Interview with Yuriko Kishi
Yuriko Kishi－Artist,Writer,Creative director
Born in Kobe City, Japan in 1976. After graduating from International Grammar High School (Sydney, Australia), Yuriko went to Britain. She studied fashion design at the prestigious Design School Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Graduated from the school with a distinction in Fashion Design with Marketing ( Bachelor of Arts). While at college she submitted herself to training men’s tailoring at the Purveyor to the Royal Household tailor, GIEVES & HAWKES in Savile Row.
In 2002,she made a striking debut as a youngest female designer of a super avant-garde fashion brand, MALKOMALKA in Tokyo collection with her companion. After winning IFCA Neo Fashion Support Project Designer Award, she exhibited her collection in New York as well as domestic runway shows in regular succession. Her design is loved by numerous musicians and actors such as Puff, Aya Hirayama and Tsuyoshi Domoto.
Since then,sha has lead various design projects and collaboration works including Swarovski, Blythe (Kenner),Kangol and CA4LA. In parallel with design activities,Yuriko has created and showed a broad range of artworks in Japan – from paintings drawn with her unique style which is to mix poems, collages, pencil drawings and paints to gigantic objet d’art.
Almost in the same breath, she also started to be engaged in spatial design and writing profession. Since 2008, she started to focus on a writing profession. From planning, production of scripts and subtitles for TV programs inside and outside the country to lyrics for musicians as a songwriter. She also contributes to a field of the internet marketing.
She writes with a wild style to fly over every boundary line freely without being seized with an established genre and limit. In 2012,she assumed office as a creative director and is responsible for all the editing for Geisha Japan and Maiko Club which perform with a mission to be a bridge connecting Geisha culture and the world. In July 2012, she exhibited artworks at the biggest cultural event in the world, Japan Expo in Paris. The models include Geisha in commission.
Yuriko, it is a pleasure to meet you. I think one of the things most impressive about you is that you changed from career to career and in each one you were a great success. In the beginning, when you first became interested in fashion design what was it that attracted you to it?
When I was small, I was the type of girl who hung around and played with boys outside. I was neither good at drawing or clever with my hands.
The chance to get interested in fashion came to me when I was at high school in Sydney, Australia. I met a friend who was amazingly good at creating things. If she thought,“Well, I want clothes like this”, then she would go and get some fabric, make patterns herself and sew them together. She could make skirts, shirts, pants, bags… almost anything. And the stuffs were cool. She really had a great eyes.
To create what’s imagined in one’s head with own hands – I was very impressed by it and thought, “This is it. I want to be a fashion designer in near future”. So that was the beginning and soon after graduating from high school, I went over to London to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins. The reason I chose this school was because John Galliano went there. I was impressed with what he had done and what he was doing then. If I were to learn fashion, I wanted to be at the same place where he was.
While you were at Central Saint Martins,you also went to GIEVES & HAWKES in Savile Row to study men’s tailoring. Tailoring and fashion is similar but different.What made you go there?
There was almost never teaching or lessons at Central Saint Martins.You could even go so far as to say, “if you can draw sketches on paper, you can create”. The school tradition was more to do with developing each individuality and sensitivity, so technical things were secondary.
I’ve wanted to learn the structure of clothing and techniques sufficiently and if I were in London, I wanted to study at one of the greatest place to learn it, so I went to GIEVES &HAWKES. But I was turned away about 10 times at the door!
“Fashion people come and leave here so quick.Because the work here is too plain and seems kind of boring for you. I guess you cannot continue,too.”
This was what I’d been told but I didn’t give up and finally the manager said to me, “O.K, you come tomorrow and let’s see what happens.” Since that day I went there almost every day for 2 1/2 years.
The tailors and cutters there were very kind and taught me many things. I’ve always been excited to learn new things. I guess I’d spent more time there than college. There would be no me today or my own brand if I didn’t go to the tailor.
Your brand, MALKO MALKA, was a great success and was much different than was out there at the time. What is it that made it stand out from other brands?
I set up this fashion brand with my companion from Central Saint Martins. There were two female designers including myself. When we started all we thought about was to do a fashion show and present our own world to the world. So I wasn’t really conscious of what makes MALKOMALKA stand out.
But looking back those days I think the fusion between me and her was something that made it special. For instance, if you compare us in the design aspect,we are almost the opposite. She was good at creating feminine, refined styles. Once she designs it is almost perfectly fixed while my way of making clothes is rather savage and experimental.I often took apart clothes I made to pieces and rebuilt them. Almost conflicting two but somehow they matched and blended as one. Altogether our clothes were meant to be the clothes that brought out one’s individuality infinitely.
We-the designers showed ourselves as brand’s character. It was a big point that people got interested in us, I guess, because no one was doing it. She is short and glamorous, I am tall and skinny. Even our figures are contrapositive. We disguised ourselves in the image of lady& gentleman, queen & pirate, Tinker Bell & Peter Pan and so on. She took the part of feminine side and I did the men’s. We showed those images in invitation cards for Tokyo collection, brand feature page on magazines, and in the fashion shows as well. Not as models, but we participated in our own runways as a part of the show.
Some people says it is cool not to show yourself if you are on the creator’s side but I personally think it is not cool to think like that. Not only in the fashion field but also all the other fields. If you want to express yourself, you should do so. If you want to be a part of your creation, you should show yourself.
Additionally,we often exhibited artworks in our own shop in Tokyo. We enjoyed making various kinds of products-paintings, photography, sculpture, giant dolls and so on. We were conscious of keeping a fresh mood there. We wanted people to feel that they can find something new and exciting every time they came.
Can you tell us a little more about the philosophy behind your design work and how it was received by the public and others in the industry?
“Something new.Something rare.Something interesting”
This is what Zeami said. He was a Sarugakushi (traditional performing artist who took an active part in Muromachi period) and I love and empathize with his words. Whenever I create something, it is always on my mind.
As a designers duo, we’ve really spent great amount of time talking. It is not like one of those serious meetings, simply what I mean is daily conversation, for example when we traveled together, went out together and talked about all the things that interested us. Doing this led us to find the theme for next seasons and the points of contact to create one new world view.
Some people said the clothes I design look a bit strange and sometimes do not look like clothing at all when they’re put on hanger. But when they wear them they know they function and fit their bodies. Especially menswear, it was often seen as mysterious stuff. Our clothes often worn by actors, actresses and musicians, They said, “God! People can recognize that we are wearing MALKOMALKA even from 100 meters away.” Yes,anyhow,anyway, they are very very colorful.
When you decided to walk away from it I imagine it was a very difficult time for you. What was it that you found disappointing about the fashion industry?
There was a time when I felt very sad to see the fact that fashion is just consumed more and more because as a creator there is an emotional attachment in every design and every item. The more a brand grows,the more consumption happens, and if it doesn’t happen, that will be commercially unpractical. I guess creators understand this but some kind of contradiction happens within them. It happened to me once so I know the feeling.
In our case, we set up a brand and had our own shop within 2 years since the debut at Tokyo collection and 3 years later we expanded our business throughout Japan. The brand grew so fast, at an unimaginable speed.
Honestly, I was surprised to see the fact that it took only 5 years to achieve the goals that I thought we might be able to achieve in 10 or 15 years time. It came true because there were two of us and so many people supported us. I was very happy with what I’d done but at the same time, I’d started to be interested in something else. As Zeami, the Sarugakushi said, I’d wanted to challenge myself for “Something new. Something rare. Something interesting” in a different field that is not fashion.
You turned to writing. Was it a form of release for you? A way of expressing yourself?
Yes, it was a form of release and another way of expressing myself. While I’ve lived in Australia and England, I was a long away from my family in Japan,so writing letters and keeping diaries was my everyday habit. I also loved writing and keeping poems as a hobby but never thought that it might become a profession.
The chance came from a Japanse rock band who often wore MALKOMALKA on stage.
“Can you write lyrics for our new album in English? There are three songs to go.”, the leader of the band asked me and I did.
I started my new career as a lyric writer and for awhile I’ve played two roles at the same time – both designer and writer. but I got into the world of expression by words more and more and I decided to focus fully on the literary profession which can communicate messages by words. I’ve gained writing experiences in many-sided ways. Joined as a team member at the planning department of a TV network where I’ve learnt how to write scripts, wrote articles on beauty, marriage, relationships, fashion for several magazines, did many translation works as well.
Looking back in those days, it is certain that I was a daredevil as I almost knew nothing about the new field that is not fashion and wanted to know and experience as much as I could. I was asked this question many times,“Why did you take a new course of life in writing field?” Well, I think I couldn’t answer that at that time but now I know that what fascinated me was the fact writing can leave an impression while fashion was a repetition of momentary thing to me.
Can you tell us a little about what types of writing you did and what you enjoyed most? Did you enjoy, for instance, writing scripts for television?
Sporting Greats – it was one of the greatest TV program to take part this year. It is a program which features the legends in various world sports. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson as boxers, Nadia Comaneci as a gymnast, Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson as track and field athletes. While I was writing scripts, I enjoyed the program as an audience too.
Another thing is Geisha Japan which I am currently working with. As its name suggests, it is a group with the mission to become a bridge connecting Geisha culture and the world. Having our official website and FACEBOOK page both in English and Japanese as its heartland, the group keeps on holding Geisha events in flower towns (where geisha live), Kyoto. I take part in this group as a writer, interviewer and creative director.
You have also proven yourself to be an accomplished artist who works in a variety of mediums. Your work mixes poems, collages, pencil drawings and paints. Your style is very open and free form but their themes come from Japanese culture. How would you describe your style and what do you hope people think when viewing your paintings?
I just concentrate on pouring the best energy that comes out at every moment. I am not making things too much on purpose. To have a message that I want to tell is the most important thing. When it is clear within myself then after that is “let it go as my hands move”.
Talking about painting and drawing, I almost judge everything more instinctively. When I feel something is wrong, I’d rather start from a beginning than re-doing it. I don’ have anything idea that I want people to feel such and such when they see my artworks. They are some kind of results which came out through my filter to express my original way of expressing beauty, so I think the way people receive depends on each individual.
Some like and some don’t. Maybe some like one but don’t like the other one. I think this is a natural way of how humans feel but I’ll be very glad if people feel something when they see my artworks. Feeling better,vigorous, whatever is good. Art is something that makes human hearts rich, I think.
For Japan Expo 2012 you collaborated with Masakaze Tani in creating 10 pieces of artworks to exhibit for the Traditional Japanese Culture Department at the event. Can you tell us about what you and Masakaze created and how you felt about the subject matter of the paintings?
In the pieces I exhibited for Japan Expo in Paris, I wanted to express the homage to Mokuroku for Geisha. Mokuroku is a hand-drawn poster to celebrate the debut as a professional Maiko (geisha). It is also given at the time when Maiko (geisha) becomes Geiko (mature geisha). The lucky motifs like the seven deities of good fortune, treasure ship, sea bream are drawn in traditional types of Mokuroku. Following its tradition, I also draw a carp, hawk, dragon, dharma, Maiko and Geiko.
Tani,the Kanji art calligrapher drew letters once I completed a painting. We didn’t decide what words to be written. He observed each piece and just drew. It was very like a live and improvisation with intuition.
Clockwise from left top – Kyoka san of Gion Kobu, Fumitama san of Miyagawa, Umeyae san of Kamishichiken and Kikutsuru san of Miyagawa-cho.
Copyright(c)2012 Maiko Club All Rights Reserved
Special Thanks to WALKKYOTO
One of the most remarkable things I think you are doing is your work with Geisha Japan. Do you think, in the West, there is a misunderstanding of the role of Geisha in Japan?
As I’ve told you earlier, I am currently working as a part of Geisha Japan. We receive messages and questions about Geisha culture from all over the world. I am telling you the truth – it is a fact that there are some people seriously think that geisha sell themselves. It is a great misunderstanding and also both Maiko and Geiko are not just the beautiful shows. They are the professional performers and entertainers who are skilled in dance and playing instruments at an extremely high level.
Overseas they are broadly known as Geisha, but as I’ve just said to you, there are two kinds in real-Maiko and Geiko. To become Maiko, you first need to go through the training period as Shikomi. They begin training at the age around 15. Many girls from all over Japan come to see Okami, the proprietress of Yakata(where Maiko and some Geiko both live and work) . Because they are under age, guardians must attend the interview.If Okami says “Yes,she has something of geisha in her”- then she manages to breakthrough the first step, but if the answer is “No”, she’ll never darken the door again. It is a severe world.
It is even harder once you debuted as a professional Maiko. There is a tradition in flower towns which has been inherited for more than 300 years. If you are Maiko, you must learn, follow and perform with it in everyday life. At the same time, they keep on practicing dance, songs and instruments continuously. At night time, they go to Ozashiki to treat customers. They hardly have holidays and romance is strictly prohibited. If a love affair came to light, they’d have to quit the job.
When Maiko becomes Geiko, that is even harder! They need to improve the skills and accomplish more and more. Young and innocent – this is the image demanded for Maiko, but in Geiko’s cases, not only the beautiful appearance but also the cultivated intelligence is essential. I am telling you all this but I was so surprised when I first knew the fact about them. I truly respect their dedicated way of living as women.
Aside from the west, how are Geisha perceived in Japan today?
As far as I know, the truth about Geisha is not known very much. This is probably because it is a very special and cliquish world in a way. But there is one famous thing about flower towns in Kyoto that is well known by people in Japan. No first visitors without invitation. Because of this, there is a big image of “another world” which makes people feel that is too far from reality. Though it is true in a way, you can still have an access to Ozashiki, if you know an introducer who has a relationship of mutual trust with Okami, the proprietress of teahouses (where Ozashiki is held).
After understanding all these traditions, we’ve started to hold the events that first visitors can experience Ozashiki play in Kamishichiken, one of the flower towns. With the cooperation of Okami, whom we knew well, we’ve managed to arrange lunch and tea parties where people can enjoy talking with Geisha, seeing them dancing and even promenade with them in the town. The reason for doing this event is because we want more people to clearly come to feel the greatness of Geisha and the traditional culture of Japan.
It is very hard to be accepted in the inner circle of the Geisha but you have had some special and rare opportunities to take part in and report on the rituals and life of Geisha in modern Japan. How did you gain such access and Can you share with us one story of something you may have experienced that particularly left an impression on you.
I’d met Mr.Mitsuo Sukemoto, the representative of Geisha Japan in last autumn. There was Maiko Club, the Japanese version of Geisha Japan then, but he wanted to expand this project more towards overseas as well as reviewing the direction of the Japanese one and he asked me if I could join the team and I said yes with no hesitation.
I interviewed Umechie san, a seventeen-years-old Maiko who just debuted in October. She showed me the scene of practicing Shironuri, the white make-up. It was very impressive to see how Onesan, elder Maiko taught Umechie san how to do the make-up in the right way. Very strict, but she kept a very close watch on every process like a mother caring for a child. The hierarchical relationship is kept strictly with manners between younger ones and older ones in Geisha’s world, but there, at the interview, I felt a very warm bonds of sisters and it was such a heartwarming scene.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
There are many incredible craftsmen in Japan but some are in danger of extinction as there are no young ones to follow. I’d love to link a tangent point between the traditional crafts and modern age and I want to create something brand-new. It could be in the form of fashion, art or writing or all of them. Actually I will be starting to interview people for this new project very soon.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
<< Official Websites>>
*Geisha Japan *
*Maiko Club *
*Geisha Japan* - http://geishajapan.com/
*Maiko Club* - http://www.facebook.com/maikoclub
*Yuriko Kishi* - http://www.facebook.com/yurikokishi.wwl
YURIKO KISHI Official Website will be opened in early 2013.
Thank you very much.