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508: The science of fashion
504: Work of art
496: Slow motion
492: Best foot forward
488: In her prime
484: Force majeure
480: Mixed bag
475: Fashioning the future
471: Unfinished business
464: Mint condition
454: Kurai kawaii
450: Family style
446: Cover story
442: Funky fit
438: Space man
436: Head dress
434: Brave new world
432: Winning streak
430: A cut above
428: Lighten up
426: Piece keeper
424: Gypsy things
422: Soft Touch
419: On Garde
417: Shock Treatment
415: Design of the times
413: Café society
411: Out of hiding
409: Lasting leggings
407: Chain gang
404: Clan of the cave wear
398: Victor/Victoriana
396: Vamp it up
394: Licence to thrill
392: Even cowgirls get the blues
390: Soldiers of fortune
388: In gear

Funky fit

Frapbois designer Eri Utsugi thrives in her dream world-where Takanori Kobayashi catches up with her.

Eri Utsugi
Eri Utsugi goes carefree and casual

Jovial is the first impression that designer Eri Utsugi gives when you meet her. The boyish-looking woman, who designs under the Frapbois label, chuckles a lot, and her high-pitched voice has a cheerful effect on anyone around her. So it's no surprise that the clothes she designs for both men and women of all ages reflect her cheerful nature. For Utsugi, wearing clothes should be fun.

For her 2002/2003 autumn/winter collection, Utsugi shows a balance between reality and fantasy. Her intriguing use of fabrics, in which she uses chic textiles and fabrics in dark brown jackets and matted green thick one-piece outfits with orange hoods, for example, evoke characters from a fairy tale. "Some people only see their dreams and never reality," says the 36-year-old designer, "while others do the opposite. I myself tend to follow my dreams more, but it is not good to be stuck in one world or the other too much."

For Utsugi herself, becoming a designer was no fantasy but a realistic dream. Born in Tokyo, she got early exposure to making clothes through her mother, who was a dressmaker. Before long, she was making odds and ends from pieces of fabric scattered about her room. Her mom would always give her a few tips and help with needlework. "I found creating clothes fun," Utsugi says, "so naturally when I got older I entered a design school to study more about it. Looking back on it now, it all seems pretty natural to me."

Still a relative newcomer to the Tokyo fashion scene (she debuted in the Tokyo collections in spring of 2001), Utsugi came up with her brand name by using a combination of the French words "frapper" (hit) and "bois" (wood)."It's quite hard to find new name for a brand these days because most popular names, words and phrases have already been taken and officially registered by other brands. So I had to find an attractive name that didn't violate others' copyrights."

Utsugi says her prime source of inspiration is what she sees in her everyday life. "Every moment, whether it is going to convenience stores, taking a ride on the subway, watching TV and so forth, are filled with opportunities to encounter something interesting that gives me some hint for a new fashion," she says. "I focus on movement; I like changing things as time passes. Designing constrained clothes is not my style."

Utsugi says she gets more new ideas especially from the current fashions of middle-aged or elderly people than from young people. "While most young people are cool and fashionable in their own way, older people's fashions are always an eye-opener. I mean they usually wear something quaint or old-fashioned, often in surprising combinations that I would never consider," explains Utsugi. "Perhaps, they are not as self-conscious about what they wear, but for me, it is a stimulus. I've seen elderly people wearing dowdy clothes which I was able to rearrange a little bit to come up with something really lovely and new-fangled."

Utsugi also gets a lot of inspiration at construction sites, of all places. "I think what those construction workers wear is really neat," she says, referring to the typical work pants that most dokata (laborers) wear on the job. Their shapes are fairly unique-extremely wide baggy pants whose cuffs are closed at the ankles. Also, dokata typically wear rubber-soled tabi (socks). The combination of the pants and tabi make it easy to move around and are certainly efficient for the job, but not many people would agree with Utsugi that they are chic. In her collection this season, Utsugi has designed a few outfits based on dokata wear, using different fabrics, designs and adornments, but keeping the unmistakable silhouette.

Utsugi is one of a small number of women designers who design for men as well as women. "From a business point of view, designing men's clothes is hard because I cannot guess what kind of clothes men want to wear in a certain situation, which is the key to raising actual sales figures. I try to listen to men's opinions about what they want to wear and I have a lot of ideas of my own. Nowadays, I actually prefer designing men's clothes since it is a greater challenge to be more innovative," she says.

Indeed, Utsugi seems to be a fount of ideas. Coming up with new ideas for each show every six months can be tough work for some designers, but not for her. "My problem is how to get all the ideas out of my head and into shapes and styles." She is also weathering Japan's recession fairly well with nine boutiques across Japan. Utsugi thinks the capriciousness of Japanese consumers is a positive factor. "From a designer's point of view, this fickle characteristic of Japanese is good for business. If people love only one type of style and show no interest in anything new, we couldn't survive. It would be a boring industry. There is always a demand for something innovative."

The only time Utsugi's brain takes a break from thinking up innovative designs is when she is playing with her six-year-old son. "But even then, my mind is never very far away from the business because I try to find new ideas from him."

Photos by Takanori Kobayashi, courtesy of Frapbois