Los Angeles, New York, and Shanghai - Flying through these three cities, he runs the very front line of his fashion business. Handling mainly evening dresses, he makes “The dress that makes every woman beautiful.” He has various Hollywood and Chinese celebrities as clients. This April, Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the United States. Michel Obama, the First Lady of the United States, wore a captivating, purple Tadashi Shoji gown at the State Dinner, which was covered by media around the world.
However, the main theme of these clothes is not only their exquisiteness, but also wearable ease and reasonable price. Even the newly released models, priced around ¥60,000, gather popularity around the world.
“Ladies now a day are getting really busy. Like a favorite T-shirt, my dresses can be freely worn. Worn with just one zip, it does not wrinkle, is flattering, easy to wear, and affordable.” he says. That is the dress that he makes.
Originally, an evening dress is worn with a corset on. The production process was also complicated. By simplifying the production process by sewing complex designs using simpler ways and increasing the use of stretch fabrics, comfort and price are made into reality. On the other hand, he designs the dresses using delicate laces, intricate needlework full of originality, and elegant draping. “Complex, but easily sewn clothes.” This design idea may sound contradictory, but it is made into reality in China.
Formerly, the manufacturing studio was in the suburbs of Shanghai, then later moved to Yu-Yuan Road, an area where it leaves the atmosphere of the former French Concession. Having remodeled an old western-style building, the studio currently has a retail boutique on the first floor, pattern making and sewing division on the second floor, and design room on the third floor, where a total of 130 people are working.
There are 18 people who are in charge of patternmaking. Most of them are trained in-house and nurtured by Tadashi himself. Patterns are the lifeline of clothes. In depth planning is required for the sewing and finishing process. “Working with soft fabrics, draping and fabric manipulation is done on flat surfaces, not molded on the curved dress form. This technique makes for easy sewing. The complex design has to be easy to sew for mass production. Staff who do not think about entire production process, but only think about the pattern would be scolded.”
High demands are also required of the sewing department. Shanghai, Suzhou, and other areas around have a long history of needlework on silk. “ ‘You have history and techniques of excellence. That’s what I came here for.’ This is what he always says to encourage their work.”
He has his own apartment 20 minutes away from the studio. “Without my own apartment, flying around these three cities, I would not maintain a healthy lifestyle.” While he walks around the city of Shanghai, he imagines its “pre-war heyday with foreigners strolling on these beautiful streets, soon followed by a city awash with red banners of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.”
‘Past’ and ‘Present’ are passing in his mind – “That’s what interests me, and maybe that’s why I’m here.”
“By Following Customer Demand, I Made My Company”
When did your business begin in China?
In 1990’s, we were getting clothes sewn by Hong Kong subcontractors through an agency. We had a problem with the production so I visited them, but I was surprised when I got there. Dresses from a variety of brands lined the beautiful showroom. Our products were sold there too, and actually, people were buying them. The owner who knew there was a huge demands for my designs said, “Let’s not go through the agent anymore and work directly together.” This started the production in Shenzhen.
You thought it was a subcontractor company, but they were actually selling your products without permission. So, you decided to join the force with the person who deceived you?
Companies that make high quality silk for dresses were in Shanghai and areas around there, not at Shenzhen. My company was really small, and when the purchasing fabric amount is really small, it’s hard to place an order. There are problems related to shipping too. We came to Shanghai for fabric. At that time, we were still making the patterns in the United States. We sent patterns to Chinese factories, check the samples when they reached the States, and had to communicate using fax. We were really busy, and at the same time it was really fun.
Why did you make your production studio in Shanghai?
At our main office in Los Angeles, we were famous for making good patterns. It was because I was strictly training excellent, young staff. However, because our company was really small, we couldn’t pay high wages. Within 3 to 4 years, employees were hired away from our company. I soon realized that surrounding companies were filled with staff trained by my company. It was a plus for the city’s fashion industry, however I thought, “Wait a second. Would China be an opportunity?” In 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and for a while I thought China would follow. If it becomes capitalist country, it will be bigger than the United States. I thought it would be good investment for the future. China didn’t collapse, but the market actually became bigger.
When did you meet ‘Fashion’?
I went to a high school within Miyagi prefecture with a 99% college enrollment rate, but because I loved drawing and wanted to get into Tokyo University of Arts, I didn’t study at all. Rejected by the entrance exam, I ended up spending time in Tokyo and worked as an assistant of Jiro Takamatsu, an avant-garde artist. After that I worked on a cargo ship, as a bartender, and so on. Finally in the year 1973, I was able to move to the States using the money I saved.
The school recommended by a friend was coincidentally a fashion college, and I thoroughly learned the technical skills. During the drape class, I thought, “Oh, this is same as sculpting!” This was a ‘Eureka!’ discovery for me. After that, a woman who knew that I was good at art told me about a job wanted at the studio.
In Los Angeles at that time, there were lots of studios that design costumes for movies and TV shows. One of those studios was run by a man named Bill Whitton, where I worked as a design drawer.
To become a designer in the Unites States, there are other opportunities than in New York?
I didn’t know that there is a route to be a designer other than New York. Unlike the mass production at New York, it was custom-made fashion in Los Angeles. After working at few other studios, I started my own business with my Korean-American business partner.
Did you start designing evening dress from the first place?
I first designed daytime clothes. When I made the cocktail dress in my second season, it caught the attention of the luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue, and I was on my way to success. As a result of following demand, I got where I am now.
So, everything has gone smooth after that?
Actually, no. Our designs easily get copied by other companies. Sometimes, it is even copied three week after we start selling. Simple designs can easily be copied. As a result, we strive for a level of complexity that is hard to copy. Each season we need to be unique. When lace became famous, we designed custom lace fabrics. Finally, the number of copies started decreasing.
So, that’s the truth of the fashion industry?
Our company is always trying to stay ahead. I constantly read various newspapers and business magazines to seek information. In my head, ideas are then coming naturally.
Are there lots of companies that get deceived in China?
I’ve been deceived lot of times in China and in the United States. However, that all happened because of my own stupidity. If I am smart enough, I don’t get deceived. I don’t gain anything by being depressed. I have to laugh every time or I wouldn’t be able to continue with this job.
☆ Born at Sendai, in the year 1948. Father worked as head of lumber factory and mother was a kimono-sewer, working out of their home. Having 5 brothers and sisters, he was the second youngest of all. After graduating high school and suffocated by his hometown, he moves to Tokyo, and studies under Jiro Takamatsu, who is credited with paving the way for the modern art movement in Japan during the sixties. He works at various jobs after that.
☆ In the year 1973, he moves to Los Angeles. While he is in college, he starts working under Bill Whitton, a Hollywood designer who made costumes for Elton John and other famous celebrities. The picture is from his school days.
☆ In 1982, he starts up his own brand with the business partner. With the idea of “providing affordable dresses for women of all ages to enjoy”, he designs artistic dress collections full of originality.
☆ March 2004, he opens a flagship store at South Coast Plaza, one of the biggest shopping destinations in the United States, and opens a 2nd signature boutique in October in Las Vegas.
☆ In 2005, he opens a studio at Shanghai
☆ In 2007, he debuts his runway collection at New York Fashion Week.
☆ In 2012, he was chosen as a member of Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). His product is sold at more than 1500 stores and shopping malls around the world. In Japan, he also sells in the Isetan-Shinjuku store.