On a recent blustery, rainy Saturday morning in Tokyo, designer Tomo Koizumi is holed up in his miniscule studio — resolutely calm, considering how he had burst onto the fashion scene at New York Fashion Week only two months prior.
The designer’s ambitious ruffled gowns were discovered on Instagram by stylist Katie Grand, who banded with Marc Jacobs to help Koizumi stage his first fashion show in Jacobs’ store. In the weeks since, the Tokyo native has become a new fashion industry darling. Next week he will walk the Met Gala’s red carpet, with a celebrity dressed in his designs. Koizumi’s gowns will also be featured in the Costume Institute’s new show, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” a theme for which his flamboyant creations seem destined.
“I have to e-mail a lot now, I have to manage the looks being shipped around the world, I have to arrange shoots — it’s going crazy for me,” Koizumi told WWD in his studio, wheezing through hay-fever allergies.
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While a portrait of success from the outside, Koizumi works with little industrial infrastructure: He has no employees and works out of the small living room in his sister’s Nakameguro apartment. No more than 100 square feet, the room has a small working table, sewing machines, a lone garment rack and some 70 colorful thread spools. Occupying the ground floor of a quiet residential street, the apartment is minimally heated, with old wood paneling and a small kitchen alcove with a single burner.
Koizumi said his gowns, which overflow with volume and dimension, only take about one week to produce. The clothes he showed at New York Fashion Week were heavily influenced by Sailor Moon and her band of sidekicks, who “each had their own color, their own personality and element. This system of thinking really inspired me a lot,” Koizumi said.
Now he looks to diverge from this rainbow narrative with “something more graphic. I want people to see the theme of my dress really clearly, I want to make something more special,” the designer explained, noting that he will show again next season, likely at a global fashion week in Europe.
Tokyo has not produced many fashion leaders in recent years, finding it difficult to re-create the bum rush it saw in the Eighties, upon the rise of antifashion heroes like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. In 2008, Tokyo designers Yoshikazu Yamagata and Mikio Sakabe established the independent fashion design school Coconogacco, with the intention to jump-start a new creative era there. The school has trained a few LVMH Prize nominees — but has not yet provided Tokyo with the traction and global visibility to match its Eighties stars.
By contrast, Koizumi has overnight been spotlighted for designs that are innovative and align with Japan’s reputation for colorful, outlandish style — giving Tokyo the beginnings of global fashion face. Further helping his cause is Koizumi’s adeptness with the English language, which has so far helped him cut deals with international retailers like Net-a-porter, for which he will create a limited-edition line of products.
Koizumi has long worked independently as a costume designer, creating looks for actresses, commercials and pop-star tours. He has collaborated on numerous occasions with the futuristic girls group Perfume, which is something like Japan’s equivalent of the Spice Girls. They are likely to perform at the opening ceremony of next year’s Tokyo Olympics, but Koizumi said he has not yet been asked to create their costumes.
He considers himself a costume designer first, and thus feels that fashion should inspire shock factor and fantasy — elements that are often missing from Tokyo’s runways. “I think I’m very different to other Japanese designers who have to sell clothes as ready-to-wear commercial pieces,” Koizumi said. “The normal, more commercial pieces can’t get as much media attention because they have to be wearable. I make my clothes not for selling, just for showing what I can do, what I can design. It makes a difference; I think that’s why I get so much attention.”
Though his ostentatious predilections have brought many eyes upon his brand, Koizumi is now grappling with how to sell his vision to the masses. “I’m not good at designing commercial clothes,” he conceded. “If I do ready-to-wear, it would have to be a really easy thing like a T-shirt because I want to separate this from my custom design dresses.” He has no intentions to open a store, and would instead prefer to build a studio that could accommodate custom clients.
At present the designer is not looking for investment, noting that: “Big money is really stressful, and also with investment — you have to pay it back.”
Instead, he hopes to self-finance expansion by raising funds through brand partnerships. “I am really open to collaborating with commercial brands — it’s really different than getting investment. Maybe working with a company that has factories is better,” he said.
“It’s all crazy but I feel like I can handle it — I’m mature enough after working in the industry for a while,” Koizumi said. “I can handle what I’m having now.”