One pair of white leather sneakers is all taupe suede from the ankle back. Another pair comes with a flock wallpaper-type pattern over it. Another sees the welt suddenly break free and rise half way up the side of the shoe. There is little doubting that some of Puma’s Black Label designs are quirky without being outlandish. That might be a fitting description for their designer, Mihara Yasuhiro, who has been working with Puma since 2001. And yet, despite this, his name is little known outside shoe buff or edgy fashion circles. Not that he has much positive to say about fashion as it is typically perceived.
“If you look in a dictionary, ‘fashion’ is just all about trends — but there are many meanings to it really,” he says. “And it’s not just about business. It’s not all about whether something will sell or not. It could be an art, although art means different things to different people. But certainly I think that fashion’s drive to expand all the time is too much. Any meaning it might have gets lost.”
Indeed, rather than a rocket-propelled ascendancy up fashion’s ranks, Yasuhiro’s has been a steady climb. Best known as a footwear designer of some influence — he launched his first, characteristically innovative line in 1994 while studying at Tama Art University, launching his eponymous label three years later — by the end of the 1990s he had somehow slipped into designing men’s wear.
“When designing shoes I had always asked myself about the clothes — how you might wear the clothes with certain trousers, for example,” Yasuhiro says. “As a shoe designer you tend to be a specialist. But I wanted the challenge. So I ended up spending a lot of my time studying — the practicalities of making trousers, for instance. And then I had a go at a shirt. And, bit by bit, I became a clothing designer. Besides, I had a big shop and needed something else to fill it with.”
His first collection was launched in 2004, with a detail-rich, Americana-inspired, urban tailoring aesthetic that might well be shared by his shoes. He called it “underground industry”. For spring/summer 2013 there is the same subtle deconstruction, seeing t-shirts, shirts and shorts embossed rather than printed (often with an animal-skin effect) and an unexpected mixing of textural fabrics, soft leather with high-density polyester or linen, for example. Similarly, the current autumn/winter’s collection is characterised by traditional tailoring and military touches, but with constant hints of the lining materials suggesting that, as indeed it is, it’s all reversible. Indeed, turn back a cuff or lift up a collar and an ostensibly utilitarian garment reveals rich embroidery. The techniques used to assemble the pieces are borrowed from kimono making.
“In Japan there’s a great effort to keep traditions alive. But, to be honest, I’m not interested in supporting some traditional artisan making just because it’s disappearing,” says a candid Yasuhiro. “We have used a very traditional, 1,200-year-old kimono makers — it’s tiny and still uses very old techniques. It’s great to use them, but you have to push them hard to work in a new way. They had these techniques but had never used them on other clothing, for example. And without their techniques those clothes couldn’t have been made. But these artisan skills need direction to be developed further, to be made relevant again. Like many shoemakers, who don’t know their own talents, they need to be given the opportunity to use all their technique. It’s why I like to give them designs that are definitely not ‘normal’ for them.”
He continues to like challenging himself too. Two years ago he made his first moves into women’s wear, applying his same men’s wear wardrobe rules: clothes that are fad-free, that only break the rules when appropriate, that perhaps build on his advice to men that they should build their outfit from the shoes upwards.
“Men’s clothes are obviously close to me so they’re much easier to understand — there are just so many mysterious things in designing women’s wear,” he jokes. “But I always try to think ‘if I was a woman, what would I want?’. I tried a skirt on to see how it felt but that’s not for me. And women always like change in what they wear, but I don’t really follow trends. I like to think I’m making clothes, not fashion.”