert venue, hired her.

“I thought I was just going to be on staff, I didn’t realize the whole concept of it was that everyone had to perform,” she recalls.

Later, she heard about a group that would perform anime theme songs and went for the audition, which she passed successfully. That was Dempagumi.inc, which she joined in 2009.

“I never thought of myself or Dempa as being an idol group because an idol means being perfect — all the time. But I was awkward. I couldn’t sing,” she recalls. “I couldn’t dance, I remember crying while trying to learn my dance moves.”

Before she knew it, Aizawa says she had become a so-called idol in Japan. The newfound fame — and passable dancing — however, didn’t make things any easier, she says.

“The customers at DearStage wanted us to sing anime songs, but we were more like idols,” she says. “And then when we were at events with idol groups, they’d just see us as that group that does anime songs. We were supposed to hide our otaku-ness, but it was near to impossible to hide.”

Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season
Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season’s Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. | SAMUEL THOMAS

She goes on to reference a time in her life where things were especially bleak. In 2013, Dempagumi.inc released a song called “WWD,” coined a “documentary song” in which each member expressed details about their pasts and hurdles they’ve faced. Aizawa sings that as a young child she would hole herself up in her room as a hikikomori (socially withdrawn), with only radio shows to keep her company.

“I couldn’t even tell my own parents how I was feeling. Instead, I expressed myself by how I looked,” she says, and by that measure, she chose a demure Lolita-like image with a princess-style haircut that she says she hasn’t changed in over 10 years.

After the release of “WWD,” Aizawa says that the group was finally accepted for what it was: an imperfect “idol” group with fears and feelings just like anyone else.

Frills into fashion

Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season
Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season’s Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. | SAMUEL THOMAS

So when did the fashion bug bite Aizawa? Although she says anime and an obsession with voice actors trumped everything else, she has always had an eye on putting outfits together. In fact, she often took the role of stylist for her group, putting together looks for them, whether it was designing stage outfits or finding the right bikinis for a gravure-style (pin-up) photo shoot.

However, the catalyst to her foray into fashion was fellow Tokyo Fashion Week veteran and Akihabara aficionado Mikio Sakabe, who was first a fan and then a major collaborator for Dempagumi.inc for more than six years. Hot on the heels of graduation from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Sakabe broke into the Tokyo fashion scene in 2007, openly talking about his inspirations, which were heavily reliant on otaku culture.

In May 2011, while other designers were laying low due to the Great East Japan Earthquake, Sakabe invited the fashion industry to take a peek into his world by putting on a wild show in which the Dempagumi.inc members walked the finale in rubber anime-like wigs and “silver-bullet” shoes that were fashioned like stilts. At the time, it was certainly strange, shocking even, to witness the clash of otaku-dom and fashion on the catwalk.

Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season
Riza Aizawa produced designs for Memuse at this season’s Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. | SAMUEL THOMAS

“I feel like meeting Sakabe was affirmation that people outside of the otaku world might see us as valid,” Aizawa says of Sakabe, who is now credited with being a brand adviser to Memuse.

Aizawa says the concept of her brand Memuse is “dresses to wear in battle.”

“I have come to realize just how powerful fashion can be and how it can make us feel transformed,” she says. “I have always wanted to transform into someone else, and I was told recently that this way of thinking is very Japanese. … I’m not talking about enhancing myself through makeup or something small — I really want to change into someone else. Hopefully these designs will satisfy that urge. And if there is anyone overseas who feels the same way, even if it is a weird way to think, then I hope that someday I can reach them.”