Duo Lifts Blackout on Color

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1982, a wave of young designers led by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons shattered conventional fashion by sending models down Paris runways wearing soot-smudged faces and torn, asymmetric clothing in dark fabrics. At that moment the "post-nuclear" look dropped like a bomb on the international fashion world, achieving instant fame for its creators.

Now, almost 10 years later, a new fashion duo is emerging here. But instead of somber, oversize black garments, Kyoko Higa and Akira Onozuka are embracing form-fitting clothing in such bold colors as cobalt blue and fuchsia. Unlike their predecessors, they won't head off to Paris; they will stay in Tokyo, at least for now. And instead of trying to make blistering fashion statements, they are focusing on casual, comfortable clothes.

Earlier this year, the prestigious Tokyo Council of Fashion Designers recognized their vision by handing out its Best New Designer award to Higa, who grew up on the southern island of Okinawa and brings a tropical flavor to her Rose Is a Rose women's collection. Onozuka, whose Odds On line for men features colorful, classically styled casual wear, was named Best Designer.

Their success reflects the ways in which Japan itself has changed in the past decade. The country is increasingly affluent, its people more worldly and self-confident, its government assuming a more prominent role in global affairs.

Both designers are relative newcomers to the increasingly crowded Japanese fashion scene. Higa's line is entering its third year; Onozuka, who spent 16 years designing for fashion impresario Issey Miyake broke free five years ago.

If their names don't yet spark recognition in America, it's because the Japanese designers face a double barrier when trying to break into Western markets. An unfavorable exchange rate has priced many fashions out of the reach of U.S. buyers. And, because the fashions are cut for smaller Japanese figures, some designers say it costs too much to manufacture a separate line of sizes for the West.

As a result, up-and-comers such as Higa and Onozuka concentrate on building name recognition in Asia, especially in affluent Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Their clothes are not available in the United States.

"Up until now, the business here has been enough for us, but in the very near future, we would like to sell to the world," says Higa, whose Rose Is a Rose name comes from a Gertrude Stein poem.

Industry-watchers say the 37-year-old designer has blustered into Tokyo like some funky, rainbow-hued typhoon.

"People are tired of wearing black and white, and her collection is very bright, very casual. It's a strong look for Japan," says Nobuyuki Ota, chairman of the Tokyo Council of Fashion Designers.

Higa says she is inspired by her beloved Okinawa as well as by trips to such exotic locales as Kenya, Morocco and Italy. Her appreciation of the pop-fantastic was honed in London during the mid-1980s, when she studied English and encountered the punk-inspired fashions of designer Vivienne Westwood.

"My clothes are for a new adult woman with a sense of humor," Higa says. "She is creative and has a job. She has a lot of experiences and it shows on her inner side."

Higa's clothes are also deliciously whimsical. Consider the heart-shaped, purple leather purse ($60) on a long gold chain that mocks the cookie-cutter Chanel purses worn by platoons of Japanese women.

"Japanese people want new things every day, we have such a disposable culture," Higa says. "I want to make something people will keep in their closets and not throw away."

When it comes to men's fashion here, clothes seem to be either outrageous Mardi Gras-like costumes or sober gray and blue business suits. So it's easy to see why the Tokyo Council of Fashion Designers finds Onozuka's individuality so refreshing.

"In the '80s, Japanese designers tried to design gimmicky, complex clothes," Ota says. Now, the customer wants more simple, clean, modern clothes. We feel Onozuka's design is suitable for a borderless age."

A slender man with a neatly trimmed goatee and warm brown eyes, Onozuka lives in an apartment overlooking Tokyo Bay, where he says he finds the serenity to dream up his designs.

Japanese men are increasingly shelling out bundles of yen for fashion magazines, eye-liner tattoos and designer clothes, a market whose sales reached 105 billion yen (about $814 million) in 1987 and grows 20% each year.

At Odds On, every garment is made of natural fabric and shows exquisite workmanship, down to the last stitch and button. Winter colors range from kiwi green to burnt sienna and chocolate brown.

A padded, quilted, paisley vest with a hood and corduroy piping sells for $220. A floral-printed cotton shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons goes for $136. Brushed cotton, salmon-colored pants with a pleated front are $120.

The 39-year-old designer has also turned his back on Japan's label cult, which plasters clothes with brand names. The Odds On label is stitched discreetly on the inside of Onozuka's clothes.

"It used to be that we tried to catch up to European fashions, using kimono styles and severe colors," Onozuka says. "Now we are designing in our own style."

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