The soba tale of fashion designer Akira Isogawa

Myffy Rigby
Australia offered fashion designer Akira Isogawa a level of freedom he couldn't find in Japan.
Australia offered fashion designer Akira Isogawa a level of freedom he couldn't find in Japan. Photo: Louise Kennerley

He might be one of the country's most prominent fashion designers, but you have to really want to find Akira Isogawa's studio in Sydney's inner west. Tucked behind a ratty, stained old door on a Marrickville side street filled with industrial artist studios, the pay-off is an aesthete's dream. Swathes of fabric. Boards of swatches. Countless racks of samples from his last collection, a series of dresses, kimonos, tops and skirts based on the patterns he remembers from the mid-'80s, when he first landed in Australia from Kyoto as a 21-year-old.

While putting himself through design school at the Sydney Institute of Technology, he boarded with a young Greek couple who would cook dishes that, while simple, were alien to the recent migrant. The family's ethnicity opened a new world to him.

He recalls being invited to lunch one day with some of the other Greek families in the neighbourhood. "The variety of food on the table was something I could never have imagined. Ten kinds of dip, and bread, and then also the meat all cooked differently. I loved the idea of experimenting, so I had to taste all of it. Just bit by bit, you know."

Akira Isogawa likes to see the consequences of breaking rules.
Akira Isogawa likes to see the consequences of breaking rules. Photo: Jessica Hromas

Money was tight when Isogawa started out. At his first Fashion Week show in 1996, he didn't have enough cash to buy shoes for the models ("I just had no idea what to do. I didn't think I had to finance accessories as well. I was relieved actually to just have a collection made – it was a big investment") so he bought red socks for everyone to wear on the catwalk instead.

"When the first outfit came out I was extremely nervous, hoping red socks didn't look as if I ran out of money. When I learnt after the show that people actually thought that was a good idea, it gave me more confidence. I needed some sort of assurance to believe in myself, so that all this hard work appears worthwhile."

A retrospective of his professional life is on display at Sydney's Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences until June 30. But once upon a time, before those socks, before Sydney Fashion Week, before the collaborations, the lectures, workshops, stories and parties, there was his job making drinks and changing cassettes in a private karaoke club in Kyoto when he was 18. "It was good money. I started usually at eight at night and then finished about four in the morning. I remember having just a couple of hours' nap at home and then going to school."

I don't want to sound negative towards Japanese culture. I mean, there's an undeniable beauty within it, but I don't think I could survive there.

Three years later, Isogawa was on a plane bound for Sydney.

Australia, he says, offered him a level of freedom he couldn't find in Japan. "I don't want to sound negative towards Japanese culture. I mean, there's an undeniable beauty within it, but I don't think I could survive there.

"I tend to break rules. I like to see the consequences of breaking rules. What if we do something outrageous, then what could happen? You know, you might end up being completely miserable or a failure, but at least you've done it."

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Isogawa was 15 when he knew he wanted to leave Japan. He had a sense that it wasn't where he belonged. "I knew I was different, and I knew that I was going to leave at some point because I didn't get on there. I mean, it sounds melodramatic, but I didn't really mind actually not belonging to that particular culture, though I respect it now."

Growing up in Kyoto, his mother would cook simple, traditional Japanese food. Breakfast would be grilled fish, miso, fresh tofu. In fact, Akira's first job was to get up each morning to pick up the fresh-made tofu from the shop at 6am. He laments that he can't find anything like it in Australia. That, and buckwheat soba noodles.

"But then there's other things that you enjoy. Japan is all about the purity of the way they approach ingredients. They respect the flavour of the actual material. So you enjoy the essence of the actual beans without adding much to it. Whereas here there is so much choice that you can actually enjoy layers and layers of deep flavour.

Akira Isogawa can cook, but it isn't something he does often.
Akira Isogawa can cook, but it isn't something he does often. Photo: Jessica Hromas

"It really excited me when I arrived here when it comes to food, because it's entire new experience and sensations. I think the beauty of Australia is that multiculturalism. You're discovering new flavours."

Although he can cook, it isn't something Isogawa does very often. The last time he made anything, in fact, was a Japanese-style salad of raw salmon last October.

"I used to cook at home because I used to work from home. That was 20 or 25 years ago. I had a cutting table in my dining room and then a sewing machine in my living room, and then I used to cook quite a lot because I never had to leave. But now I spend a great deal of time in Marrickville, I hardly cook."

Quickfire corner

The first food you fell in love with in Australia

Hot chips with vinegar.

Vegemite: yes or no?

Yes, on toast with butter.

The food you miss most from Japan

Home-made tofu, eaten chilled.

The last song you listened to

Tout Est Magnifique by French electronic music artist Jacques.

The last book you read

The Law of the Sun by Ryuho Okawa.

The last piece of clothing you bought

Shirts by Comme de Garçons Homme Deux.

Guilty pleasure

French cheese. 

Late-night snack

I have breakfast occasionally late at night. For example, granola. 

What would I find if I looked in your fridge?

Tonic water.

Professional hero

Yohji Yamamoto.