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Keiko Koakutsu found peace in creating, as she says. Designing and modifying garments is the very source of life for her. Creative pattern cutting, upcycling and colourful prints mark her signature style, which rises up from a mix of Japanese-inspired patterns and punk elements. ‘Be rebel’ could be the perfect motto of Keiko Koakutsu, who is a designer grown up in the vibrant decades of the 1970s and 1980s. It wouldn’t be too ventured to say that she could be seen as a kind of little Japanese Vivienne Westwood.

Her designs are bold and genderless, and the soft and organic shapes make them versatile and easily adaptable to the body and to the identity of the person who is wearing them. Each one of the garments is deftly designed and sewn by Keiko herself, who counts now with two stores: the Lexington Vintage in the hearth of New York, Harlem, and another one in Nagoya, Japan, which have recently opened. Finding information about Keiko Koakutsu and her work is not an easy task and that is why we wanted to talk to her and find out something more about her mysterious personality.
How did you get into fashion design? How would you describe your career in fashion and how has your style changed through the years?
I grew up in a rather dysfunctional family. I was left alone with my father's heavy drinking and my mother's depression. I never figured out if they ever wanted me there. I found peace in my life by creating. I taught myself how to cut up fabrics by measuring some old garments and took them apart to make unique patterns during my teenage years. My parents spent their small savings to put my sister through college. I had the option to go to higher education after high school. I lived in the middle of Tokyo, Japan, but my parents were extremely conservative in their lifestyle so I only had a few garments. I needed more clothes. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the fashion poured out into the street scene and my creativity reached its peak when I attended FIT in Tokyo. My influences were Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo – all the greatest avant-garde, top of the line designers who walk on the same street in Tokyo. I found my strength and the confidence in myself with my unlimited creativity that just freely flows out from me. Some of the greatest designers discovered my designs and I started designing garments for them independently.
How would you describe the style and identity of your clothing line? For what kind of people do you create your collections?
My garments flow with the person who wears the pieces and both the person and my garments come alive through them. For example, I made a coat that catches the wind when it blows as you walk. You feel like you grew a pair of wings. It could be an Earth tone to blend in with nature or it could be made with bright colours to express our emotions.
Japanese references and punk inspired attitudes are mixed together in your pieces. What inspires you?
My upbringing shows up in my designs. I rebel against the dysfunctional family and a society that looks for creative individuals but discourages them and terminates their ability to express their true self. The British Punk fashion shocked us young people back when I was growing up and the rebellious nature became part of our culture.
You are based in Harlem, New York. As a designer, how have you been influenced by the city? And how do these influences mix with your Japanese cultural background?
I escaped Japan and my family to start a new life in the United States in late ‘80s. I met a guy and got married. Unfortunately, my marriage failed and after a few years I became a single mother of my three daughters. I went through poverty and few misfortunes but always kept sewing. I raised my kids with my tiny little alteration shop. The sewing kept me going. After twenty-four years of fixing people's garments down south, I moved to New York City. I saw the beautiful African prints and fell in love with the availability of those fabrics. When I was a student at FIT in Tokyo back then, I saved enough money to travel to Africa to see the beautiful fabrics and their designs. So it being in NYC and surrounded by these fabrics was a dream come true. During those twenty-four years of running an alteration shop I didn't have the time to make a single garment except for my daughter's prom dresses. Now I'm here in the city and I am overflowing with ideas and innovating everyday.
Creative cutting and garment construction are quite central in your creations. Can you describe us the most technical side of your work?
The creative cutting comes from the limited resources. When I don't have enough fabric or if someone gives me a leftover fabric, I make sure to use every corner of it. You might not know this but every designer's rule is to not waste any fabrics.
You have recently opened your own American vintage design store in Japan. Can you tell us something about this project?
I simply wanted to go back to Japan after thirty years of absence to see if my fashion designs would be accepted by people of all ages. I'm not an Internet person but I always had a storefront so I opened one to carry my garments. I made a few of the same designs but I usually only make one piece per design. People are finding out how special that is when the garments and the person are a match made in heaven.
I will continue to create garments that make people happy and make them feel more than who they are or the person whom they always wanted to be. I believe creativity and talent are the gifts we all received before we were born. Just got to believe in it and push through all the way throughout our life. Yes, just by starting today at this very moment and never stop. Thank you for interviewing me for this cause.

Ilaria Lorio Albarin
Emmanuel Monsalve
Raya Sacco
Sarah McCall
Jojo Torres
Make up
Nana Hiramatsu

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