Sacai: Fighting Fashion’s Western Dominance

by: Brooke LaRue

In 1999, Chitose Abe, a former design team member at Comme des Garçon, founded her own Tokyo based label, Sacai. Since then she has worked as creative director, maintaining full ownership of her company. The label has expanded from women’s wear to include Sacai Man and Sacai Luck, a more casual line of clothing. Far from the spotlight, she successfully built her business on a relatively small scale until 2010 when she made her international debut at Paris Fashion Week, launching Sacai into the global fashion market. Following its debut, Sacai has gained international acclaim in the fashion world for its innovation in design. In an industry determined by Western approval, Sacai proves that it will not be dominated by Western designers.

As a designer not based in the United States or Europe, Sacai is almost always labeled by its nationality. Very few articles fail to cite the brand as Japanese, and in many interviews, Chitose is posed with questions concerning Japanese influence. In an interview with Interview Magazine, she was asked if she envisioned a Japanese or European customer while designing. She replied, “I never really design with a specific person-or culture-in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally.” From this statement she quickly shifted the conversation away from nationality to the specifics of her designs, the focus of which is functional elegance through transformations of basic items. She has also been quoted saying, “Japanese-ness may be important for some when selling to Europe, for me it’s not important. I think it says something that I’m the only Japanese brand that many of my stockists carry.”

After just two seasons in Paris, Sacai had 15 clients outside of Japan including renowned boutiques such as Colette in Paris, Biffi in Milan, and Joyce in Hong Kong.  Three years later and her international growth has continued. Yet, the fact remains that as one of the prominent Japanese designers, her presence in the global market may always be partially characterized by her nationality. This is particularly true, when one considers the regional exclusivity of the fashion industry. The world’s fashion capitols are New York, Paris, Milan, and London. These are also the cities in which the most distinguished fashion weeks take place. For this reason, these cities are also home to the most influential fashion publications and therefore voices in the industry. However, with growing globalization the industry has begun to expand, albeit slowly, and Sacai is a significant factor in this growth.

AP088222In certain regards, Sacai has been potentially limited by the media’s simplistic categorization of its nationality, but in other ways it has offered the label unique opportunities. For example, this past fall the Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché, celebrated the 90th anniversary of Franco-Japanese cultural partnership with featured exhibitions and a showcase of Japanese designers. Sacai was at the forefront of this exhibit with a pop up store instillation on the 3rd floor that remained for nearly two months.  The label’s most recent Sacai and Sacai Luck collections were sold, in addition to a capsule collection exclusively designed for the event.  The timing of the installation overlapped with Paris Fashion Week, when the most influential people in the industry flooded into the city and when Sacai showed its Spring/Summer collection, augmenting the brand’s recognition. However, this recognition exclusively came from a connection with Japan.

Most recently, Sacai partnered with Nike to release an 8-piece collection as part of Nike’s NikeLab project. This facet of Nike aims at innovation by innovators and selects different designers from around the world to create collaborations. With the collection, Abe was able to bring her creative use of fabric to Nike and many of her signature design techniques, such as pleating and lace details. She worked with the Nike team, using Nike archive pieces as reference points for design. The collaboration will expose a broader range of consumers to her designs and demonstrate her range of creativity.ChitoseAbeandBinx_native_1600

The release of the collection has been surrounded by press events, however the most interesting included a dance performance featuring pieces from the NikeLab x Sacai Collection. Performed last week in London, dancers highlighted the movement and functionality of the collection. The theme of the production was to contrast different worlds. The noted contrasts were ballet verses street dance and artist verses athlete. However, it is worth considering the underlying contrast of East versus West that is present between Sacai and Nike.

Stuart Hall argues that globalization must acknowledge the West’s historical dominance and this point is extremely true in the case of fashion, where the West’s dominance still very much exists. Any designer based in the East is under the jurisdiction of the established Western market if the brand aims to achieve any sort of international presence. However, though the fashion industry is strongly rooted in a regional exclusivity, it lacks dominance from one single nation, which could possibly lend itself well to future regional inclusion.

Sacai’s relationship with the West and with Japan is somewhat varied by situation. It is hard to determine whether a contrast really exists or if the media and Western expectations socially construct it. It appears, that the designs are not based in an inherently Japanese aesthetic, that in terms of Iwabuchi’s arguments in Recentering Globalization Abe aspires towards a cultural neutrality; but contrastingly the brand has been continuously characterized as Japanese through the Western media and contains a sense of cultural odor in that it is positively associated with Japan.  Sacai will continue to grow and find its place within the international market. With this, public perception will develop to form a deeper understanding of the designer, but without a doubt the label will always be associated with innovative design.

Discussion Questions:

In class we discussed Stuart Hall’s argument that globalization occurs through connections by travel, trade, markets, capital and the flow of labor, goods and profits, which leads to a blurred lined between what is considered “inside” and what is considered “outside”.

  1. How does fashion both blur these lines, yet also enforce them?
  2. Do you think it’s possible for the East to overcome the distinction of insiders and outsiders in fashion? If so, how?
  3. How do designers like Sacai, whose designs aren’t aesthetically Japanese, change Western perception of Japanese fashion?


Graham, Mhairi. “Watch Nike X Sacai Tear up London.” Dazed. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Johnson, Rebecca. “BoF Exclusive | Nike to Launch Collaboration with Chitose Abe’s Sacai – The Business of Fashion.” The Business of Fashion. N.p., 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Phelps, Nicole. “Nike Celebrates Its Sacai Collab With a Kappo Masa Feast.” N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

“Sacai.” Sacai. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Wynne, Alex. “Le Bon Marché Celebrates Japan.” WWD. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015


  1. Brooke,

    I don’t know anything about high fashion so this was a very interesting read for me because I learned something new! Sacai’s designs look really neat, and I really like how Chitose Abe deflected that question about who she designs for.

    That question actually surprised me. It may be a common question for designers and I am just unaware, but the impression that I have always had about fashion designers is that most of them design for an international audience. I’m sure there are some that specialize in fashion based on their own country and culture, but I suppose that globalization has led me to believe that most do not. I would think that for the most part designers would want to appeal to the most people as possible in the global fashion market, but still have their designs reflect upon themselves as individuals and as members of a culture. Is this true? Or have I just gotten a completely wrong impression of the industry?

    Thanks for the post!

  2. caweinshenker says:


    I like that you included the politics and economics of the fashion world. The issue definitely seems more nuanced than that Abe’s clothes are popular in Europe because of the Orientalist appeal of a Japanese designer.

    Though I wonder if we should take her comment on her lack of a target demographic at face value. Maybe if her designs were examined in the context of fashion trends in different countries or regions (e.g., Europe vs. Japan), it might become clear that she uses materials or styles that are consistent with trends in a specific region. Some detailed garment analysis might be really great!


  3. Brooke,

    I, too, am not very familiar with the world of fashion and the politics involved, so this is fascinating. Additionally, I find Chitose’s comments about not worrying over the Japanese-ness of her products. In such a Western-dominated industry which will define her and the products she creates by her nationality, it seems that all others will do the Orientalizing for her. But because of her philosophies, might the Westernization of the Sacai brand be possible? Once again, I’m not familiar with fashion or its politics, but it seems that collaborations with Western companies, like Nike, could potentially create a global brand awareness that would perhaps cause consumers to disregard nationality. Maybe this is a point to consider? I’m not sure. I think it would be a great idea to implement some clothing analysis, as well.

    Best of luck!

  4. Brooke,

    I’m not very familiar with the fashion industry as well. I think it’s interesting to think about how a designer can just create something out of an artist incentive and it’s marketing strategies can determine it’s success or lack of success. I’m wondering if Sacai’s designs are popular because people attribute them to a sort of Japanese-ness, or if she just has a unique design style that is very popular. I do however think that designers try to market their designs to the fashion capitals based on global trends, but do it in their own way that can be culturally influenced. I don’t think those differences could be extremely noticeable though and would contribute it to a more globalized market rather than regional.

    Thank you!