Avant-garde with a sole: interview with fashion designer Noritaka Tatehana

Raising a pop star like Lady Gaga more than 23 inches from the ground is not a feat for just anyone. And doing it 25 times without even the use of a heel, well that’s really something, especially if what you do is craft shoes. Noritaka Tatehana, 28 years old, born and raised in a seaside area of Kamakura, in Japan, started making shoes at the age of 15, while studying the complex dyeing techniques of kimonos. Clad in pink sting-ray, sculptural and finely inlaid, adorned with Swarowski crystals or studs, each piece he creates is an icon: a towering bridge that connects the century-old heritage of Japanese savoir-faire with the more experimental and exclusive future of shoe design. His latest project surprised everyone, inaugurating a new direction for him. This time it won’t be coming from his atelier in Tokyo, among the smell of leather and glue, but from an assembly line. In collaboration with one of the most important names of the field, Yoichiro Kitadate, (shoe director for Nike Air Jordan and Reebok Pump Fury), Noritaka conceived The Daughters, a brand of sneakers for him and for her. Definitely a name to keep an eye on.  What's the connection between making kimonos and your idea of artisanal shoemaking?The construction of a kimono and that of a shoe have much in common, but my objective wasn't to learn its techniques. I was just looking for inspiration to project my shoes into the future. The dyeing and weaving methods I studied in university were very traditional and today most of them have disappeared. I taught myself how to make shoes based on traditional English shoemaking techniques and some of the old methods and tools that were substituted by mechanized processes. I made my first shoes when I was in high school, when I dreamed of being a successful international fashion designer. As a Japanese person, I asked myself, how can I approach a global context? My answer was by interpreting the traditional Japanese identity with a new style that relates to the present age. The same way foreign culture came into Japan after WWII, while in the meantime we Japanese people forgot to export our great culture abroad. You just launched your brand of sneakers The Daughters with Yoichiro Kitadate, a line of products which is much more accessible than your hand-crafted shoes. What were the biggest challenges? It was such a big challenge in itself that I still feel uneasy, but you need a certain amount of anxiety to move things forward. I feel this project has a very strong fashion component, and that to me was the greatest challenge.  Making handmade footwear is not for everybody. I have only created things that were order-made until now. To be honest, I'm still proceeding through trial and error, but in any case, I make shoes for customers to wear and to be happy with, so it makes no difference how this is accomplished. What is the philosophy and main inspiration for The Daughters?The core of what I do is always based on Japan. I don't mean in details like materials or design specifics, but in the bigger picture, in what it represents. The brand is a vehicle to communicate Japan to the world. I recently began teaching in universities and spending time with students. In class, I always try to engage them and show my position with regards to creativity. Being in contact with young students gives me a unique key to understanding the present day, as well as inspiration from contemporary Japanese youth culture. I always try to incorporate so called "sub-cultures", that I consider two-dimensional transfigurations of the existing dominant culture, into my projects. I think that if you don't lead the vanguard and do things that are experimental, future talent will be obstructed. You often talk of the future, being avant-garde and experimenting. What does innovation mean to you?My creations have always been innovative, because I look towards the future. I guess in most cases, if you analyze them from a wider angle, the traditions of today were innovations yesterday, and the innovations of today will be the traditions of tomorrow.  Where do you find inspiration for your creations?It is not something that pops into your mind from nowhere, or that you can find by sitting at a desk. It's like having a variety of drawers in your head, which doesn't mean you need to stock every idea, it's more about fluidly accessing the archive. In a few seconds I basically open a drawer and choose an idea to develop.  The cultural heritage and crafts of Japan are very important to your creative process. How important is the Western perspective on Japan?The world's view of Japan is very important, it's what I call objectivity. I graduated from the most prestigious art university in Japan and getting in was extremely hard even though I had gone to the preparatory school for 5 years. I had learned that it's not all about technique but about "having an objective view". Only now do I fully understand the various aspects of this principle. A bird's-eye view clarifies the direction you have to take.  Unfortunately, the center of fashion and art is not Japan, but nonetheless I find the opinion and point of view of the capital very useful. I guess the reason why I receive international attention is because I simply know which direction to look in and which road to take.  Which phase is the most delicate in creating a shoe: working by hand or by computer? I usually never draw, sketch or use a computer in the shoemaking process. The easiest route for me is to picture the shoe in 3D in my head and turn that image into an object with my hands. And how important is presentation? It's fundamental, because it's the most direct way of communicating your creation. As makers we don't use words and texts but visualization, which is a silent form of communication. In order to tell the image, in consideration of all elements, you need to carefully choose from the means at your disposal. When it works it's wonderful because you're able to communicate a product even to people who don't speak your same language or that never had a chance to see, touch or wear it.  Someone once described style and form as the skin of the concept, and, vice versa, the concept as being at the heart of style and form. How do you balance these elements? Style and concept should always be connected. Let's say concept is like the trunk of a tree. The leaves and flowers or fruits are the design produced as the final output. What kind of trunk you have and flower blossoms all depend on you, on what you have inside. Can you tell us an anecdote of your experience with clients that revealed itself to be a big lesson? I have a client who is much more like a designer than me. Another one is a performer who knows more about my shoes than I do. She has ordered 25 pairs so far. Who do you think it is? Yes, it's Lady Gaga. She is one of my partners in crime and I've grown a lot thanks to her. I think it's not my shoes but my clients that allow me to grow and develop.   What piece of advice would you give a young designer who just graduated from college? To always take action. These days there's the internet so you can easily access the world from your bedroom. It is real but at the same time it's surreal. Ever since I was 15 I've been going to brand shops like Comme des Garçons, showing my card and portfolio. I know the importance of actually experiencing things in person. When you live it, you remember it. It's very different from experiencing something on the internet. Why do you think women are so obsessed with shoes?Because shoes represent femininity. Even the high class strippers in Paris take off their clothes but not their shoes. It's part of their body. What is elegance according to you?Knowing your personality because it leads to more confidence. You can't create your own style without some courage. Elegance is about confidently showing your style, it means standing on your own feet. Interview by Fabio Falzone                     The Daughters The Daughters The Daughters The Daughters The Daughters


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