Chitose Abe is what one might call a fashion late bloomer.
This story first appeared in the October 23, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Roughly 15 years after launching her Tokyo-based collection, Sacai, Abe has experienced a recent surge in interest. Some credit the uptick to Karl Lagerfeld, who was seen wearing a Sacai blazer around Paris last season; others pinpoint Anna Wintour’s pit stop in Abe’s showroom during a 2011 trip to Tokyo. Regardless, the press caught onto Sacai when Abe upgraded her Paris presentation to a full runway show for fall 2011. “I felt the clothes needed to be worn on the runway to see the three-dimensionality of them,” said Abe of her hybrid cuts — spring’s sporty Windbreakers in grand Sixties couture volumes, for example — during an interview Tuesday morning at Barneys New York’s Madison Avenue flagship.
Making an impact on the Paris show schedule has thrust Abe’s business into expansion mode outside of Japan, where she’s had a steady following and a freestanding store since 2011. She sees the U.S. market as the biggest opportunity, thus this week’s trip to the States for the first time in seven years. She’s doing bicoastal personal appearances with Barneys, today at the Madison Avenue flagship followed by a small dinner at Omar’s. Her next stop is Los Angeles for a store appearance on Thursday and an event at the Hammer Museum on Friday.
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Arriving in New York on Monday left little time for touring, although visiting downtown art galleries and some furniture shopping were on Abe’s agenda, with the opportunity to interact with her American clientele as the big priority. “I’m very proud to be an independent woman, a mother of a 15-year-old daughter, with a full-time job,” said Abe. “I think women in America identify with that more than in other places.”
Barneys stocks Sacai’s main collection as well as the more casual Sacai Luck, yet interestingly, Abe said that her runway pieces are the top sellers in the U.S., where they attract “women who want to feel empowered by clothes but don’t feel the need to wear a power suit,” she said. Indeed, the Sacai aesthetic, with its focus on complicated cuts and what Abe describes as “something a little off” can be classified as distinctly Japanese. Prior to launching her own line, Abe worked at Comme des Garçons as a patternmaker with Rei Kawakubo before joining Junya Watanabe’s design team. Abe’s interpretation of Comme des Garçons’s avant school of thought is more playful and light than Kawakubo and Watanabe’s work. It’s tempting to call the look youthful, particularly in light of the bright and athletic collection she just showed for spring, but Abe says her customer base covers a broad age range. “Women in their 60s wear it, at least in Japan, and much younger women, too,” said Abe, 48, who made the case for the individualist wearability of her line by dressing in a velvet dress and trench combination from her fall collection — paired with high-top Vans and a handful of Repossi rings. Her outfit was definitely not wearing her.