words Lesley Jackson
Brixton Prison is a long way from the catwalk, but this is where the celebrated fashion duo Eley Kishimoto choose to operate – well, next door anyway. Apparently, from the roof of their three-storey building (a former jam factory) you can sometimes see the inmates playing football in the exercise yard.
The husband-and-wife team have occupied these premises for eight years, gradually colonising the whole building. The ground floor houses the long screen-printing tables where sample lengths of their extraordinary patterned textiles are produced. The design studio is on the first floor, along with pattern cutting and sample-making operations, overseen by Wakako (39) from behind her drawing board. Mark (36) takes the lead on external projects, art direction and the development of the group. He’s based on the top floor, which doubles up as office, showroom and archive store.
According to their official biography Eley Kishimoto was established in 1992. In those days they were just a couple of struggling freelance textile designers working out of their living room. The fashion house (initially more of a broom cupboard) came four years later. Since 1998 they have produced twice-yearly collections and their colourful shows have become one of the highpoints of London Fashion Week. Last year, to mark their tenth anniversary, they had a mini-retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of three archive catwalk shows.
In 2001 the pair branched out into interiors with a range of patterned tableware and wallpaper. Recently they teamed up with interior design company Typical to produce upholstered and printed furniture, on display in their Bermondsey shop. Now they are actively collaborating with architects, curators and filmmakers to apply their patterns on a larger scale. “To us the most important thing is print,” affirms Mark. “Our thinking is, where can pattern jump onto next?”
Despite their profile in the fashion press, there is still a degree of mystery about the designers. Some people even assume that Eley Kishimoto is one person. Trawl on the net and you’ll find very little biographical information. You rarely see pictures of them and they don’t have a website. The truth is that they’re not typical fashion people – rather private, genuinely modest and a little shy (particularly Wakako, who calls herself “the quiet one”). Being a live-work couple makes them remarkably self-sufficient. They look to each other for support, rather than relying on the fickleness of the media and the fashion world. “In fashion journalism it’s either, yes they love it, or they don’t write about it,” laments Mark.
The couple met as students on work placements in New York, though they were both based in the UK. “We started working together after I finished my MA in Fashion and Print at Saint Martins,” explains Japanese-born Wakako, who came to the UK in 1986. Mark was studying Fashion and Weave at Brighton Polytechnic. “My interest in pattern came through weaving,” he explains. “At one time I considered being a graphic designer.” They were married in 1992.
Nowadays the couple laugh at how blasé they were when they started their business. “Initially our aesthetics were very different. Wakako’s early work was highly kitsch, but we pulled different principles together,” recalls Mark. “Japan is a very pattern-orientated country,” says Wakako. “I think the incongruity of my work is a Japanese element.”
Audacious eclecticism has become their trademark. Stylistically their designs are impossible to pigeon-hole. Although loosely themed, each collection displays astonishing diversity, jumping anarchically from abstracts to florals to quirky narrative designs. Many patterns have overt historical resonances but others are thoroughly contemporary. It’s as though the whole history of pattern design has been thrown into the melting pot.
“Graphic” is how Eley Kishimoto characterise their work. Their patterns make a direct assault on the retina. Partly this comes from the screen-printing process, in particular the way the colour separations are made – not dissimilar, in fact, to traditional Japanese stencil-printing. Because each pigment is applied separately, layer by layer, this gives a crispness and immediacy to the printed fabric that is lacking in newer techniques, such as digital printing. Crucially, too, Eley Kishimoto’s patterns are drawn by hand, not computer generated. “For me pattern design is like knitting a long scarf,” explains Wakako. “It’s a flexible process. You need a free mind.“
It was their eye-catching patterns for other designers – first Joe Casely-Hayford, then a host of others, including Hussein Chalayan, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen – that established their reputation initially, patterns so assertive they often stole the show. It wasn’t until 1996 that they launched their own collection – a rather modest affair called Rainwear, a cluster of patterned umbrellas and macs. But in career terms the move was highly significant. It meant the duo could finally exploit their creative talents and begin building a unique identity for themselves based on print-led fashion design. This marks the real genesis of the Eley Kishimoto label, which has since grown steadily year by year. Today, although they still design a few textiles for other clients – notably the Italian firm Ratti – most of their energies are focused on their own product lines.
Originally, when the volumes were lower, some production was in-house. Now most printing is outsourced, and they have just signed a licensing agreement with the Italian firm CIT to coordinate their garment production and distribution. Crucially, though, Eley Kishimoto retain full control over design. “We’ve stabilised our own business for the last three seasons, but physically we just couldn’t go forward and grow,” explains Mark. Financial investment remains a perennial problem, but at least now they can focus their energies on the creative side.
Culturally, their backgrounds could not be further apart. Wakako was born in Sapporo and grew up in Kobe, whereas Mark hails from Bridgend in Glamorgan and still has a pronounced southern Welsh lilt. Physically, too, they make a striking contrast. Rough-hewn Mark has the look of a hill farmer. Wakako is quintessentially Japanese – neat, petite and demure, a bit like the clothes she designs. Titles such as Girl in Me and Librarians Day Off evoke the girlish charm of their collections – an innocent delight in dressing up, with a hint of naughtiness. Patterned shoes, pop sox and hosiery often feature large. “I personally like that style,” admits Wakako. “It reflects how I was brought up. I’m one of these people who actually liked what my mother dressed me in, which is probably quite rare. I know it’s all the rage to dress down, but I think there’s something nice about dressing properly.”
Eley Kishimoto’s admirers span an unusually wide age range, from fun-loving girls in their late teens to sparky ladies in their middle years, something the designers find refreshing. Apart from their vibrant patterns, the wearability of their clothes is part of their appeal.
The couple’s lives are completely dominated by their work. “We’re both very different in our manners and in how we go about getting something, but fundamentally our goal is the same,” observes Wakako. “Motivation is the most important aspect of our relationship,” adds Mark. “That’s an equality with us. We’re two parts of a whole. Even though we’re different, we trust each other implicitly. There’s no antagonism in our design ideologies. If there was a clash, the product would have some kind of negativity.”
Negative is the last adjective one would apply to Eley Kishimoto’s exuberant patterns and jaunty outfits, yet to call them playful is equally misleading. “Playfulness is the character of what you see within the product. The seriousness comes from the intention,” observes Mark. “We don’t like things looking overladen with effort,” explains Wakako. “There’s no reason why design should look serious.” So what does she think of the fashion world? “It’s flippant, for sure, but when you’re actually doing it, it becomes incredibly serious.”
They seem somehow detached from the fashion industry. On the surface they play the game, mounting the cripplingly expensive seasonal events demanded by the department stores (their catwalk shows were sponsored by New Look during 2002-3 in return for a batch of designs), yet beneath it all they manage to preserve their artistic integrity. In many ways they’re a bit like independent filmmakers in the context of the Hollywood machine. The influence they exert is completely disproportionate to their actual output – a mere 32,000 garments per year. “We’re competing against the conglomerates, but we’re minnows in relation to the large fashion houses and the high street chains,” admits Mark.
Their attitude towards the roller-coaster world of fashion is philosophical. “Sometimes the schedule is punishing,” concedes Wakako. “Because we’re so small, sometimes it feels overloaded, but this is just the nature of the career we’re in.” Mark is even more pragmatic. “Initially we did two seasons of experimental launches and products, but eventually you have to succumb to the market’s flow, and to the calendars and systems. To escape the loop, we lose the business.” Yet the whole ethos of Eley Kishimoto, with their enduring preoccupation with prints, goes against the current of the mainstream fashion world and its obsession with seasonal change. “We never wanted to answer to trends,” says Mark. “We wanted to make an impact artistically. Concentrating on printed pattern has allowed us to carve out our own identity.” Wakako agrees that specialisation in print gives them much more freedom. “Judgements on pattern and print are more timeless than judgements on clothes.”
Another thing that distinguishes Eley Kishimoto is their deepening engagement with the visual and performing arts. This doesn’t reflect any inflated artistic pretensions on their part, it’s simply a response to the burgeoning interdisciplinary exchange across the spectrum of contemporary art and design. “We dabble in various things. We like to experiment. We want to expand beyond clothes,” explains Mark. “But there’s a marketing aspect to it as well; it’s a way of generating interest in the Eley Kishimoto brand.”
In 2001 Eley Kishimoto launched a jazzy zigzag pattern called Flash, inspired by Op Art, and as well as using this in their spring/summer collection, they produced a wallpaper with it. In their marketing images they photographed models wearing Flash clothes in front of Flash wallpaper. The exhibition worked on similar lines, combining Flash wallpaper, curtains and garments in a high voltage installation. “Flash has become a bit of a trademark,” admits Mark. “It has a natural energy and it’s very asexual, so you can use it in different ways. It’s designed on a scale that will work well on small things as well as larger surfaces.”
Metamorphosis from one medium to another is often the starting point for a collaboration. Last year they teamed up with online creative platform SHOWstudio to create a computer-generated, sound-activated, animated version of Flash – what they call video wallpaper. For Eley Kishimoto’s tenth birthday, SHOWstudio invited a group of art directors, photographers, graphic designers and filmmakers to produce 13 short films, each “bringing to life” an Eley Kishimoto pattern. The results, called Screen Prints, were shown during last year’s London Fashion Week. “The different ways in which people interpreted our products was a revelation,” says Mark.
Their latest excursion is a collaboration with 6a Architects for Fashion at Belsay, an exhibition by 12 leading British fashion designers at Belsay Hall in Northumberland. Eley Kishimoto and 6a were assigned the old drawing room, an austere early 19th-century neoclassical interior. Their Street Pattern installation is a mini-cityscape made up of two rows of patterned towers. From one side of the room you only see their exteriors, made of cement board screen-printed with a grey trompe l’oeil flounce pattern called Frill. From the other direction each tower is revealed as an alcove. The recesses are lined with plasterboard, each printed in pink with a different pattern from the Eley Kishimoto archive, evoking domestic interiors.
“An exploration of contemporary patination” is how Steph Macdonald from 6a describes the installation. “Eley Kishimoto’s prints are playful and associative. We thought it would be interesting to put that onto a building.” Mark characterises the project as practical rather than artistic – an experiment in developing new applications for their patterns in the architecture and interiors field. “We had this idea of addressing pattern in the external world,” he explains. If the opportunity arises, the plan is to develop these products further. Already they are tendering for a shop interior. “We don’t go out aggressively looking for new work,” claims Mark. “It’s just a matter of opening doors and communicating.”
Eley Kishimoto may be spearheading a vigorous pattern revival, but the loyalty of their client base should enable them to weather the next tide of monochrome. Running a small fashion house in Britain will always be a precarious business and there are no great fortunes to be made, but nevertheless, Eley Kishimoto give fashion graduates something to aspire to. “If I was to go back to teach now, I’d tell them to do plumbing as a side course,” quips Mark. Yet the reality is that Eley Kishimoto symbolise the triumph of creativity over commercialism. “As long as we survive and can carry on producing something that interests us, I think that’s a real bonus,” Mark concludes, realistic (yet idealistic) to the end.
The Eley Kishimoto Shop is at 40 Snowsfields, London SE1