As forward-thinking as fashion claims to be, it rarely thinks more than a season or two ahead. I have certainly never heard any designer talk about seven decades ahead. But Chitose Abe is no designer. Like his mentor Rei Kawakubo, Abe, the driving force behind Japanese label Sacai, has created his own fashion vocabulary, hybridizing fashion’s most familiar forms to create designs with a seductively warped, sci-fi elegance. So it makes perfect sense to me that she can envision them living on into the distant future, long after she herself has passed.
Remo Ruffini, who acquired Moncler in 2003, clearly felt the same way when he enlisted Abe to help him celebrate the brand’s 70th anniversary. They had already worked together in 2010 on the Moncler X Sacai project when, as Ruffini astutely observes, “collaborations were not as popular as today and were sometimes viewed with a kind of skepticism for fear of contaminating the brand’s ethos. .” But Moncler X Sacai lingered with him as a particularly powerful moment in the company’s evolution, so there was an emotional resonance in bringing Abe back for Moncler’s 70th year.
“Extraordinary Forever” was the celebration’s theme, and to be fair, Abe was looking down the pipeline after another 70 years. Think of it as a metaphor for the future. It wasn’t like she jumped out of bed one morning while the 22nd century sapped its synapses. But Ruffini had faith that “forever” actually meant something to her. “Always looking ahead and designing for what’s to come, Chitose and Sacai’s design mindset mirrors my own because in a sense we’re never satisfied with the present and strive to offer something unexpected that will be a catalyst for future creativity.” In other words, what the next 70 years of Moncler might look like.
If that presents itself as a weighty challenge for a billion-dollar brand, the collaboration itself sounds suitably intense. First, there are only four looks. In a spirited Google Meet with Abe, her right-hand man Daisuke Gemma and translator Kaori Funaki who were all in Tokyo, I tried to extract from the transcontinental ether what the essence of a four-look distillation of Sacai’s interpretation of Moncler’s future might be. Ruffini has made his fortune by transforming Moncler’s functional quilted ski jackets into a broad-based luxury fashion statement. From mountain top to Michelin restaurant without changing a jacket: there is a powerful transmogrification there. Add in the natural Sacai appetite for hybrids and you’ve got a recipe for something. But what?
Gemma offered “transformation” as a clue. “Same garment, but a completely different feeling.” He added, “While we respect what Moncler has done, what we can bring to the brand is a more creative way of dressing.” Take the normal human response to cold weather, which is layering. “Of course you could just layer everything on top of everything,” thought Gemma, “but we have a slightly more interesting idea of layering to create a new silhouette.” For me, a transformation is when a pupa becomes a butterfly. It is a notion of appearing. My previous experience with Sacai suggests that a similar process will be at work here, and the layering will likely be a trick of the eye. But how it will actually work in practice clearly needs to be experienced to be fully understood, which means we’ll have to wait until January, when the four designs will debut at Sacai’s men’s show in Paris.
Unseen, they already embody the core of the Sacai philosophy. The Japanese concept kachikan, the importance of a personal value system, has always been Abe’s motivation, much like her mentor Kawakubo. It has shaped Abe’s previous collaborations, most recently with Jean Paul Gaultier and Cartier, although those collaborations also pragmatically represented something that Sacai normally couldn’t (the fine jewelry aspect of Cartier, for example) or chose not to do. “We don’t make sneakers,” Gemma said. “We’re working with Nike to make sneakers.” That attitude was actually the basis for Sacai’s original collaboration with Moncler in 2010. “When we first worked with Moncler, we didn’t have a down jacket in the Sacai collection, so it was new for us,” said Abe. “Now we have a down jacket, so we thought about what would be new for us. And it wasn’t about the creation or the technical problems. It was more about being able to work with a powerful company like Moncler on a more focused intellectual project, very edited, very little, but being able to share this intellectual vision together. That was very much the difference from the first collaboration.” And also the starting point from the other designers who worked on the “Extraordinary Forever” initiative.
Ruffini suggested they reinterpret Moncler’s brand icon, the Maya 70 jacket, for the anniversary. Rick Owens, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Giambattista Valli and Thom Browne were among those who accepted his challenge. But Abe’s approach was unique. “The project this time was a heartfelt vision, more about how we express it kachikan than the business side, she said. “Of course it has to be commercial when we produce something, but this was more about how we respect our culture. More connected to our mind.” And for her, it had a lot to do with the idea of creating something that would last beyond just fashion cycles. “Something to be able to feel pride in the future, to be able to coexist in this precious world in a sustainable way .” This is Abes kachikan.
Sacai’s 25th birthday is approaching. “We don’t really talk about it,” Gemma said. He claimed that the future, not the past, is what absorbs Abe and him, though he had no idea what that might look like yet. Abe insisted they were very positive. She is driven by a hunger for new perspectives. So far, Sacai has a successful track record in satisfying that hunger. The brand’s basic concept of hybrids, of merging and transformations, traces fashion’s own evolving ideas about identity, gender, diversity. Did the duo Sacai think they were ahead of their time? “We believe in what we’ve done, we haven’t really changed that much,” Gemma said. “Fortunately, we had our own signature,” Abe agreed. “For us, being able to create something completely unique has not changed, but the society that accepts what we create has changed a lot. In the past it was more exclusive. Now it is more inclusive.”
Of course, there have been other major changes. A brand whose raison d’être is all snow-related must surely be looking at a world of rising temperatures with trepidation. It is no surprise that Moncler’s own commitment to best environmental practice has won widespread respect. It is not something Sacai, however, has really talked about. “There’s always a hidden message, you know?” Gemma said hesitantly. “All the people we work with, we basically borrow their voice. We don’t say it very loudly ourselves, but we borrow these people to express our attitude,” suggesting that working with a brand as big as Moncler is a way for Sacai to acquire an activist voice of her own.
Sacai’s character lends itself to commitment. As curatorially inclined as Japanese fashion so often is, Sacai has taken the cutting impulse to the extreme. A random batch of past references include funk master George Clinton, New York club Paradise Garage, cult film The Big Lebowski… and Albert Einstein! For our interview, Gemma wore a jumper from Sacai’s Tokyo pop-up which celebrated emerging graphic designers and 90s house music. Abe wore a T-shirt featuring singer Sade, guiding light for one of Sacai’s lockdown collections. It flowed on during that show. The raindrops glittered like diamonds on the clothes. “Nature is more powerful than anything else,” Gemma murmured.
When I asked Remo Ruffini what his hopes for Moncler’s future were, he said: “I want to see a world where meaningful creativity and innovation remain as powerful as ever, and a place where relationships with local communities and strong experiences will be key to staying a meaningful brand.” Anchored in these goals, Moncler’s Instagram-savvy Genius strategy, currently on hiatus, will return in 2023, this time with creatives from arenas outside of fashion offering their interpretations of the brand, but for now, the label has turned to Chitose Abe and Sacai, and the strong promise of four appearances. In this case, less is more. Much more.