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Getty Images / Victor Virgile

Origins examines some of the most iconic figures, brands, stores and neighborhoods in the Highsnobiety universe, breaking down how they left an unforgettable mark on street culture. This installment looks at sacai founder Chitose Abe.

If your fashion radar is more in tune to the streetwear side of the industry, you might have only encountered sacai a few years back. Starting with a groundbreaking women’s collection created in collaboration with NikeLab back in 2015, the cult Japanese womenswear label has established itself as a vanguard of the rising movement of designers creating slick, stylish streetwear with distinctly feminine sensibilities.

And yet, despite the impact the brand has had on the fashion landscape in recent years, both sacai and the designer behind it remain relatively unknown – at least, in comparison to equally influential designers such as Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER, or fragment design’s Hiroshi Fujiwara.

The reality is that sacai is now in its 20th year of operations, and label founder Chitose Abe has a career that connects her to many of the biggest names in Japanese fashion and streetwear writ large. Virtually every Japanese designer that we now consider to be one of the greats is noteworthy for bringing a certain fresh perspective or vernacular into the frame, and Chitose Abe is no different.

But more interestingly in Abe’s case, that special touch was something that many major brands are still struggling with today – women’s streetwear that doesn’t sacrifice the things that separated streetwear from its stuffy, high-fashion counterpart in the first place.

chitose abe sacai
Highsnobiety / Stanley Cheng

Early Days

Born Chitose Sakai in a city called Gifu, just north of Nagoya, Abe’s mother was a seamstress, meaning she encountered fashion and textiles from a very early age. Growing up in a relatively remote part of Japan (her daily commute to school in Nagoya was two hours every day) she was fascinated by Tokyo’s bustling fashion industry, and developed a reputation as a trendsetter, getting her mother to adjust and tailor her clothing to stand out at school – at least until the other kids started copying her styles.

As she got older, Abe supplemented her fascination with fashion through magazines and television; she cites seeing a commercial for Issey Miyake on TV as the moment she realized that “fashion designer” was a possible career path. After graduating from college in Nagoya, she went to work for World Co. Ltd, a large corporate apparel company that produces a long list of high-street fashion labels.

COMME des GARÇONS

As is the case in much of Japanese culture, it’s considered prestigious for graduates to find employment at large, well-established companies, so Abe’s move to World Co. was a promising start. She remained fascinated with Japan’s burgeoning avant-garde fashion scene however, and harbored a desire to work under Rei Kawakubo’s COMME des GARÇONS label, which was taking the fashion world by storm at the time with its iconoclastic designs. After a year of working for World Co., Abe departed for COMME.

Needless to say, the work environment at Kawakubo’s burgeoning fashion empire was very different from Abe’s previous workplace, and she was encouraged to explore her own independent visions (“the main takeaway from my years at COMME des GARÇONS is autonomy.”) while learning to strike the fine balance between business and fashion that has made COMME’s sprawling empire of labels, diffusion lines and Dover Street Market stores one of fashion’s biggest success stories. She worked as a patternmaker for Junya Watanabe, who hired her when he started his own label.

Marriage to Junichi Abe and birth of her daughter

It was during her time at Junya Watanabe that Chitose struck up a relationship with coworker Junichi Abe. The two married and Chitose gave birth to their daughter, Toko, in 1997. In order to dedicate more time to raising her daughter, she left COMME while Junichi remained at the company, and worked as a full-time mother for the next two years.

chitose abe sacai
Highsnobiety / Nicholas Yuthanan Chalmeau

Founding of sacai

Understandably, Abe found it difficult to adjust to a life without a creative outlet, and in 1999 made the decision to launch a small, home-run label where she could create a limited run of pieces. She named the label sacai, a play on her maiden surname, and released an inaugural collection knitwear pieces, making everything at home – as well as answering phone calls and heading up the business operations as well (it would be three years before she hired another employee, Chico Hashimoto, who is still at the company today as Textile Developer).

Throughout the label’s history, Abe continued to place herself front and center of her label and its thought processes, as she explained to Highsnobiety recently: “I don’t do market research and design with a specific audience in mind. Some designers target Europe or Asia with each release. I make clothes that I want to wear, that fit my lifestyle. No matter how conceptual the clothing might be, it always goes back to “Would I wear this?” If the answer is no, then I won’t go forward with the design.”

Slow & Steady

sacai’s founding was rooted in the idea of Abe having a small outlet for creating limited pieces with deep significance to herself, and this remained central to the brand for a long time. In 2003, she opened a small, affordable studio in Tokyo’a Daikanyama district, and developed a reputation as one of the “second generation” of great Japanese designers, following in the footsteps of Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake.

A handful of overseas buyers such as Barneys New York and colette in Paris were early supporters of the label. She also collaborated with Italian concept store 10 Corso Como on a men’s capsule collection for their Aoyama store, known as Sacai Gem. In 2009, 10 years into the brand’s history, she took her first major step towards global expansion.

Paris Debut

Abe had always intended for her label’s operations to be unorthodox compared to the general flow of fashion. Her transition to Paris was no different. Thanks to earlier co-signs from the likes of COMME mastermind Adrian Joffe and Sarah Andelman of colette, sacai had already built a comfortable name for itself, so in 2008, they presented a lookbook, followed by a presentation in 2010 and, finally, a full runway show in 2011. As has been the case for many Japanese designers, this marked the moment when sacai really grabbed the attention of western buyers and press. The brand experienced rapid growth from that point onward.

Tokyo Flagship

Despite achieving both domestic and international acclaim, it wasn’t until 2011 that sacai opened their first flagship store in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. The space had previously hosted a restaurant and had been left derelict and in a state of disrepair for many years; in fact, the walls of the former kitchen were still coated in oil and grease. The interior was designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, a young designer who had designed a number of noteworthy buildings in Japan and, in 2013, designed the outside pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens. Reflecting the light-hearted and uplifting spirit of the clothes themselves, the white, open space remains open today and continues to be a must-visit spot for Tokyo’s fashion-forward cliques.

NikeLab x sacai 2015

Nike
Nike

Considering the Swoosh’s longstanding history of collaborating with COMME des GARÇONS and its various offshoots and subsidiaries, it’s no surprise that the brand would be interested in working with Chitose Abe’s label. Starting in the spring of 2015, sacai and NikeLab revealed a series of collaborative collections that united Abe’s vibrant design language with Nike’s extensive sportswear archive, inaugurated with a launch event in London that was one of the most hotly-covered events of the year.

Staple sportswear pieces like track jackets, sweatsuits and running gear were adorned with frills, laces, fishnet fabrics and asymmetrical details to add a delicate twist to Nike’s athletic pedigree, all presented in striking colors that brought a new perspective to Nike’s fashion portfolio. Each collection’s blend of practical design and aesthetic flare encapsulated what has made so much of Abe’s work so alluring, an artistic approach to fashion that never loses sight of the fact that, ultimately, you’re designing something to be worn; “Pieces can have an artistic edge, but at the end of the day, they’re not art pieces. They may look like art pieces in a fashion show, but they have to be wearable.”

This continued throughout the year, and arguably marked sacai’s definitive entry into the mainstream, helping to expose the brand to a new audience of male and female customers beyond the fashion world intelligentsia.

sacai x The North Face

In another popular collaborative project, sacai teamed up with American outdoors label The North Face for Fall/Winter 2017, creating a range of elevated pieces. The relatively understated collection (at least by Chitose Abe’s standards) blended classic outerwear silhouettes such as fishtail parkas and MA-1 flight jackets with The North Face’s technical pedigree to create a distinctly fashion-forward approach to TNF’s usual product. Once again, it was a demonstration of Abe’s unique ability to take familiar fashion staples and make them fun, and quickly sold through.

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Getty Images / Estrop

sacai x Hender Scheme

Japanese luxury footwear brand Hender Scheme is arguably best known for their ultra-artisanal takes on iconic footwear silhouettes such as the Air Jordan III and the adidas Superstar, but they’ve got an impressive roster of original designs ranging from dress shoes to casual models as well. When it comes to their collaborations with sacai, Abe has pushed the brand outside its comfort zone in multiple ways.

Throughout 2016, the two brands released a number of collaborative silhouettes that combined Hender Scheme’s hand-crafted precision with sacai’s free-spirited aesthetic to create a number of unexpected designs, ranging from ornate boots, to technical sandals, to running-style sneakers, all crafted from all-natural leathers and constructed entirely by hand.

jardin sacai at colette, Paris

When cult Paris fashion boutique colette announced their closure in 2017, it sent shockwaves throughout the fashion world. As part of their “farewell tour,” the store announced a number of collaborative takeovers, allowing some of fashion’s biggest brands to completely transform their upper-floor area.

For their pop-up, sacai created “jardin sacai,” an immersive space doused in all manner of floral and forest aesthetics, accompanied by a range of exclusive pieces and full sacai collections. An impressive feat, especially considering other brands to participate in the takeover included Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Thom Browne and Chanel.

sacai x Fragment Design

Whenever a label gains purchase in the streetwear world, a collaboration with Hiroshi Fujiwara and his popular fragment design studio is usually quick to follow. The two brands first collaborated on a capsule collection in 2011, creating a small number of simple menswear pieces that combined the two brand’s refined approach to fashion staples. They then reunited on a T-shirt collaboration in 2015, followed by a second in 2016 for Fujiwara’s The Park・Ing Ginza concept store, and in 2017 they joined forces once more on a three-way collaborative edition of Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylor model – no surprise considering Fujiwara’s long-standing relationship with Nike. But the best was yet to come as far as sacai and the Swoosh was concerned…

Nike x sacai 2018

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Highsnobiety / Nicholas Yuthanan Chalmeau

Nike and Sacai had collaborated on a handful of special edition footwear releases since their first collection in 2015, creating stylized takes on models like the Air Max 95 and the Air Jordan 1. In 2018, however, they really pushed the boat out, unveiling their “Blazer With The Dunk” collection. The avant-garde collection pushed maximalist design to the extreme, slamming the Nike Blazer and Nike SB Dunk silhouettes together onto a single shoe, complete with overlaid double Swooshes, double tongues, double laces…you get the idea.

They then pushed this concept even further for 2019, combining two lesser-known Swoosh silhouettes – the Nike Waffle Daybreak and LDV Fusion – to create the sacai x Nike LDV Waffle Daybreak, a running-style silhouette that, like its predecessor, became one of the hottest sneaker collaborations of the season.

sacai x Pendleton

Highsnobiety / Nicholas Yuthanan Chalmeau
Highsnobiety / Nicholas Yuthanan Chalmeau

The next big-name brand to tap sacai for a stylistic update was historic American textile manufacturer Pendleton. A perfect fit for the Chitose Abe treatment considering the vibrant, colorful patterns of their traditional Native American fabric designs, Pendleton enlisted Abe with creating contemporary takes on a number of menswear staples such as military jackets and parkas. Military green pieces were adorned with tassels, patches and unexpected panelling to create a compelling blend of the two brands’ DNAs, and presented Pendleton’s familiar geometric motifs in a totally new context.

Other collaborations

Since breaking into the mainstream, sacai has been fortunate to take part in many other collaborative projects too numerous to unpack in detail here, but they’re so diverse and varied that just their names alone give an impression of how versatile and applicable Chitose Abe’s aesthetic is in virtually any context. Since 2011, Abe has worked with the likes of Porter, Gloverall, Dr. Woo, Beats by Dre, CLOT, Ugg, and even America’s “paper of record,” The New York Times. “It’s important to have fun,” she explains. “If it isn’t fun, I don’t tend to do it. We’re an independent brand, so we can do whatever we want. This gives us the flexibility to work with sportswear brands or boutique labels. Having autonomy is important. Sometimes the best collaborations don’t have a commercial goal but exist to create something new.”

chitose abe sacai
Getty Images / Catwalking

Conclusion

To put all of this another way, in less than 20 years, Chitose Abe has gone from hand-knitting garments while raising a two-year old daughter to being lauded as one of contemporary fashion’s most prominent voices. Round that off with the final point that her husband, Junichi, started his own signature label, kolor, in 2004, and you start to wonder what’s in the family’s water supply that’s creating so much creative genius. All we’re saying is, keep an eye on the daughter.

Words by Gregk Foley
Contributor

Gregk Foley is a writer based in Berlin whose work explores the intersections of style, culture, politics and identity.