Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — Matsuhiro Matsuda is no food snob.
Never mind that the designer comes from a culture that treats food as art and eating as a ritual; during a recent visit to the off-price shopping center Woodbury Common in Harriman, N.Y., Matsuda had to choose between McDonald’s and pizza for lunch. He went with the Big Mac.
But when it comes to fashion, Matsuda has always been an elitist, part of a group of designers producing forward fashions in innovative fabrics. His company, based in Tokyo, has 500 stores and does about $230 million in sales with its women’s, men’s and licensed goods — but little more than 1 percent of that is in the U.S. Half of that business — about $1.2 million — is done from its boutique here at 156 Fifth Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets in the Flatiron district. And most of it is men’s wear, the reverse of Japan, where 60 percent of the business is in women’s apparel.
Still, although he calls himself a designer and not a businessman, Matsuda spent four days here last week giving the U.S. business a good going-over — although he found the time to go to Woodbury Common and shop at Nike Town on 57th Street.
“My favorite,” he said of the activewear retailer.
But most of the trip was dedicated to the U.S. business and its direction, said Mori Obuse, Matsuda’s director and sometime translator. The company is also looking for a new top executive in the wake of the resignation of Carl Morton, who had been a founding partner since 1982. Morton left at the end of January and is studying creative writing at New York University.
Obuse said that the company is close to appointing a new president, but declined to name names.
Yukio Kobayashi, who had been the men’s wear designer, took over most of the women’s business in 1995. Since then, and with the help of its fashion week runway show, the company has become more entrenched here, Matsuda said Monday over breakfast at his Gramercy Park hotel.
In addition to playing up Kobayashi’s higher profile, Matsuda said there are other ways he’d like to build up the U.S. business. One is to bring over more of the product that’s available in Japan.
The Matsuda label is manufactured exclusively for export, but there are 10 other labels in Japan, such as Madame Nicole, Nicole Sport and Boutique Nicole, which range in price from designer to low bridge. As part of the U.S. restructuring, those lines will get more distribution here. But Matsuda and Obuse noted that the plan is to broaden the company’s wholesale distribution rather than open up more freestanding stores. Currently, Matsuda is carried in Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York.
The company will beef up its advertising, said a spokesman, but will continue its approach of using photographers outside the fashion industry to create the images. In the past, Matsuda has used such names as Nan Goldin, best known for her photography chronicling the seamier side of life. This season, said the spokesman, performance artist Laurie Anderson is working on a project, and the company’s catalog will be a collaboration of 15 artists.
Matsuda has used the name Nicole for various aspects of his business since it was founded. When asked where it came from, he replied: “When Kenzo and I went to France 35 years ago, I saw a model in Elle magazine named Nicole. She became my absolute favorite model.”
He’d also like to see Matsuda develop its licensing program here. While it has an eyewear deal, that’s nothing compared with the luggage, small leather goods, tabletop and home deals the company has in Japan.
Matsuda’s designs have long been known for their modern take on classic sportswear looks, and much of the innovation comes through fabrics the company develops, such as the lightweight double-faced wool colorblock jacket he wore during an interview with WWD.
For fall, he said, Kobayashi is working with a lot of natural fibers, creating wool tweeds that have body, but are still lightweight.
“He really concentrates on fabrics that are comfortable to wear,” said Matsuda of Kobayashi.
While he works with Kobayashi on direction for most of the lines, Matsuda still designs the Madame Nicole apparel line and the Nicole Sport line of active and weekend wear.
But there’s time for the good life. The designer, an avid golfer, recently spent took to the course with his old friend Kenzo at the latter’s home in Phuket, Thailand.
“There, you have three people follow you on the golf course,” he said. “One to carry the umbrella, one to carry the chair and one to carry your clubs.”