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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006
An attack of the cute and quirky
By MARTIN WEBB
Fashion designer Eri Utsugi is a very lucky lady: After only one catwalk outing, her mercibeaucoup brand will open six new stores in prime locations -- starting with Aoyama and Ginza -- over the course of the next seven weeks.
This remarkable rollout is only possible thanks to a vast following for the quirky, kawaii clothes for boys and girls she has been creating since launching her Frapbois brand in 2001. Before that she worked with top designers Akira Onozuka and Tsumori Chisato at A-net, the fashion firm founded by Issey Miyake to handle his proteges' solo efforts.
Now, after parting ways with Frapbois, Utsugi is back at A-net with a new label, mercibeaucoup, and is presiding over an unprecedented store opening blitz that will see the Aoyama flagship that opens Friday followed in quick succession by shops in Ginza, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Kyoto and Harajuku, all within the space of just 52 days. It is a huge investment, and proof of just how big a star this talented woman has become.
Speaking in the A-net showroom atop Aoyama's venerable From 1st Building, Utsugi displays oodles of her trademark humor, even when fielding awkward questions about her recent defection. She turned 40 earlier this year, hence her wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the number 40, but the onset of middle age has done nothing to suppress the childlike cackle that follows her every utterance.
The name of the brand, she says, comes from a desire to inculcate a sense of gratitude in her audience. "It's about being thankful for everything we have," she explains. "I'm grateful for being able to return to the catwalk, and start making clothes again, but more than that it's about how people -- myself included -- take things like being able to buy iced coffee at the convenience store for granted. By calling the label mercibeaucoup, I hope that people will be reminded of a sense of gratitude. Hopefully every time they put on one of my garments, they'll see the tag and think a little bit."
Utsugi debuted her label at Japan Fashion Week in March this year in a spectacular show that saw models sporting face paint and wearing Afro wigs sculpted into animal shapes while sweeping confetti down the catwalk with brooms, bowing each time they crossed paths. Shown to the sounds of retro video-game music, and featuring myriad animal motifs, layering and clever patterns, it was a wacky, naive lineup typical of her out-there oeuvre.
Pieces like sequined teddy-bear brooches, short pants, long socks and bold check blouses are all designed with a youthful target in mind, and often make the covers of top teen magazines like SO-EN and Fudge.
Prices are reasonable for a collection brand, but while there are plenty of kidult Utsugi fans out there, the ditzy designer's success is proof that Japan's fashion-obsessed youth still has plenty of pocket money to spend on dressing up.
Her huge fan base also shows that Japanese fashion does not necessarily have to be about dark, deconstructed, introspective style.
The funky, happy mercibeaucoup world is largely inspired by Utsugi's immediate environment: The teddy bears and video games are pinched from her 10-year-old son's bedroom, but she also says she is fascinated by the outlandish outfits she often sees worn by seniors in down-at-heel districts of Tokyo.
The brightly colored and often bizarre results are the antithesis of Western notions of seductive fashion, and Utsugi's work is often cited as representative of Tokyo style. That is not an image she has striven to cultivate, though.
"I don't actively seek to makes clothes that are typical of Tokyo style," she says, "but I am from Tokyo, so I guess that just comes out in my designs. Anyway, I'm not overcome with admiration for European fashion like I was as a design student, so there is more of a Japanese worldview; it's about cuteness not sexiness."
The playful absurdity that underpins the brand is apparent in the new Aoyama store that will open its doors to the public tomorrow. Designed by architect turned stage and lighting designer Jiro Endo, the interior is based on a video game and features carpeted walls and a toytronica soundtrack. The Ginza store, opening Aug. 24, will be modeled on a pachinko parlor, and each of the four shops due to open in the following weeks will boast a different interior concept. Regarding the overnight materialization of a miniature fashion empire, Utsugi says with a cackle, "A-net merci beaucoup!''
For a fashion designer, it certainly makes life easier to be backed by a big corporation; A-net stablemates Tsumori Chisato and Akira Onozuka of Zucca both boast stores in Paris and have made significant inroads into the overseas market. Surely Utsugi is hoping to follow them in pursuit of international fame.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," she quips, flashing one of her famous grins. With this kind of momentum, fashionistas the world over should be clad in mercibeaucoup in a matter of seasons.
mercibeaucoup; Aoyama, 3-10-11 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo. (Behind former Kinokuniya); tel: (03) 6805-1790.