People

Noritaka Tatehana

Fashion Pioneer and Kōgei Enthusiast

Noritaka Tatehana started his artistic practice young. The foundation of his work was built in nature and with the help of his stern but encouraging parents. As a child in Kamakura near the mountains—his house was at the foot of Mount Genji—and close to the ocean, he grew up isolated from the city. His mother insisted on a natural education, in which his days were spent outdoors, playing with bugs and using his imagination. Everything he used was handmade, even his toys, which his mother taught him to make. As a boy, he found this infuriating and wished that he could buy playthings like his friends. However, as he matured, he realized that his upbringing provided him with a sense of intuition and that his parents taught him how to look at things and then re-create them. Both capacities remain important to his craft.

Tatehana gained international recognition for fashion early in his career—specifically for the numerous pairs of heelless shoes worn by Lady Gaga—just after he earned his undergraduate degree. To make his first pair of shoes at age fifteen, he played with a two-dimensional piece of hand-treated leather, folding it to create shapes as if he were completing a piece of origami. His shoes were mostly made of leather for utmost comfort and a light weight. Next, he applied layers of texture with materials such as paint or Swarovski crystals, rendering rich, organic patterns that mimicked things like the skin of reptiles. Finally, each shoe was perfected, and the center of gravity placed just so to ensure stability. Since then, his process has evolved with the same precision and care.

Initially, he aimed to create his own fashion brand, one that would continue in his name long after his own lifetime. However, even though his brand grew quite successful, he recently began to move away from what he called a “selfish pursuit” and toward the preservation of contemporary Japanese traditions beyond his own. To do so, he is currently working with artisans outside of fashion, some of whom are certified as traditional craftspeople in Japan, to foster a junction where historic Japanese culture mingles with today’s culture.

LIVING FORM visited Tatehana at his studio to talk with a man who is wise beyond his years and to learn about the future of kōgei and Japanese craft and how we will get there.

People

Noritaka Tatehana

Fashion Pioneer and Kōgei Enthusiast

Noritaka Tatehana started his artistic practice young. The foundation of his work was built in nature and with the help of his stern but encouraging parents. As a child in Kamakura near the mountains—his house was at the foot of Mount Genji—and close to the ocean, he grew up isolated from the city. His mother insisted on a natural education, in which his days were spent outdoors, playing with bugs and using his imagination. Everything he used was handmade, even his toys, which his mother taught him to make. As a boy, he found this infuriating and wished that he could buy playthings like his friends. However, as he matured, he realized that his upbringing provided him with a sense of intuition and that his parents taught him how to look at things and then re-create them. Both capacities remain important to his craft.

Tatehana gained international recognition for fashion early in his career—specifically for the numerous pairs of heelless shoes worn by Lady Gaga—just after he earned his undergraduate degree. To make his first pair of shoes at age fifteen, he played with a two-dimensional piece of hand-treated leather, folding it to create shapes as if he were completing a piece of origami. His shoes were mostly made of leather for utmost comfort and a light weight. Next, he applied layers of texture with materials such as paint or Swarovski crystals, rendering rich, organic patterns that mimicked things like the skin of reptiles. Finally, each shoe was perfected, and the center of gravity placed just so to ensure stability. Since then, his process has evolved with the same precision and care.

Initially, he aimed to create his own fashion brand, one that would continue in his name long after his own lifetime. However, even though his brand grew quite successful, he recently began to move away from what he called a “selfish pursuit” and toward the preservation of contemporary Japanese traditions beyond his own. To do so, he is currently working with artisans outside of fashion, some of whom are certified as traditional craftspeople in Japan, to foster a junction where historic Japanese culture mingles with today’s culture.

LIVING FORM visited Tatehana at his studio to talk with a man who is wise beyond his years and to learn about the future of kōgei and Japanese craft and how we will get there.

I want artisans to once again belong to a world in which quality of production and process is required.
  • Origami is the art of paper folding.
  • Byobu is a freestanding folding screen that traditionally defines space in a house. These screens have been created by some of the most celebrated Japanese artists and are considered a treasure.
  • Fusuma are rectangular panels that slide from side to side as doors or room partitions in traditional Japanese architecture. They are often painted with scenes from nature or traditional motifs.
  • Ise Jingu is a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, which is rebuilt every twenty years as part of the Shinto belief in fealty and renewal, as well as a way to impart tradition to further generations.

LF You’ve mentioned before that fashion can be a tool.

NT

Clothes and other things a person wears serve as tools for self-expression. Although no words are exchanged, people are having a conversation with other people through these tools. In that context, I started to think more about items created by people like me, who are engaged and have a history with kōgei. These items must serve as meaningful, purposeful tools that connect people and transmit a message. So I don’t create shoes for the purpose of self-expression in terms of appearance or a “cool” look. I think there are aspects of fashion related to self-consciousness. You transform, so to speak, and become the person you want to be. I find it rewarding to support someone, to help someone move forward.

LF Do your shoes exhibit a unique Japanese fashion sensibility? How do they fit in the global fashion industry?

NT

Fashion doesn’t exist in Japan. It’s kōgei. At the Tokyo National University of the Arts, I studied in the department of kōgei and started by dyeing kimono textiles. Such things are not done in the department of design or fashion design.

If I can make an extremely simple statement, Japan is very good at incorporating foreign culture and this certainly applies to fashion. Japanese people have incorporated foreign cultures into their own in unique ways and are now exporting them as culture. This is what is called “subculture.” My heelless shoes are truly a subculture and make sense in this day and age because they are a product of both Eastern and Western influences.

When you think about what it means for an item to make sense in contemporary Japan, I don’t think it can make sense without including both Eastern and Western identities. Unfortunately, the combination of these two identities may be a reason that there aren’t many occasions for using kōgei in Japan today—but maybe we can make use of kōgei techniques in new ways.

LF How can we do this?

NT

At the moment, I try to do this by involving artisans in the production of my work. I want artisans to once again belong to a world in which quality of production and process is required.

LF We’ve talked about kōgei, but we haven’t defined it. What is kōgei to you?

NT

I think kōgei is the root of Japanese art. If I were to put it very simply, I would say that originally it was a work of art with a purpose. In Japan, a work of art always had a purpose and was a furnishing item that existed as part of everyday life. For example, the custom of hanging a painting did not exist in the Japanese household. Byobu screens are partitions. Fusuma is a door. Although these items are regarded as art now, during those days people were not creating “art” per se. The concept that painting is nothing else but a painting was established by the European culture.

Furthermore, there were reasons for production, and they had been passed down from generation to generation. The Ise Jingu, a Shinto shrine, is rebuilt every twenty years, and artisans work over twenty years in preparation for replacing all the treasures in the shrine. The replaced treasures are then distributed to regional shrines and temples. This is how techniques have been passed down. In all cases, the existence of kōgei is dependent on a purpose, a reason, and a tradition.

LF Do you think people see kōgei this way?

NT

I don’t think so. My hope is that Japanese kōgei will become an independent genre, instead of being categorized within Japanese art. In America, craft is lumped into design. For example, there’s no department of craft at the Museum of Modern Art. It is categorized as design, so craft items are displayed with things like Dyson vacuum cleaners. That’s not right.

Our responsibility is not to create something beautiful: It is to create preservable works that express each page of the historical transitions of our culture, one by one.

LF How do you approach this issue?

NT

I think the time has come to think about how to preserve our practices. I’ve started to think about how to create tangible objects that will convey our world to future generations. There have been profound transitions over Japan’s long history. The job of artists is to present those changes in objects. Our responsibility is not to create something beautiful: It is to create preservable works that express each page of the historical transitions of our culture, one by one.