If there’s a phrase that best sums up the style of Barneys New York‘s latest launch, Akira Naka, it is quiet confidence. Not surprisingly, that reference also applies to its founder and creative director. Hailing from the Japanese town of Mie, Naka has been providing discriminant shoppers with an alternative to Tokyo street style since 2007. This is his first season with Barneys, the label’s exclusive retail partner in the U.S. and online. We talked with the introspective designer about the philosophy behind his collection.
A NEW WAY
“Japan is known for its avant-garde look—Comme des Garçons—and its street style, like all the labels coming out of Tokyo,” says Naka. “I respect subculture and street style, but I wanted to show there is another way, something that speaks to the part of Japan I come from.” Calling his aesthetic a new kind of elegance, Naka seeks to pair traditional Japanese art and nature influences with the experimental lines he first explored as a design student in Belgium. “I grew up between the mountains and the ocean,” he says. “Did you know that 70 percent of Japan is covered by forest? I wanted this natural beauty to be part of how I design.”
THE ANTWERP INFLUENCE
You could call Naka a late-onset designer: He arrived in Salt Lake City to attend business school, but at age 25 he found himself on an unexpected detour when he brought a handful of secondhand shirts to the local tailor and watched, mesmerized, as they were transformed into neat-fitting garments. “I thought, This is it. I have to quit school,” he says. The son of a Japanese fish seller, Naka spent his younger years working in a factory to pay for his schooling; he had little idea that clothing construction could be artisanal as well. Inspired, he applied and was accepted at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, an intense education that forms the backbone of his stylistic approach today. “They take only 50 students, and after the first year they cut the class in half,” he shares. “It was brutally competitive, and I was pushed to my creative limit. It made me the designer I am.” Along with those of nine other young designers, his collection was nominated for the International Fashion and Photography Festival of Hyères, where Azzedine Alaïa was a judge. The experience was transformative for Naka, who decided to launch his own label.
PROPORTION AND DETAIL
Though Naka calls his look minimalist, there is a warmth to his designs not necessarily associated with the starkness of other labels. Much of this can be attributed to his focus on proportion, seeking to draw attention to the female form through graceful accents, the way traditional kimonos brought a sense of fluidity and elegance to the women who wore them. In his Fall ’18 collection, Naka pays special attention to the shoulder. “I was experimenting forever with a new silhouette for suiting—how do you make a jacket that says something new?” Oversize had been done; drop shoulders are not his thing. “I started exploring with moving the shoulder ‘up,’” he explains. “It went up and up and up, and that’s when I said, Okay! We have something now!” The articulated shoulder, often built out of the same fibers that form the brim of a baseball cap, has become a signature of the label.
Naka explores other ways to bring three-dimensional appeal to his creations, including his innovative knitwear that is created from layered panels and fringed details that feel soft yet sculptural. This season’s split-sleeve sweater, for instance, features a voluminous arm and narrow cuff that creates a petal-like shape when pushed up in what Naka calls a “flower pose.” The result is achievable owing to his use of a thicker knit. With his blue fringed knit skirt, he chose a purple hue for the silky under-panel, providing a sense of depth to the garment when in motion.
AN INDEPENDENT THINKER
Naka knows his currency is in his unique aesthetic; maintaining artistic control of his company is his top priority. “I do not want to compromise,” he says. “Not being part of a conglomerate allows for creativity, but it is also my biggest challenge because I am part artist, part business owner responsible for all my employees.” Balancing the two roles is more like a 25/8 job, but Naka sees it this way: “I believe in my label. It’s up to me to see that my team believes as well, and they do. Step by step, we are showing that we can make this work.”