Akira Isogawa is arguably Australia’s most famous Japanese resident. In 2005 he was invited to appear on a commemorative postage stamp — and as an “Australian Legend,” no less. The honor, which caught the diminutive fashion designer by surprise, is just one of many awards recognizing Isogawa’s achievements from a career that spans over 25 years.
“To be honest, I had no idea that Australia Post was so progressive and innovative in their marketing,” he says, laughing. “I thought you had to be dead to appear on a postage stamp, let alone working actively in your field. I still have so much yet to do!”
Australia, especially its art and fashion world, has wholeheartedly embraced Isogawa as one of its own. He, too, feels anchored to his adoptive home, the first country he visited after deciding to leave Japan. A maternal cousin living in the New South Wales town of Mittagong had sent him postcards, persuading him to visit. The nascent Working Holiday Visa program gave Isogawa a foothold and chance to realize his long-held ambitions of studying and working in fashion.
Arriving in Sydney during the mid-1980s, in his early 20s Isogawa worked in Japanese restaurants and as a tour guide during Japan’s so-called bubble period. Despite his happiness at being in Australia, he remembers his initial days as tough.
“It was difficult in the beginning,” Isogawa says. “I’d worked in Kyoto since I was 15 or 16, but money (saved from that time) only lasted about four to six weeks in Australia once I committed to learning English.”
The city’s groundbreaking RAT (Recreational Arts Team) dance parties held during the 1980s to early ’90s provided an outlet where Isogawa could connect with like-minded spirits. As the event’s semi-official costume designer, his creative talents flourished. “Landing in Sydney and discovering the underground dance party scene opened my eyes to all kinds of possibilities,” he recalls.
He later enrolled in a fashion course at the then East Sydney Technical College, and used the money saved from his jobs to eventually open his first boutique.
“Sydney is my base,” Isogawa says. “Growing up in Kyoto, I always felt as if I belonged elsewhere. I don’t think I can behave ‘typically’ Japanese and follow societal rules. I understand how such rules are necessary and help Japan to function as efficiently as it does. But I’m a rule breaker, and that’s permitted here in Australia. It’s a real relief.”
At the same time, however, he admits to, somewhat conversely, a nostalgic longing for the tranquil Kyoto of his childhood, referring to the Japanese art of “reading the air,” where things are understood, but not necessarily said.
By the late 1990s Isogawa’s eponymous label, Akira, was known all over the world. Pivotal career moments include a coveted runway show at the inaugural Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia in 1996, now a regular outlet for his work. It paved the way for future success, such as Paris shows and drew the attention of Joan Burstein, the international fashion buyer who helped launch the careers of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano in the U.K.
In 1997, supermodel Naomi Campbell was pictured on the front cover of Vogue Australia wearing an Akira dress fashioned from a vintage kimono.
“That cover was a turning point in my career; it can’t be understated. It was amazing,” reminisces Isogawa. “I’m also very grateful to the media, everyone who supported me. But at the same time it was so stressful. I couldn’t handle everything and ended up with a receptionist, among 25 other full-time staff.”
With life a little calmer now, Isogawa says he’s not interested in reaching that same level of success again.
“I’m more interested in creativity than dealing with commercial realities,” he explains. “I’m not closed to investment or partnerships — even in Japan — but they have to be the right fit.”
Resolutely identifying with the tortoise from the Aesop fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the fashion maven adds, “My business is now more intimate (but also truer to myself).”
One of the distinct ways Isogawa has given back to Australia was by becoming an ambassador for Australian wool. In 2004, he met the CEO of Australian Wool Innovation (AWI). The institute was looking for a designer who could update wool’s image so that it would be perceived as more progressive.
“I said, ‘Well, I think you might have met the right person — me.’ I offered my services and we began to collaborate,” Isogawa remembers.
Integral to the project was Isogawa’s development in 2005 of a new kind of fabric, a featherweight, fine wool gauze inspired by silk georgette.
“I wanted (the textile) to be light. I wanted wool to be reinterpreted as transeasonal,” he says. “The wool gauze is quite fragile, beautifully soft and 100 percent Australian merino. I still have it in stock.”
While the new material was in part devised for use in garments catering to Australian clientele — “Australia is my base, after all” — Isogawa stresses that the AWI wanted the new wool to become known internationally.
Collaborating on artistic projects, such as costume design for the Sydney Dance Company, has also allowed Isogawa to explore shared visions and different outlets for his work.
“I want to maintain my authenticity and creative energy. I want to remain inspired,” he says.
His garments transcend time, oblivious to trends, and, as a staunch believer in slow and sustainable fashion, Isogawa explains that they are to be worn again and again.
The Akira brand is famous for fusing elements of East and West, both in terms of textiles (the merino wool gauze, vintage kimono), techniques (beading, origami folds) and designs (iconic Bonds-brand Australian singlets, kimono-style jackets).
The freedom afforded to Isogawa as an Australian immigrant emboldened him to experiment. He initially drew upon his Japanese roots, often reinterpreting the kimono. “Australia’s multiculturalism has definitely influenced my work,” he says.
Intrigued by what Australians think, and curious about the standards they set for themselves, Isogawa reads the daily newspapers and keeps up with current affairs.
“Given that you can now access any type of information, 24 hours a day, I no longer see Australia as providing me with a singular, discernable influence,” he says. “I’m not overtly political. But I think it’s important that artists are aware (of worldly goings on) and don’t operate in a bubble.”
Critics say that Isogawa’s more recent collections, based on prints from 1980s vintage textiles, speak more of a Sydney influence, perhaps even that of the city’s famous Bondi Beach.
Isogawa remains neutral. “My friends and staff influence me more than anyone; I’ve no interest in celebrity culture,” he says. “My muse, Christiane Lehmann, is one of my closest and trusted friends. I still work with Billy Yip, ‘artistic director’ of RAT, today.”
Name: Akira Isogawa
Profession: Fashion designer
Key moments in life and career:
1986 — Arrives in Australia under the Working Holiday Visa program
1993 — Opens first boutique in Sydney’s upscale Woollahra district
1996 — Spring-summer 1996/97 Akira line is shown at the inaugural Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia
1997 — Naomi Campbell wears an Akira dress on the cover of Vogue Australia
1999 — Awarded Designer of the Year, and Womenswear Designer of the Year, by Australian Fashion Industry Awards
2005 — Commemorated on a postage stamp as part of the annual Australian Legends series; presents at the Australian pavilion at Expo 2005 Aichi Japan; works with Australian Wool Innovation to create a wool gauze fabric and becomes a wool ambassador
2007 — Inaugural winner of the Australian Fashion Laureate, courtesy IMG and Australian Fashion Week
2017 — Receives Special Achievement Award, Prix de Marie Claire Awards
2018 — Career retrospective exhibited at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum (MAAS); “Akira Isogawa: Unfolding a Life in Fashion” published by MAAS Media, and Thames and Hudson
What I miss about Japan: “The pure and simple flavors of Kyoto and shōjin ryōri (vegetarian Buddhist) cuisine.”
Australian guilty pleasure: “Vegemite on toast with butter as thick as slabs of cheese. It’s my go-to snack.”