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The starting point: Designer Hideco Sugai's philosophy of fashion

Kyoto-based fashion business Deco Japan was established some thirty years ago by designer Hideco Sugai. Based on the concept “enveloping the mind and the body”, the starting point for Sugai's clothes might be described as a kind of chemical reaction caused by fusion of extremes. The mind and the body, East and West, high-tech and traditional materials, functionality and playfulness- Sugai’s fashion is steeped in a rich sense of opposition. The designer herself likes to describe it as crossover.
Hideco Sugai was born and raised down the road in Osaka. After studying costume design there, she ventured by herself to New York to study design and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), the alma mater of countless legends including fashion designers Calvin Klein and Céline Vipiana, as well as Nina Garcia, former fashion director of Elle and Marie Claire magazines. At the same time, she took English classes at the State University of New York. Sugai was 23 years old at the time. This was almost forty years ago, an age when studying abroad was not easy for a Japanese woman. Nonetheless, she was driven by a pure and simple force: the desire to prove herself overseas.

The New York years: Cultural encounters

Living in a dormitory near FIT in New York, Sugai's days were spent fraternizing with young people from all over the world. After coffee and breakfast in the cafeteria, Sugai would make her way to school on West 27th street near Seventh Avenue. During the day she attended her classes that were, naturally, held in English. At night at the dormitory she did her laundry using something she had never before seen: an automatic washing machine with a dryer. She strolled Fifth Avenue and frequented the boutiques of Greenwich Village. “It was continuous culture shock every day then,” laughs Sugai. However, her bewilderment also brought her great joy, since the chance to experience different cultures outside of Japan was the life she had wished for.
One incident in particular left a lasting impression on Sugai. One day, she had to make a presentation on a given subject at school. Originality was highly valued; ideas that stood out from the others. Sugai found herself questioning her own identity for the first time. She decided to give her talk on fashion theory based in Japanese aesthetics, showing a collage she had made from the cut-up pages of a pop fashion magazine and some Japanese chiyogami (craft paper in colorful patterns) she had had sent from Japan. Her presentation was much more warmly received than she expected. It was then that she realized that since it was Japanese culture that had made her who she was, it was strange to be talking about rococo or baroque style before addressing her own personal traditions and culture. Of all her experiences in New York, this was the one that brought the greatest shift in values, and was to profoundly influence her style as a designer. After two eventful years she had used to the absolute fullest, and graduating in her own style, Sugai returned to Japan as she had promised her parents she would. Yet as she flew out of JFK International Airport, she whispered a promise to the West. “I'll be back someday.”

Back in Japan: Demanding company work and breaking out alone

On returning to Japan, Sugai began working as stylist at Teijin Limited, a well-known Japanese company specializing in fibers. She chose the job because she had felt instinctively that textiles were ‘the building blocks of fashion’. There she studied the basics of textiles, and worked in the marketing department, mainly in charge of materials development and exhibition planning. While there were a number of female stylists working at the time, Sugai was the only woman involved in overseas marketing. She was in her element in this position, utilizing her English language skills and overseas experience in dealings with overseas buyers and exhibitions in Europe and other parts of the world. Her working days spent traveling the globe, Sugai absorbed a wealth of information, including the world-class quality of Japanese synthetic textiles and the technologies behind them, the differences in characteristics between high-tech fibers such as polyester and traditional natural fibers, and the techniques used by fabric artisans in Japan. Eventually a resolve grew within her. She reflects, “There weren't many fashion designers with such thorough knowledge of both synthetic and natural fibers. I wondered if that was the key to making clothes that only I was capable of.” Sugai felt the time had come to branch out on her own.

Independence: Dashing along the runway

In 1980 Sugai set up an office in Osaka, and Deco Japan Co. Ltd. was born. She was about 30 years old at the time. Although she had been brilliant in her work with Teijin, her lack of connections (aside from her apparel-store-owning father and fashion designer mother) and track record in the apparel business presented a considerable challenge. However, fate was on her side. Around this time the City of Osaka was establishing an event with the aim of nurturing fashion designers, the Osaka Collection. Sugai was invited to participate, and quickly accepted. Fellow participants included Osaka-born Hiroko Koshino who was already active in Europe. The stage was set for Sugai to strut her stuff. For her first item, Sugai created an original arabesque jacket using Kyoto’s Nishijin-ori fabric. With this piece, Sugai's concept- ‘making fashion out of kimono fabric’, and on top of that, using the techniques and sensitivity of traditional kimono trades to create modern fashion- was made reality. Those emotions she had felt when questioning her identity in New York were infused in the garment that made up her first steps as a fashion designer. It was her first “crossover”. Here Sugai examined her starting point once more. She tells us, “Of course, the traditional culture that is the kimono is a kind of fashion that Japan is proud of. But on the other hand, the first-rate fibers that have supported Japan since the war are another facet of Japan, and Teijin is at the top of that field. I thought that, with my knowledge of both aspects, my personal contribution to society was to offer this crossover”. Since these first steps, Sugai has been remarkably successful, starting with her Tokyo Collection debut in 1990, as well as uniform designs (including those of the Hotel Granvia Kyoto), a design contract with Adidas, and exhibiting at fashion galleries such as Paris’ Espace Carole de Bona and Atmosphere. Her career as an international designer was assured. However, Sugai is not one to be satisfied by this. She was already making her next step.

This information is based on an article from ENJOY KYOTO Issue 15 published in March, 2016.