Making Michael Jackson's Thriller the best-selling album of all time required an ambitious reach. Thriller incorporated an enduring respect for bigness - a goal that connected The Beatles to Jackson's 'The Girl Is Mine’, by way of featuring Paul McCartney - that channeled power from arena rock’s titanic, guitar riffs to ‘Beat It’ featuring Eddie Van Halen. Thriller aimed to shatter the microscope that ascribed certain music to certain musicians. The controversial 'King of Pop' did his own homework, making and mending Fred Astaire's graceful moves with James Brown's radical soul explosions. These emotional attachments - to memory and material pop culture - represent similar tools Japanese-born fashion designer Kozaburo Akasaka uses to bridge Eastern and Western sensibilities. For example, Akasaka's S/S 21 collection logo illustrated his trademark boots and denim. It was also a playful reference to Michael Jackson's glitter socks and loafers from his 'moonwalk' pose. The KOZABURO brand logo is a Japanese letter '三' that means 'three,' as he was the third born son in his family. 'Adding one line in it made the logo,' he said. 'The name was given, but I want to create something new of my own from what I was given.'
What Kozaburo has given fashion is KOZABURO, a self-titled label connecting a sincere approach to humanity and materials. What fashion has given back is the 2017 LVMH Special Prize, plus a menswear tenure at Thom Browne from 2011 to 2013. Unlike Schiaparelli's supernova creative director Daniel Roseberry, who oversaw both men's and women's at Thom Browne, Akasaka is still looking for his Thriller moment. Throughout lockdown, the KOZABURO business model has been reorganised for a clear conversation on Akasaka's East-West notions that connect through a spirit of influences the designer had growing up. This spirit is best understood by KOZABURO's Sakiori denim - the Japanese practise that weaves recycled fabric into fresh fashion ideas (East!) alongside KOZABURO’s direct inspiration from Michael Jackson's research into pop's past to become its future (West!). Excerpts below are from a highly spirited conversation with the designer, or maybe the conversation had its way with us?
M-C Hill: We've talked before about the surprises within your work. Associations are easy to understand on the New York side, considering Ralph Lauren, one of your favourite designers, who built his business himself. On the Paris side, you have Rick Owens - a self-made American designer. Then on the Tokyo side, you think of Jun Takahashi, another independent designer. Therefore if people are confused by your clothes, visuals or Phantom Ranch Market, the easy way to understand what you do is influence, entrepreneurship and impact.
Kozaburo Akasaka: The point is still clothes and fashion, but from my experiences, art and expression also fit in. I want to see more than clothes. I wish for every brand to have that point of view. It's a belief system, in a way.
M-C: You focused this season's theme around the word 'bon.' Double meanings exist in what you do for everything you connect. What 'bon' represents - in spirit and orthodox thought - maybe links to your Buddhist education, where life is always bigger than yourself...
KA: It was a wordplay of sorts, partially because of the meaning of the bon in French and bon event in Japan. Music as well. That makes me believe we do have universal ideas to connect. 'Bon' was almost a fun joke. For example, a bonfire, I think, is a primitive thing that makes people gather. It makes community happen. Kozaburo somehow stands for people who are somehow a minority in society. 'Bon' in Japan stands for respect for those who have passed away and are past souls. This concept relates to the big collaboration with Snow Peak using flame retardant materials.
M-C Hill: During the pandemic, you brought Tyvek back by softening your silhouette with an easy-wear option for people who are not physically fit enough to wear your structured versions. This new collection's ideas of community, warmth and unifying lost souls make the historical vision of Kozaburo more obvious this season.
KA: This concept overlaps in development and collaboration as well. It became directly affected by what I think and want for the Ukraine invasion.
M-C: In a sense, this is your most fashionable lookbook since the 2019 stuff - those stills in a jungle. It's you combining every signature - your 2021 relaxed, activewear fabrics with your rigid denim but also that sci-fi, photoshopped world from the current spring season. As a whole, does it feel like a return or being reborn?
KA: If you see a photo or my story as you do, you know what is happening. These collection pieces are almost staples of the Kozaburo vision. I am very happy that these new pieces represent the brand in the way they do.
M-C: Yes! You took it back! Those velvet-satin intermix pieces and the denim treatments resembling velvet trousers - which feels like your early experiments with denim - it is your timeline of what Kozaburo is.
KA: The earlier part of the collection uses melton, a very heavy wool. My artisanal preference when making uses heavy fabrics like this or plain weaves, heavy suiting wool or canvas. This season, I developed new styles in my studio. For example, the second look is velour and a rib-knit strip. It's a unique construction. Regular clothes have front and back panels, then sleeves. The ribbed part is a straight strip moulded around the body like a snake. The pants are called 'Dexter' pants.
M-C: Like the killer from the Showtime series?
KA: I just somehow named it, maybe because of the sound. It has extended facings wrapped around each leg. So you can see the side, hip and the back leg's hem. There is a spiral angle going around.
M-C: What were you thinking about with the empire waist dresses resembling aprons?
KA: (Laughing) Kozaburo has a workwear-slash-tailoring aspect. I think the apron is a universal workwear garment around the world. From kitchens to auto repair, I like the idea of it as a worn piece. It is a core item where, if you take off a jacket in a cool setting, it substitutes as one layer to warm your front legs. Also, the vibe is unisex.
M-C: The tenth look is a different movement altogether. It reflects the casual elegance of your 2019 shows
KA: Exactly. I am quite influenced by the originating scene in the 90s with Smashing Pumpkins and the idea of wearing 1970s vintage garments in the 1990s. That kind of magical vibe.
M-C: So, acid-washed denim?
KA: Yes, exactly. Those are my kind of memories. Kozaburo never usually did acid wash in the past, really.
M-C: You did one season! Four years ago! A full acid-washed suit.
KA: You remember very well. It's always washed and unwashed jeans side by side. This season we offer washed denim only. This group from the lookbook offers washed denim and also black, that is sashiko actually, Japanese workwear or martial arts fabric.
M-C: Abstract influences pop up in your work - maybe a little Jim Jarmusch from 'Dead Man' isolated cowboys. This feeling that you are going it alone. In comparison, you have Daniel Roseberry, also a fellow alumni from Thom Browne, and see the praise he receives. You also think of Eli Russel Linnetz, who, like you, was up for the LVMH prize and Nensi Djokaka (also like you) from Central Saint Martins, who is quite prominent lately. Whenever I talk about you, people go, 'Who?' And I scream, 'He was an LVMH prize winner! He designed the best Thom Browne men's collection ever!' How are you supported, Kozaburo? How do you move forward in this industry being a literal ghost - an Orville Peck but for fashion
KA: You describe right, I think. I think some of that vision is because it's who I want to be and who I am. It's also similar to what Bruce Lee said, 'Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.' At this moment in time, I want to challenge myself, too. I believe my fight to be about achieving a brand vision that people care looking for and can relate to.
M-C: We're not talking about you being the next Virgil Abloh. More so along the lines of something Jonathan Anderson does where he has Loewe and JW Anderson. It may not have Loewe's revenue, but it is acknowledged as noteworthy. Look, you know I am a slight dance mom with you. You know I love that Thom Browne 2012 collection, but there's also the 2013 Rabbit Hole collection that is very much part of your fantastical nature and mysticism. Even your influential platform boots from 2018... four years on and now everyone wants a massive platform!
KA: That's why I set up the company in Japan for production. I need a person who can also promote the brand - I can, but it's a bit too much to manage on top of the design aspect. I also am quite shy. It is easy to say, 'Oh, the Japanese are like this' but it's also important to look deeper.
M-C: My second or third favourite menswear designer of all time is Takahiro Miyashita. In the earlier part of his career, he spoke more. And with The Soloist, he talks very little. It is still incredibly successful, so maybe that is another part to it. Like, today, you have said your peace. Now you go about the business of kicking everyone's ass.
M-C: Your business has several legs for Japanese manufacturing, New York fashion presentations, and now Paris looms as a showroom leg. How do you handle all three connected but distinct resets?
KA: I believe, amongst different cultures, that we all have different universal values. I hope my work and my story embody this belief.
M-C: Can we talk about Phantom Ranch Market? In its simplest form it is a pop-up shop. The way your A/W 22 notes explain it implies memories, moments and ideas.
KA: My dream was to have a small retail vintage shop. I acquired all these small collectables from my road trips across the United States, from Arizona to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole to Santa Fe. I went to Big Sur two weeks ago. The need to communicate my own memories or individual 'vibe' through the Phantom Ranch Market is also heavily inspired by the Japanese aesthetic of Mottainai, meaning 'waste nothing'. At the time, I also wanted to bring this fundamental concept of upcycling, such as vintage wear and the idea of mending.
M-C: See even this ethos is a challenge for the current NFT model. To find a considerate, recyclable practise digitally.
KA: Yes! I am quite interested in NFT’s. It is a new, heavily exploited concept that is still in its learning curve.
M-C: How do you balance the capitalism of Western culture versus the spiritual warmth of Eastern culture?
KA: The people around me. Starting with one individual who connects to different people who share the same collective idea. That, I guess, makes me able to do things like this.