Where we grow up can shape us. Hiroshima, a city whose tragic past still looms large, is Ryunosuke Okazaki’s hometown. The designer was born there 50 years after the atomic bomb was dropped that devastated the city and its people. In its aftermath, pacifism was met with renewed fervour globally, but particularly in Japan where peace monuments, parks and museums were created to ensure that we never forget the past. Ryunosuke felt the weight of his home city’s dark history from a young age, with peace, prayer and Japanese culture permeating his avant-garde designs today.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 45. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
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Ryunosuke’s clothes stand out for their bold futuristic and architectural design. Commanding geometric shapes protrude from the body in all directions and surrealist ruffles swathe models from head to toe. The designer graduated this year with an MFA in design from Tokyo University of the Arts, where he gained acclaim as the first prize winner at the Graduation Exhibition. His graduate collection, JomonJomon, took inspiration from Jomon-era pottery, where vessels were imprinted with elaborate designs using rope, making them more decorative than functional. The people of the Jomon era channelled their wishes and prayers into these creations. They saw God in nature at the same time as fearing the sublime threat posed by natural disasters, knowing ultimately that the whims of nature were beyond their control.

The pandemic that has ravaged the world for almost two years now has been a stark reminder that we are still at the mercy of nature, no matter how socially and technologically advanced we become. It’s easy to feel powerless in these circumstances. To counteract this feeling, Ryunosuke turns to prayer. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have used prayer to find hope in the bleakest times. While prayer alone may not be as effective in creating real change as education and activism, having faith in the possibility for a better world is essential to find the motivation to push for peace, justice and equality.

Ryunosoke’s latest collection, Pray, shown at Tokyo Fashion Week in September, showcased his signature otherworldly sculptural dresses while centring these ideas. Drawing from Shintoism and his own spiritual relationship with nature, the custom pieces focus on the importance of coexisting with and respecting the natural world. As in the Jomon era, we are approaching a time of increasingly violent natural phenomena if we don’t do what it takes to slow the pace of climate change. In response, Ryunosuke feels like sustainable design is his responsibility as a human being in the natural world. His approach is the opposite of mass production, with garments more like works of art, principally custom made for film and editorials.

The clothes themselves bring to mind the supernatural and phantasmagorical, and the inspirations exist in a similarly spiritual world. However, Ryunosuke’s work is also rooted in the very real impact of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. One of his earliest pieces, Wearing Prayer, was crafted from paper cranes. It references the Japanese peace symbol and tragic story of Sadako Sasaki, who died in 1955 aged 12 from radiation-related leukaemia, or ‘atomic bomb disease’ as it was called at the time. Sadako survived the blast with no apparent injuries, but, nine years later, she fell ill.
There is a legend in Japan that states if someone who is unwell folds one thousand origami cranes, then they will be granted a wish and be healed. Sadako set about this task two months before her death, using whatever scraps she could get hold of in the hospital. While she managed to exceed her goal, folding 1,300 cranes, she passed away in October 1955. Today, the act of folding a crane is a symbol of an international peace movement. There is a statue of Sadako in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The plaque below it reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”

The cranes symbolise the world’s prayers for peace, emphasising the meditative state that physical creation can provoke. This idea is at the heart of Ryunosuke’s work. Prayer is very much a part of his process as he believes that the act of creating itself is also an act of prayer. Working on intricate, architectural dresses, which he makes with his hands, gives him time to reflect and feel deeply connected to each piece. The creative process could be described as a kind of meditation.

While Eastern practices like meditation, yoga and manifestation have permeated Western culture over decades, they experienced a surge in popularity over lockdown. For some, the pandemic has been a chance to step back from the busy pace of everyday life. For those of us working from home it allows us more time to embed these spiritual practices into our routines and they can be useful in helping us accept circumstances outside of our control.
Ryunosuke’s spirituality is related to Shinto, the Japanese religion that he grew up with. Shintoism finds God in the existence of nature as opposed to Western monotheistic religion where prayer is directed to a singular God who is an otherworldly being. Whether related to a specific religion or not, the beauty of nature can inspire feelings of awe as though we are part of something greater. Humans are also a part of nature, which is something Ryunosuke is keen to remind us with his work, creating structures that go beyond the body in shapes that ref lect the randomness of the natural world.

As well as mining Japan’s history for inspiration, Ryunosuke is joining an established tradition of Japanese avant-garde fashion. Tokyo is known for its striking anti-fashion movement spearheaded by industry heavyweights like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who shocked the fashion establishment in the ‘80s with clothes that challenge preconceived notions of beauty and taste. These aren’t clothes you wear day to day in the street. This beauty isn’t conventional or demure, but striking and memorable and daring to explore conceptual ideas. Once seen, it’s hard to look away.

Both beauty and prayer are about having faith in something bigger. They can be born out of pain and adversity but prove that negative events don’t mean giving up on believing in a better world. This is the thread that runs through Ryunosuke’s work – an important reminder as we hesitantly emerge from the pandemic over the months and years to come.
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Your most recent collection is inspired by the power of prayer. It can be easy to despair and feel like everything is out of our control, so having faith in a better future is more important now than ever in the context of global issues like the pandemic and the climate crisis. How does praying help you feel like things can improve? Would you consider prayer part of your creative process?
Recent issues such as pandemics and the climate crisis are very important to re-evaluate the relationship between nature and human beings. Prayer has different meanings depending on the religion, but it is a way of thinking about the peace of the world, yourself and others. I believe that by praying, we can save our own hearts, which in turn can indirectly improve things. For me, prayer is an essential part of creation and each of my works contains my prayer.
Do you think that prayer can help bring about real life change? How?
I believe that praying and believing in something can change our behaviour and help us develop a richer mind. I think this is very useful and important in life.
Is your prayer associated with a particular religion? Why?
What I mean by ‘prayer’ is related to the Japanese Shinto religion. This is because Shintoism, which finds the existence of God in nature, has been familiar to me since I was a child.
The Shinto concept of koto-dama focuses on the spiritual power that resides in words. Beautiful words are believed to help bring about good. Do your prayers follow a specific structure/type of language or are they spontaneous? With reference to your work as a designer, do you believe that beauty can help bring about good or are there concepts that are more important than beauty?
My expression of ‘prayer’ can be described as spontaneous. I believe that prayer is a beautiful act. As a designer, I believe that beauty is important, but at the same time, I am pursuing an overwhelming expression that is more conceptual, beyond the criteria of simply being beautiful or not.
Would you say that prayer is a universal impulse that transcends religion? How does Shinto and Buddhist prayer differ from Western or Christian prayer?
I believe that prayer is a universal impulse that transcends religion. In Japan, the sense of religion and religious consciousness is not like Christianity and monotheism in the West, where the object of belief is clear, but rather a broader, perceived religion. It is a religion of sensing. For example, when you see the grandeur of the mountains or the sea, you can sense God or Buddha beyond it. Such a sense of connection with nature is a prayer that goes beyond religion.
Religion has come under renewed interest in fashion and culture in recent years. The Met Gala’s 2018 theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination and in 2019, Kanye released his gospel album Jesus is King before announcing this year that he is changing his name to Ye, a word used in the Bible to mean “you.” Do you think that Eastern religions and cultures have been permeated by Christianity? Do you think this has an effect on your work?
I believe that Eastern religions and cultures will permeate Christianity and the West even more in the future. This mixture of many ideas and diverse values will have an impact on my creative activities.
Eastern religion has been in Western consciousness for some time now but came under renewed focus in lockdown as people reached for yoga and mindfulness to deal with uncertainty. Do you think that the previous binary between East and West has been broken down and merged? What are some of the misconceptions that Westerners have about Eastern prayer and religion?
There are differences in the religious consciousness of the East and the West, but the act of ‘prayer’ is the same. In the East, it is ‘feeling prayer’ and in the West, it is ‘believing prayer’. I believe that the boundaries between the two will gradually fade away, and the world will become a place where diversity is valued.
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You made a dress called Wearing Prayer which is made from recycled paper cranes. Can you explain the significance of the paper cranes and why you decided to integrate them into your work?
It is one of the first pieces that I started making with the theme of prayer. Hiroshima, my hometown, has a history of atomic bombings and every year people from all over the world send origami cranes to mourn the victims. By making a dress out of these origami cranes, which are the incarnation of the prayers of the world, I tried to create a new value.
When most people think of Hiroshima, your hometown, the first thing that comes to mind is the atomic bomb which was dropped 50 years before you were born. The aftermath of such extreme violence brought about a renewed focus on peace and pacifism worldwide, but particularly in the cities where the bombs were dropped. Your work is concerned with these ideas of peace, faith and prayer. How do you think growing up in Hiroshima impacted your worldview and your creative focus and how does this manifest itself in your creations?
I grew up in Hiroshima in an environment where peace education and peace activities were actively promoted. Since I moved to Tokyo right after graduating from high school, I have been thinking about the history of Hiroshima even more. Prayers for peace transcend national borders and race, and I think that is a wonderful thing. Such a beautiful act of prayer is very primitive and is deeply related to human activities and history. I draw new inspiration for my work from the history of prayer.
Do you think it can be necessary for something bad to happen for people to be incentivised into taking action and really pushing for a better world? How have the past two years changed your goals as a designer?
I don't think it is necessary for bad things to happen. Essentially, I think we humans should notice and deal with bad things before they happen. I think it is important to keep creating and keep sending out messages. I want to continue creating with responsibility as a human being, before being a designer.
For a lot of people, the pandemic offered time to reflect, which led to some of the most widespread movements in history, whether for social justice, environmentalism or anti-capitalism. At the same time, it was easy to get bogged down by the constant stream of negative news and a lot of creatives struggled to find inspiration because of this. Did lockdown inspire you to imagine a better future through creativity or was it difficult to stay motivated amid the disruption?
These days, the world is filled with negative news and sad information, but in my mind, I felt that the only way to open up the future was to keep creating. I believe it was my creative drive to create something overwhelming that saved my heart.
The pandemic also made a lot of us feel more connected and appreciative of nature. Was this the case for you? What impact did this have on your work?
Due to the pandemic, I became aware again of my connection with nature, which I was not usually aware of. This led to the concept of my first collection.
Do you feel more inspired by the city or by nature? Do you feel pressure to be in a major city because you work in fashion? Did the pandemic change your thoughts on this at all?
It was when I started living in the city that I began to think about nature. It was only when I moved to the city that I began to miss and cherish the nature-filled place where I used to live. If I hadn't been in the city, I wouldn't have been able to create the work I do now, and I think my craving for nature is what inspires me to create.
A theme that runs through much of your work is the spirituality of nature, but your approach is more conceptual than literal. How do you convey nature and spirituality through your creations?
My current production style is not to draw blueprints, but to create with my hands. This act is very natural, and I myself look forward to the completion of my work. When I feel that I have created something overwhelming, I stop my work and finish it. It is very natural to watch the work being created, and I feel as if I myself, the creator, am a part of nature. The act of making the work itself can be said to be an act of prayer.
Can you describe a spiritual experience you have had in nature and the effect it had on your work?
I was born and raised in a place full of nature. The Seto Inland Sea was nearby, and I could see the torii gate of Miyajima. Behind the torii gate is Itsukushima Shrine, and behind that is a mountain. It was very magnificent and I felt at peace when I saw it. Thinking about the scenery of my hometown, I feel the roots of myself and the Japanese people as I create my works.
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What do you want people to feel when they see or wear your designs?
In fashion, the feeling you get when you wear a dress is very important. The dress I made has a strong message, but at the same time, it creates a sense of movement, as if the body's joints have increased and the body's movements have been extended. Therefore, when you wear the dress you feel as if your body had grown one size larger, and I think you will be excited, and I would be happy if you felt that way.
You create statement, structural pieces that stand out on social media and editorials but are hard to translate into real life wear. Do you feel a tension between creativity and commerciality? Did your fashion education focus more on one than the other? What is your long-term plan for the label?
I have studied a wide range of art and design rather than fashion education. It is very important to me in my creative work to continue to express concepts that are important to the current society, and I believe this is also important in the fashion world. I can't tell you exactly what my long-term plans are, but I would like to continue to convey an important message through my creations in the world we live in now.
For your graduate collection, you were inspired by the Jomon-era, a pre-historic period in Japan that spanned approximately 10,000 years. You have talked about the “irresistible threat of nature” during that time. I think we sometimes forget the threat of nature, but the climate crisis is making it harder to ignore as weather conditions and natural disasters become more extreme. Does the threat of nature inspire you as much as the beauty of it?
When we see the threats of nature, we feel fear. The climate crisis, natural disasters and viral pandemics are also threats to us humans and therefore, they can cause us to reaffirm our connection with nature. In this sense, threats stimulate my creativity. I believe that there must be something really important that can be conveyed through creation.
What do you think humans can learn from the natural world?
Humans live on the earth just like other animals, but our nature is different. I think we need to look at the natural world and learn anew that we need to live in harmony with nature, which we usually forget.
Your work has a futuristic quality but most of your inspiration comes from history. How do you interpret Japanese culture and history through a modern lens?
I interpret and express the forms that have been created throughout history in a modern way. For example, the Jōmon pottery that inspired my first collection was made by the people of the Jōmon period with prayers in mind, and I believe that the creators of that time were trying to create a new form of expression. I am trying to inherit the unchanging thoughts of the people of that time about figurative expression and create something new using modern materials.
In your opinion, what is the future of sustainability in fashion? Are your thoughts on sustainability inf luenced by your spiritual relationship with nature?
Being sustainable is important and matters both to my creative work and to living on this planet. Mass production and mass consumption in the fashion industry are not a good thing. Designers should focus on the creation of each piece and take responsibility for the product.
What can we expect next from your label?
My label will continue to make one-of-a-kind dresses with an artistic point of view.
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