L.A. designer Tadashi Shoji discusses 30 years in the business

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

2013 marks 30 years that L.A.-based designer Tadashi Shoji has been making elegant formal wear for the rest of us.

Although he got his start in the glitzy world of Hollywood, creating costumes for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Elton John, and his more elaborate gowns have been worn on the red carpet by Florence Welch and Octavia Spencer, the bulk of Shoji’s $50-million namesake business is in department store sales of tasteful, figure-flattering and wallet-friendly cocktail dresses and evening gowns ranging in price from $198 to $508, and worn by women who want to feel like celebrities in their own lives -- prom queens, mothers of the bride and the brides themselves.

It’s easy to see why the collection is so popular. Many styles are crafted of Spandex and jersey, with peekaboo lace cutouts, contouring draping and pintucks to disguise bulges and bumps. The collection is sold in more than 4,000 stores worldwide, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, and his own boutiques in South Coast Plaza, Las Vegas, Shanghai and Beijing. And on the occasion of his 30th anniversary, Shoji, 65, has released a capsule collection inspired by his greatest hits that’s available now at


Born and raised in Japan, he moved to L.A. in his 20s and attended Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. Shoji worked with costume designer Bill Whitten before starting his own label in 1983. Now he splits his time between homes in Pasadena, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, showing his collection on the runway at New York Fashion Week, and making his star presence known in Southern California year after year as the official designer of gowns for the Tournament of Roses queen and her court.

I recently sat down with the designer to discuss his favorite career moments, his new focus on selling in Asia, and what’s next.

Can you believe it’s been 30 years? What’s your oldest great memory?
Time flies so quick. I remember my second year in business when Bullocks Wilshire did a whole window of my white dresses. I was so excited, I went there at night and took pictures.

What’s your favorite red carpet moment?
There are so many. Dressing Mo’Nique for the 2010 Oscars, that was a big surprise. Apparently the dress she was supposed to wear, something happened with the alterations. We were the backup dress. I was watching TV and said to myself, ‘Is that mine?’ Nobody told me she was going to wear it. Octavia Spencer has been another great collaborator. She knows what she wants and what works with her body. We dressed her for the Oscars in 2012, just recently at the Cannes Film Festival, and many times in between. We have also dressed Florence Welch. It’s a diverse group.

Do you get inspired by the one-of-a-kind designs you create for the red carpet?
Yes, we knocked off Octavia’s Oscar dress — with her permission — and did a $389 version. She didn’t mind because so many people had asked her about the dress, and she wanted other women to be able to have it. We had the dress in stores two months after she wore it.

You do offer plus sizes — or queen sizes as you call them — in your line. Is that an important part of your business?
Plus sizes are actually the smallest part of our business. And Octavia is not plus size; she’s a size 14.

Do your customers in China look at the red carpet for style inspiration?
Definitely. But it’s a different customer in other ways. They come to the store, don’t even look at price tags and buy up to 10 dresses at a time. Our stores in China feature more expensive pieces with different fabrics that we import from France and Italy, and we also offer a made-to-measure service. We will continue to open more stores in China and maybe even do a line of daywear for that market.

What has changed the most about fashion since you have been in the business?
Sales by Internet, and not to regular customers, but to wholesale customers. Because of celebrity dressing and fashion shows, our company is known all over the world. Our showroom in New York sends out press kits and line sheets to stores in places like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Nigeria. They have never touched our dresses or seen them in person, but they order them anyway. Ten years ago, I never would have thought that would happen. Now, we sell in about 45 different countries.

What are you wearing today?
These are track pants I make for myself in neoprene fabric. I have them in bright blue, red and black. As I get older, I find that wearing bright colors cheers me up.

How many collections do you design a year?
We ship a new collection every month, and there are 129 looks in the fall collection, which is the next one to hit stores. So it’s a lot. The fall collection was inspired by pre-Revolution Russia.

What’s next for your brand?
We signed a deal to do our first fragrance. We are hoping to launch it by fall 2014. We’re working on the juice and the bottle and the name. The name is the hardest part. Everything is taken! That’s why they recommend you use your own name. We are also thinking of branching out more into accessories and have hired a new managing director to help us look at the bigger picture for the next 30 years.


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