Hybrid The Ory

In person, Sacai’s Chitose Abe is as cool as the brand she founded.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

In person, Sacai’s Chitose Abe is as cool as the brand she founded.

"Sacai fall/winter 2017"

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While some of her Japanese counterparts may seem serious or distant during interviews—perhaps, in part due to the language barrier—Abe is warm, friendly and forthcoming with her replies. Astute designer or savvy businesswoman, I suspect Abe, who is in her forties, also has a wicked sense of humour: On the day I’m meeting her, Abe is wearing a black t-shirt with the slogan “Cut Up” emblazoned across the chest.

It’s of her own design, and one that perfectly sums up Abe’s design aesthetic. She is known for her slice-and-splice approach at Sacai, where contrasting fabrics and textures come together to form innovative, conceptual but highly wearable garments. She counts industry heavy weights such as Karl Lagerfeld as fans—maybe even Louis Vuitton’s menswear Artistic Director Kim Jones, who gifted Abe a prototype of the Petite Malle-shaped handphone case from the Supreme collaboration (it is resting on the corner of the table when we meet). It’s the recognition Abe so rightly deserves, and it has taken her 18 years to get this far.

Abe founded Sacai in 1999, but before that, she cut her teeth at Comme des Garçons, where she proved herself to be a talented pattern cutter; and Junya Watanabe, where she was a valuable member of his design team. Both stints taught Abe how to walk the fine line between business and creativity. Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’s head mistress and fashion’s influential high priestess, has grown a fashion empire while relentlessly searching for “newness” in her works. Surely that quest must’ve rubbed off on her protégé? “It’s a difficult question,” Abe explains through a translator. “‘Newness’ is not necessarily something that has not been seen before. It doesn’t even have to be something new. Instead, I try to create something unexpected and different.”

What Sacai stands for, then, is originality. “I never follow a stereotype,” Abe adds. For fall/winter 2017, she continued to break conventions by stitching up more of the hybrid styles that will please her loyal fans and win her new ones.

The MA-1 bomber jacket, for example, has been given a shaggy fur collar and slashed into a cropped bolero to go over a pleated dress. Abe also utilised zips across diaphanous skirts and biker-style pants. “Everything needs to have a meaning,” Abe says. “Like t-shirts and pyjamas, denim is an element that is very common. I wanted to show it in an unconventional way.” So Abe partnered with Levi’s (a first for the brand) and cut the workwear fabric into puffer jackets and decorated denim skirts with swirls of lace.

It is this knack for thinking independently and creatively that has allowed Sacai to flourish. The brand is now stocked in a growing network of stockists that boasts more than 175 points-of-sale worldwide. Its latest addition is a beautifully curated space within Dover Street Market Singapore, where vintage cupboards and dressing tables house her works.

Sacai will hit its 20th-year milestone soon. Naturally, Abe is taking stock of what has happened—and the future to come. According to her, the key to Sacai’s evolution is simply not stopping. “We have no barriers when it comes to fashion. We are not afraid to change, whether it’s in the ways we work on the collections or do business,” she concludes. “To me, there is no end goal. I’m always searching.”