It’s autumn in Tokyo and as the last of the summer breeze can be seen outside of the Mame Kurogouchi offices in Tokyo, the label’s designer Maiko Kurogouchi appears on screen, an elegantly dressed vision that seems to float into focus. Connection lag or the ethereal quality of her work? Whatever the case, the virtual window provides a glimpse of life on the other side of the world, but more importantly, into the very mind of this designer who has parlayed heritage textile crafts into future treasures that can, and deserved to, be worn today.
Sorry I’m late, I’ve just arrived from the editing studio. I’m sending you the first edit of the movie on WhatsApp. It’s 2 minutes 40 seconds. Let’s watch it together.
The middle was surprisingly disquieting. What made you go in that direction?
When we just started making this video, I had a conversation with film director Yoshiyuki Okuyama, we talked about my dreams. Every day, I take down my dreams, and every time, I get quite inspired by my dreams for my daily life. So I wanted to recreate the visuals of them, as well as the feeling. It’s not always beautiful, lots of flowers and all the rest. It’s more oppressing, sometimes. When you try to visualize a memory, it doesn’t always come back with a clear vision. It’s always misty, with that bit of white to it.
And dreams very often have a surreal quality to them, an uncanniness that sets them apart from waking reality, no? That’s why when I made this collection, I wanted to embody the layers of experience of a dream. I wanted the movie to express the layers almost like curtains, swaying to a gentle breeze. It also represents my own experience of the past couple of months.
You have a lot of Polaroids in this collection’s notebook. When did this obsession start?
I’d been thinking about how interested I’ve always been in windows, and had started researching in books and other sources. Then the pandemic started to grow, and I hadn’t realized until then that I had to be inside the window, rather than being able to go outside and seeing windows from the outside.
What do you like about them?
Windows are an architectural element I like, both from the inside as well as from the outside. From the outside, you have a glimpse into someone’s window. You can then imagine the kind of life they have. In Japan – I think it’s not so much the case in European cultures – people choose curtains and dress windows with dolls or toys. Basically, they’re trying to hide their lives with the use of curtains, to keep their privacy and hide the life that is happening inside those windows. And that’s interesting because there’s this desire to look nice from the outside while at the same time, not wanting to show what’s inside.
Quite the opposite of a store, where window displays are made to entice you inside. Would you say you’re feel that you are inside or outside of the window?
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Mame Kurogouchi. So another reason I was interested in the window is because I now know being empowered is like being inside the window, and outside the window. This milestone made me feel like I had to open a window and venture out. Spring-summer 2021 marks this new chapter for the Mame Kurogouchi brand.
What’s outside that window?
Thinking about a new chapter meant I had to go back to my deepest roots, which is my hometown of Nagano, and the memories that I had in my grandmother’s house, located in deep in the forest. That’s the original window, and where the curtain came from. When I designed this collection, I thought about my childhood and the beautiful landscape that lies beyond the windows of her house, so I tried to recreate that personal experience in a way that could be shared.
Did you consider the curtain a promise of the next day’s adventures, or a protection of some sort?
The latter, but not in a negative sense. It wasn’t about being shielded from creatures of the forest or scary feelings. It’s about windows and their curtains creating the sense of a cocoon, of a cosy family home. When night falls, you close the windows and curtains to preserve the warmth of the family, that togetherness.
Usually, after finishing a season, I go home to my family, but with the pandemic, I obviously couldn’t, so I asked my grandmother to send me this curtain to the atelier. When I opened the box, it wasn’t just a lace curtain that came out, it was the very vivid memory of my childhood and how I felt at my grandmother’s house that I unpacked, so I created a collection based on that memory. For me, memory, the colour of memory and the thoughts within are important and that’s what I wanted to express in this collection.
The collection is predominantly white, a colour associated with radiant light. Were you not afraid that people would see this as mourning the many things we perceive as lost to the pandemic, since white is associated with death in Japanese culture?
During the lockdown, while others felt a form of mourning or sadness, I actually had a clear vision and positive feelings about the future. I was more focused than previous seasons, so to me all that white represented that open windows, the opportunities outside.
But wait, since you were in lockdown, where did you find so many windows? What do you see from yours?
From my window, I see a shrine and the trees around it. One of them is so large, it looks like something straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie. When the wind blows, they move in that same way. I have to actively stop myself from watching them all day long. The lockdown was really a quiet, beautiful time. Instead of traveling, I’d go find beautiful flowers and basically did Ikebana instead of traveling.
As for the windows, they’re the ones in my neighbourhood. In Japan, you see a lot of very small, very weird windows, and there were plenty I found interesting. Often, people took very European inspirations and put these intricate lace curtains. I found that really cute.
Are you the kind of person who’d take a peek into someone else’s home?
(Laughs.) Oh definitely. For the past 35 years, I’ve been a three-year old weirdo who wandering the streets, coming closer to look at people’s interiors. Just out of curiosity, though!
And then, when I was on a video call with my grandmother, I notice she’d put up a new curtain, since I had the old one. I made a compliment on it, and my mother came into the room, and also made a compliment on it. It struck me as wonderful that someone could have created an item that crossed generational boundaries like that. Something that could be appreciated through time. That’s exactly how I’ve always wanted my work to be perceived.
At what point did the curtains make the jump from the window to the wardrobe?
During the lockdown, the atelier was closed, and I found myself drawing the kinds of curtains that would best match those windows I was collecting as Polaroids in my notebook, designing for them as if I were creating clothes for different individuals. That’s how I created the fabrics for this collection.
Is that why you’ve always worked with heritage crafts, to preserve them through contemporary use?
It was a natural choice. Living in Japan, we are surrounded by these quality items, by all these crafts. From the beginning, it was a natural decision to work with these people to make the items I want to make. But the pandemic also made me think deeply about it all. If we stop making things, people will lose their jobs, techniques will be lost. I feel that’s what I’ve been doing for the past ten years: creating beautiful collections to keep this fashion – passion– cycle spinning.
But we have been trying to consume less overall. How do you reconcile the two?
People, whether industry insiders or consumers, are realizing that what was taken for granted actually deserves out full attention. When I was making the collection, communicating was difficult, working together was difficult, so every small sample of fabric felt like a victory, and when I held them in my hands, I was full of emotion. That’s the kind of feeling that people should have. The small things hold more importance than ever before. This is an opportunity for us all, and not just in the industry, to pay more attention to what really matters.
Window dressing is also an expression that means you’re making things appear better than they really are.
That’s what the industry is about, no? That’s what fashion means to most people, you know. Wanting to look nice. It’s a metaphor: We are windows and our clothes are the curtains that can highlight or hide what is inside.
Where’s the first place you’d go in one of your spring-summer 2021 looks?
Definitely to my grandmother’s house, to see if the dress can beat the curtain in the style department.
Before you go, there’s one thing I really need to know. Where does your grandmother find her curtains, then?
(Laughs.) It’s really easy. She goes to a home centre, an enormous one that’s almost like a town. The curtains are quite cheap but they look amazing.