Chiyuki Asano is the owner-designer of ac Minami-Aoyama Salon, a tailor that makes custom-made suits for prominent men and women including celebrities and one of Japan’s few haute couture brand dress designers, asano chiyuki. She was selected as the Japanese representative at Fashion Asia (a large-scale design competition held in China) in 2010 for two years running and held her first independent show in 2011 in New York. Ms Asano, who gives the feeling that she is head and shoulders above other young Japanese designers, is, in actual fact, a regular at the OVE Minami-Aoyama Cafe. At any rate, ac Minami-Aoyama Salon is only a minute’s walk from OVE Minami-Aoyama. Our connection has naturally become deeper and on the 17th and 18th of July, 2014, OVE Minami-Aoyama was the venue for an exhibition on the new direction of asano chiyuki. Taking this opportunity, we asked Ms Asano in detail about haute couture, something that we do not have many chances to come into contact with in everyday life, her personal history and how she got to where she is today. Let’s start with why Ms Asano aspired to work in fashion.
“It is a bit of a strange story. I hated my school uniform at junior high. I didn’t like wearing a pleated skirt and a necktie. Because I liked cool clothes rather than girly clothes. I remember telling my art teacher that I wanted a skin-tight zip-up uniform! And the teacher told me that if that’s what I wanted, then I should design it myself. This made me think, ‘Of course! If I design clothes myself, I can wear whatever I want!’ That’s when I started.”
“At that point, normally you would think that it’s really hard to become a designer and give up. But in my case, for some reason, I constantly thought about becoming a designer and, in the end, I told my mother that I wanted to study in the home of fashion and that I wanted her to let me go to France…”
On hearing this, you imagine a picture of a happy young lady with growing dreams, being watched over by her understanding parents. However, her parents certainly had a deep love for their daughter but the path that this young lady followed was anything but easy.
“To be frank, there was a period in my life when I was really wild. I hardly went to junior high. I only went regularly in my first year. After that, I only went every so often, only going to school when I was called in to be scolded. My story about the uniform dates from this period.”
“The reason I didn’t go to school was in part due to the uniform but the point is that it was boring. I just wanted to have fun and I was actually enjoying myself. I rode on motorbikes and went out with the same kind of friends from other schools. I have never injured anyone but I was so bad that I got to the stage where I was one step away from being put in a young offender’s institution.”
This is very surprising but it is an important story in order to understand the designer, Chiyuki Asano, who came later. This is because it is obvious that there is enough energy within her that it is not possible to channel it into a pre-determined mould. The stage for these stories is Ms Asano’s hometown of Yao City in Osaka Prefecture. In Ms Asano’s own words, it is a small country town and young girls who don’t go to school run into big problems before long. There was no high school for her.
“This was because I hadn’t taken any of my junior high tests. My father asked me to promise that I would go to high school. But then, I probably inherited my disposition from my father… He was originally a sushi chef and he hated having to throw away the leftover sushi toppings so, after thinking about it, he developed a lunch provision service for companies. The company is quite large now but when I was little, he remodelled the house and worked from home and my mother supported him on the management side.”
“So, when I was having trouble finding a high school, a female teacher who was kind to me found a school that would take me and I managed to get in. It was in Nara, a school that specialized in Japanese and Western dressmaking.”
There was a connection to clothing and accessories between the discussion about uniform with the teacher at the junior high school where she hardly ever went, the thought that she would like to make clothes herself that came from that discussion and finding the only high school that would take her. We can feel the destiny in the connection that Ms Asano has with fashion. At this old-style school where she learned Japanese dressmaking at a long desk in a classroom which she entered by opening the rattling sliding door, the Ms Asano of her junior high days changed completely and attended every day without fail. This is because she found it interesting.
“Right from the first year of Japanese dressmaking, I was the best at many of the things I tried. I could sew well and the fabric I chose for Japanese dressmaking was always slightly different from the other students. It was the same at the next technical school I went to but it seems, from the point of view of the people around me, I have the most crazy ideas!”
The face of Chiyuki Asano, the, in one sense, unprecedented haute couture designer that we see today has come to the surface gradually.
While she was still at high school, Ms Asano decided to go to technical school if she was going to study properly so she applied to a fashion technical school in Osaka. She was a slightly unusual student at this school as well.
“I was the only ‘gyaru’ (fashion style marked by dyed hair and gaudy clothes and accessories)! It was the time when everyone liked Yohji Yamamoto or Jean Paul Gaultier but even though I was at fashion school, I had absolutely no idea. I was thinner then than I am now so there was also the fact that “gyaru” clothes were the only thing that suited me. I was the only one wearing surfing brands and things like that so it was like, “Look, there’s a ‘gyaru’!”
“The technical school was really strict and I was up to my eyes just completing the tasks. From the beginning, I couldn’t draw, not even a design. Because I had done nothing at junior high, my drawing skills were still at elementary school level. It took me 3 years to learn how to draw. I only managed to draw properly after I went to France.”
“To be honest, even now I prefer branding to drawing designs and making patterns. Of course, I am the only designer at asano chiyuki so I draw for work but if I were to choose, I would say I prefer thinking about the overall business and imagining different things.”
We can see that the energy that could not be channelled in her wild phase was gradually focused when she was at technical school to create the shape of Chiyuki Asano, the designer. The next thing was her encounter with haute couture while she was studying in France.
“In France, I was able to take a course for international students at a technical school. I learned French for a year before leaving for France but I could not speak the language when I arrived. So, from when I started school in Paris in September, even though I was able to understand technique classes by watching, I could not understand a word of what my design teacher was saying. I just had to get what I could through intuition.”
“There were about 40 students on my course and about half of them gave up before the end. There were about 15 of us that went to Paris. Once we got there, we had to find our own apartments and talk to landlords to get phones put in, all in French. Many people ended up with Paris Syndrome or Paris Depression because of this and went home en masse. In the end, only five people, including myself, stayed on the course and graduated.”
It was amazing that Ms Asano stuck at it, considering she wanted to have fun so much that she didn’t go to junior high.
“I thought of giving up many times. In the end, the first year was the hardest. First of all, the environment is different and there are no convenience stores like there are in Japan! But when I think about it, it was like going overseas for me when I went from my hometown of Yao to technical school in Osaka. There were really clever people at the city school and even though they were speaking Japanese, there were times when I actually had trouble understanding what the other students were talking about. I think I am probably fearless. I had no idea where France was but I kind of thought it was the same as going from Yao to the city!”
Even though she spent her days struggling with difficult tasks with no time to learn the language, Ms Asano did not get Paris Syndrome. This is because it became more enjoyable around the start of her second year. And this was when Ms Asano found out what she really wanted to do at her school in Paris - haute couture.
“The Paris school had many courses. Like a children’s course and a lingerie course. I chose the haute couture course. I came to the conclusion that that was what I wanted to do. I like making clothes by hand, which is why I chose haute couture.”
“I realised I liked this three-dimensional designing when I made women’s suit by hand before I started on the haute couture course. This was because I was able to express the curves of the human body beautifully. For example, if you curve the sleeves slightly to match the shape of the arms, the material does not crease and it becomes a beautiful three-dimensional design. I was really excited by this.”
“Mass-produced clothes are made with numbers on a pattern but hand-made clothes are made by intuition. I had always done things by intuition so hand-made clothing was perfect for me. In haute couture, the design is first created with toile, a cheap undyed cloth then with the actual cloth but as it is almost all manual labour it is very difficult. However, for example, there are some things such as European bustiers that can only be made in this manner. There are many curves in order to fit something to the body and these cannot be made on the surface. That is why we make many small parts and make a design out of them. It is really troublesome but the finished product fits the body and is really beautiful. It is a beautiful line that is created from intuition and experience, not calculated with numbers. I really love that.”
Loveliness and beauty. It was clear what Ms Asano was looking for. The most suitable technique or genre for making this happen was haute couture, and suits.
Ms Asano, who had graduated from her school in Paris, stayed there for another two years to train and then returned to Japan in 2001. This was because she wanted to start her own brand. Did she not have the option of being based in France?
“It is really difficult for Japanese people to work in France. First of all, it is problematic to work there because you are a foreigner and even if you want to go out on your own, it is not possible to move in that direction. France is the land of art so people are positive about discovering and supporting the talent of unknown students but this completely changes when it comes to work and things become really severe. It is even more difficult in particular in the limited haute couture market. This was why I decided to return to Japan and go out on my own.”
In Japan, a wide strata of the population spends a fair amount on fashion. These can be said to be favourable conditions. Meanwhile, in comparison to Europe, the Japanese market has a kind of amateur tendency to distribute many copies of brands that are, for example, made famous through the name of a well-known model or designs that sell well. Therefore, in order to find out what she could do by herself or how to penetrate the market, Ms Asano had many jobs in the period before she set up her own brand. These were diverse: a salesperson in a shop (she was the number one salesperson), design and branding of mass-produced items for a large company and consulting for launching brands. During this period, Ms Asano cultivated rich personal connections in Japan.
“For example, the president of a large denim factory in Okayama told me that I was still naive and said that I should work in a Japanese company before going out on my own and then introduced me to a company. This was a person who had developed a business right from laying the first phone line but this person approved of me. Because I acted by myself and because I seemed like I had guts. In actual fact, I have never thought that hardship is really hardship. I have worked myself to the point of exhaustion to get where I am but I have also thought it was fun.”
After accumulating a wide range of experience, Ms Asano launched her own brand, asano chiyuki, in 2009. And she worked on haute couture dresses while participating in Fashion Asia and holding a show in New York (this also came into being through a fortunate encounter with someone) and, in 2012, she opened ac Minami-Aoyama Salon, specializing in custom-made clothes. Rumours of a beautiful, high-quality suit brand managed by a female haute couture designer steadily spread through word of mouth. The fact that the actor Koichi Iwaki was wearing one of her suits when he held the press conference to announce his space flight was a great chance for the asano chiyuki brand to become widely known.
“I handle both ladies’ and men’s suits. FIVEONE FACTORY, the company that sews the suits for me, allows me to use its own patterns for men’s suits. These patterns are the result of exhaustive research into the Japanese body shape by a menswear professional so they are completed without requiring any input from me. The waist is properly narrowed and they are really lovely. I adjust this base according to the detailed dimensions of the client.”
“There is a tendency among haute couture designers to create unusual designs but I like simple designs and I love to think about things such as how to make legs look longer through the position of the waist or how to make an outfit more beautiful through the placement of certain curves in certain places. Three-dimensional design is really interesting but it is not necessarily always the case that an outfit will make someone’s figure look good if it is made to fit exactly. With the example of the bustier I mentioned before, the waist will look slimmer if you dare to let it have a little room and this minimizes the buttocks, too. I love creating beautiful lines from intuition and experience.”
In this way, Ms Asano has built up a foundation on which she can produce sophisticated work in the Japanese fashion industry. At the end of our long interview, we asked Ms Asano what she is currently thinking about and about the near future for her.
Ms Asano is also currently putting effort into women’s dresses focusing on wedding dresses along with suits. And the biggest shared theme of these suits and dresses is ‘Made in Japan.’
“I basically want to make the creation of clothes made in Japan meaningful. When I did my graduation collection in France, the French people really liked my dresses made of kimono material. You don’t realise it when you are in Japan but from the European point of view, Japan is a treasure-trove. However, when I got home to Japan and got in a taxi in Kyoto, the driver said he used to be a Yuzen silk printer. When I asked him why he was a taxi driver now, he said that there was no need for printers any more. When I heard this, I thought that, in comparison to France which is a country that helps artists, Japan is a country that abandons and throws away its treasures…. If that was the case, I couldn’t make kimonos but I could incorporate artisan kimono techniques into dresses. So I went to a tie-dying artisan in Kyoto and said, ‘I want you to tie-dye this thin silk at any cost,’ earnestly making an unreasonable request. I put dresses made of this material in my shows in New York and China and the unique natural dyeing method was very popular as it was different from everyone else. Foreigners understand the good things about Japan. The other day I made a wedding dress from material woven from Japanese paper fibres. It was wonderfully soft and supple.”
“All our suits are made in Japan. I want everyone to feel good about their work by using Japanese materials. That is why I want to spread the word as much as possible about the good reputation of the clothes made by FIVEONE FACTORY. Everyone is really pleased and they have told me that young people come and ask to work at the factory because it looks like interesting work. ”
Another course of direction is to capitalise on branding strength in other industries. This is another evolution which we cannot overlook in that it fully exhibits Ms Asano’s talents.
“This is not limited to design but I want to do something different than I have done in the past, make things a little more gorgeous. The reason why I got into men’s suits in the first place is because I wanted to make the slightly dull image of tailors more gorgeous. FIVEONE FACTORY let me design their uniforms. In order to give the factory a bright sense of fun, I designed the uniform based on Apollo Chocolate with a pink shirt and a brown checked waistcoat. Everyone including the elderly tailors and cutters wear this uniform to work and they are so cute!”
The first time she went to take a look at the factory, Ms Asano talked about designing the uniforms and this had the effect of bolstering her reputation as a designer who gets things done. Ms Asano is currently working on branding with local governments and established manufacturers in other industries. In addition, the other day, through her connection with OVE, she had an idea about the nature of the bike parking area. This was to paint a picture of the jungle on it and scent it with aromas. Of course! Doing something as simple as this allows us to do away with the characteristic stark atmosphere of the bike parking area without costing too much and it will probably be easier for women to use.
“My intuition leans towards women and it seems that I often say things that are the complete opposite of stereotypes that have been created by men. But you are only actually able to get things that are said to be impossible done when you just get on and do them. That kind of work is really fun.”
“Conversely, I may, in part, have fixed ideas about clothes. A client once asked me to make the shoulders of a suit really wide and when I said it wouldn’t be easy, the client replied that it would be fine if I put a rod in the shoulders! It is not possible to actually put a rod in but when you are told something like that don’t you come round to thinking, ‘Oh right. I just have to find a way to make it happen’ That is the kind of thing I have been proposing to people in other industries. This is based on my own experience but it is about making things interesting with some kind of different ideas, isn’t it?”
“In Japan, there is a tendency to plump for a life set out on a pre-determined path. And people wonder who you think you are when you take a step away from that path. I think everyone is scared of that. But seeing that, I have always wondered why people don’t do it…you know what I mean!”
Traces of the wild girl from Yao can be seen in Ms Asano’s smile. From now on, Ms Asano will achieve lots of significant work with her inherent dynamism. Maybe the collaboration with OVE will engender Asano-style proposals for cycling fashion…? We don’t know yet but we believe that if this happens, there is no doubt that interesting things will be created. More and more we can’t take our eyes off Ms Asano or asano chiyuki.
Furthermore, since we are talking about Ms Asano, who leads a designer’s life full of ups and downs (?), we can’t tell you all the interesting episodes and stories about putting her personal philosophy into practice from just one interview. We hope we will have another opportunity sometime to continue this. Look forward to it!
Chiyuki Asano Profile
Went to Paris on her own to study haute couture at 20. After graduation, she worked at a Paris fashion house before returning to Japan at 26. She worked in a wide range of genres such as launching and producing corporate brands and brand direction before starting her own brand, asano chiyuki, in 2009. She expressed the grace and fascinating elegance of Japanese women who display the feminine virtues of old Japan in her designs overall, stuck to the style of showing off the beautiful lines of the feminine body and presented dresses that incorporated Kyoto tie-dyeing and traditional Japanese techniques.
For two consecutive years in 2010 and 2011, Ms Asano held shows at Fashion Asia (a large-scale design competition held in China) as a representative of Japanese designers. She also held a collection show in New York in 2011. She also showed not only dresses but a denim casual brand, GLAW, in New York.
Suits are the inevitable accompaniments to dresses and Ms Asano has newly evolved a custom-made suit collection with the cooperation of FIVEONE FACTORY, a 50-year-old established custom-made suits company.
In 2012, she expanded into custom-made wedding dresses and tuxedos. She appeared as a dress advisor for the wedding dress competition in the TBS programme, Asian Ace and she continues to send out the concept of ‘Made in Japan’ to the world in order to protect traditional Japanese culture as a representative of Japan by doing such things as achieving the first win for Japan in an apparel competition.