Monster Alphabets of Perth is made up of sisters’ team – Sarah and Kaycey Watanabe. Both of them have ‘slashie’ professions, a fashion-designer/architect and artist/veterinarian. We had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah, who recently debuted her women’s wear collection, Winter 12.
So Sarah, we know that you trained as an architect and briefly worked as one. What made you decide to turn your back on 5 years of arduous training?
It was not a sudden decision. I have always wanted to be a fashion designer but my mother really wanted me to have a University degree so that I would have something else to fall back on. I graduated with an Architecture degree, found myself a comfortable job and worked a few years before finding the courage to leave architecture. What I have learned will always be with me and it doesn’t feel like I have left architecture, as it has become such a big part of me. All my designs will always have some reference to architectural concepts.
You graduated from prestigious Bunka Fashion College, the Tokyo equivalent of Parsons The New School For Design. What made you decide to enrol there and was it tough to gain entry? Could you tell us briefly what it was like to go to school there? (Perhaps comparing it to architecture school in Australia)
I was born in Japan but grew up in Australia. I was curious to go back to experience the culture and I also felt that my fashion career needed a fresh start. To be accepted to Bunka Fashion College, you have to sit for an entrance exam and pass an interview. My Japanese is only at conversational level while my literacy level is very weak. After quitting my architecture job, I did study Japanese for a few months but I really don’t know how I got through the exam. Bunka Fashion College was extremely strict. Our daily routine even included cleaning rosters! Compared to architecture school, the classes were about three times the size so they can’t afford to have students going off on their own creative tangent. The school taught me great discipline and endurance. The way they teach garment creation and pattern cutting is very advanced.
One must say, that by looking at your designs the architectural influences are clear in your details. I like how every piece is so well ‘constructed’ with clear defining lines. The dresses are especially strong. BLACK BLACK BLACK, what can we say? Screams architect!Your clothes look like what architects would wear! However, details like kimono-inspired waistband on top of pleats for ALEX Dress ensure that it never gets boring. Is it fair to say that you design clothes that you and your friends would wear? When you started your Winter 12 collection, did you decide on a theme?
Yes, you are definitely correct! I think its important to nail your target audience and mine is definitely girls around 23 to late 30s, young professionals who enjoy and appreciate fashion. I chose this target audience because I have lived that life. I have experienced their daily routines, I know that on Fridays there is more freedom on dress codes and that girls would go out after work for drinks and for dinner, but they don’t have time to go home and get changed. I know how they are feeling and I wanted to create unique clothes that they could wear to the office while flexible enough to be worn to outings.
It’s also probably because I still think and design like an architect too. I love structured pieces, details and silhouettes that are strongly defined and I LOVE the idea of light. I started the Winter 12 collection with the idea of pursuing what I love, which is creating interesting forms through the use of pleats and folds. I realized that none of this would be possible without the shadows being casted by light. I then generalised everything by naming the collection “Light Reflections”.
Tell us about your production challenges. I understand that you had to source for textiles from Japan, why is that so? Does it affect your production?
I was taking part in street markets, making one off dresses for which I was using fabric that I purchased in Japan. Now that I am working on large quantity fabrics, I am still trying to find the right fabric supplier. Production was a very scary process. I had to do lots of research on manufacturers and meet with many to find the right one that was suitable for Monster Alphabets. When you are starting out, it is very difficult to find a manufacturer who is willing to work with your small units. I felt it was a great advantage that I had pattern cutting skills and I did all of my samplings because the manufacturers seemed to prefer to work with designers who had these skills.
Would you say that your journey into the fashion world was also a re-discovery of your cultural identity?
Definitely. Since I had my fashion training in Japan, I cut patterns and sew like Japanese designers do.
What made you decide to return to Perth?
It was because of various reasons including the fact that I missed having personal space. Japan is a very difficult country to secure a full time job. It is very competitive and they had many unwritten rules about what protocols to follow when applying for a job. The career advisor at Bunka College gave me lots of advice when I was preparing for an interview with one of the famous fashion houses in Japan. I had to practise my interview with him, which included me knocking on the door and entering the room. He criticised the way I was holding my jacket in the wrong arm and that I didn’t bow low enough. The whole process made me feel very uncomfortable and out of place. I contacted a designer in Perth requesting for an internship and he was willing to meet me. So I booked a ticket back right then!
Launching a fashion line is no easy task, you must have had support from a lot of people. Could you tell us more about it?
I think to even get recognised or reach the point of getting that one lucky break, you need to have a collection to show people. It’s often very tough to get that first few collections out and I have been blessed with wonderful family and friends. It’s more about their faith in me that keeps me going. Fashion is a very competitive industry and you go through a lot of down periods before you see anything positive. My family, boyfriend and close friends all have great sense of humour and we see the funny side of every mistake, downfall or loss that I have experienced and we laugh about it rather than dwell on it!
What advice would you give to a budding fashion designer?
I would recommend going to fashion school to gain skills in pattern cutting and sewing. Running a fashion label is very expensive, so the more you can do yourself, the less money you have to spend on developing the collection and thus more money you can spend on production. Unless you have financial support, you would need substantial personal savings before you launch your label, because for the first few years you won’t be seeing much of a profit.
But as my friend Kath once said to me, if you do what you love, money will follow. Well, I am still putting that to a test!
At the time of press, we learn that Sarah has been nominated for Styleaid Creative Designer award. We wish Monster Alphabets all the best and look forward to seeing their next collection!
Find out more about Monster Alphabets here.
PS. If you didn’t get the Slashie award reference, you need to rectify this immediately by watching Zoolander. NOW.