Stephen Crafti sits down with the founders of Melbourne fashion label ESS Laboratory, whose unisex designs and distinct Japanese aesthetic have been producing some of the most interesting and thoughtful garments to come out of Melbourne for over a decade.
Hoshika and Tatsuyoshi Kawabata speak quietly about their clothing label ESS Laboratory. Like their store in Melbourne’s Gertrude Street, there’s an understated elegance to their clothing designs. The husband and wife duo, who were both raised in Japan, came to Melbourne independently in the early 1990s.
Hoshika left Japan in 1991 after completing school in Kamakura, a 45 minute train journey from Tokyo. She came with her family to Melbourne when her father was offered the position of Director for the Nissan car company. “It was quite difficult for me as I had to study for two additional years when I came to Melbourne to learn English,” says Hoshika. Tatsuyoshi arrived in Melbourne one year later, coming to Melbourne after meeting numerous people from Melbourne in Tokyo who encouraged him to make a trip down under. A composer by training, Tatsuyoshi became involved in composing for animations and for television.
While Hoshika had always been interested in fashion, with her mother regularly making clothes for her children, fashion was a relatively new field of endeavour when the duo got together in 1994. “I was already working for a number of clothing labels by the time I met Tatsuyoshi (after graduating from Box Hill Institute in Draping & Couture). But the companies I worked for saw design as buying samples from overseas and adapting them for the local market,” says Hoshika.
Both keen to introduce a Japanese sensibility into Melbourne fashion, the couple have slowly built a reputation for their bespoke clothing. Their first collection, launched in 2001, under the Ess Hoshika label, was inspired by the surrealistic art movement of the 1920s. “We were both drawn to the work of Hans Berman, a sculptor whose work is quite anatomical,” says Tatsuyoshi. Like many people starting a business, the hours were long and the financial rewards small. They worked from home, wholesaling to boutiques, some of whom didn’t fully understand the designs. “”Some of our early designs included sleeves that restricted movement. They were a little bondage-like, but not comparable to the things you’d see in the days of punk,” says Hoshika.
Although times were difficult, quality was always at the forefront of each design. “We still produce everything in Melbourne. The only thing we import are our fabrics,” says Hoshika, who points out that many of the Japanese fabrics they use come from machinery that can only produce 30 metres of cloth in one day. “The Japanese are also highly skilled when it comes to dyeing cloth,” says Tatsuyoshi.
In 2006, the Gertrude Street store was opened. The steel and concrete fit-out is thoughtfully over-layed with a rich layer of objects, antique armoires and artifacts. And of course there are the clothes, now under the ESS Laboratory label. “Since working together, our designs have becomes more unisex,” says Hoshika, wearing a frayed edged shirt that could easily be worn by either women or men. But time has not simplified the energy or detailing that goes into each garment. Hoshika’s shirt, for example, comprises 20 individual pieces of fabric, each one frayed. A jacket hanging on a wall is as complicated, with several panels coming together in the one design. “At first when you look at this jacket, it appears quite conventional. But you soon see the panels and the way it has been constructed,” says Tatsuyoshi. While each piece appears a one-off, the business reality is that multiples units are produced, however the label’s production runs are limited enough to distil that special sense of uniqueness.
Unlike many other fashion designers, who produce at least two collections each year, often based on a theme, ESS Laboratory prefer their collections to evolve, with some designs continuing from season to season. “We often sketch out ideas, deconstruct some garments, and work them into something new. The pattern of these trousers started with straight legs, pushed into a winding line,” says Tatsuyoshi. And unlike many fashion designers, who constantly seek out publicity, ESS Laboratory is content to remain under the radar. “It’s simple. If you design clothes that people respond to, they will return. The product itself is our language and the way we get attention”.
114 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, VIC.
03 9495 6112
By Stephen Crafti
Writer, author and presenter of Talking Design
Twelve Questions with Stephen Crafti