The Japanese phrase that led fashion designer Chitose Abe from obscurity to fame

The Japanese phrase that led fashion designer Chitose Abe from obscurity to fame
Image: Victor Demarchelier
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Japanese designer Chitose Abe creates clothes that are inherently cool, wholly original, but also extremely practical.

Abe founded the fashion label Sacai—a variation on her maiden name, Sakai—in 1999, about a year after she gave birth. She’d always been interested in fashion, but the demands of having a newborn caused her to focus less on creation and more on function. “I feel like if I didn’t have a daughter, then maybe I’d have designed something different,” Abe said in a recent interview with Net-A-Porter magazine.

Prior to starting her label, Abe worked with fashion icon Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, which gave her an eye for avant-garde clothing that defied fashion norms. “I try to create a balance between stability and betrayal,” Abe told WWD when discussing her design aesthetic. “The stability is something that looks like Sacai. The betrayal is something new and different.”

Sacai is known for its technical prowess, with Abe often taking things she likes from two different clothing items (say, a Napoleon collar and a cowboy jacket) and splicing them together to create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The company works with Japanese factories to create almost every fabric it uses from scratch.

Abe owns 100% of her business and is its sole designer, which gives her total creative control and the freedom to choose the projects she wants to work on. Recently that’s included collaborations with other brands such as Nike and Birkenstock. Through her patience and originality, she’s slowly and steadily grown Sacai into a global brand that counts Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld among its fans.

In an interview with Quartz, Abe talks about the importance of taking control of your vision and finding inspiration in the search for something new.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

The big idea that I find to be important is the idea of solidarity. Being as open as possible to each other helps to create a strong organization within the company by strengthening the bonds between people.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I believe that all of my experiences were necessary for me to be where I am today.

There is a phrase in Japanese that says “one instance leads you to many,” which is something I strongly believe in. I was always patient and never gave up on what I wanted to achieve.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

I am a mother, and the majority of my employees are women. I believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

There is nothing that I feel that I should not have believed. Everything I went through was a necessary experience for me to become who I am now.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

Fortunately, I have not felt despondent because my creation is always about searching for new things, and that has always been ingrained in my design process. I really enjoy what I do, and I feel fortunate that I can do what I love as a profession.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

Honest discussion.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I received was from Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese fashion designer and founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market. She said that you need to design not only the clothes but the business as well. It is important to be in control of your business, as it will allow you to be in control of your creation.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

There is always going to be some difference in what women are better or good at, and what men are better or good at. So I think it is really important to be fair and respect each other.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.