All of the collections that fashion designer Hiroko Nakajima has produced have been extremely well received. But season after season, one of the most striking aspects of her designs are her sources of inspiration: Previously this included the sculptures of Marisol Escobar and ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, and more recently it was origami. What drives this London-based to be drawn to such a wide range of influences?

By Mike Sullivan

When she was studying, Nakajima actually planned to be a painter and at the Parsons School of Design she discovered her rather unusual talent: “During my 1st year there, they let us take various classes to learn the foundation of things. I remember I was one of the worst painters in the class, but then found that I was quite good at 3D design and working with different materials to create shapes. When I think back now, I was making such weird objects and that still remains my strongest interest.”

This pushed her to be interested in product design but this wasn’t quite right either. “I hated the technical drawings that I had to draw for my weirdly shaped objects! I found that it was too mechanical and started to think about placing things on the body. It was 10 years ago, and fashion was very exciting with new conceptual designers such as Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan in Europe. I was simply amazed by the power that fashion had, and then I decided to move to London.” While at Central Saint Martins University in London—where she earned her BA and MA—she focused on knit because, as she explained, ‘it has such sculptural essence and is very organic in terms of shape.’

Nakajima’s 2013 collection was inspired by Escher’s graphic works, and her recent origami-inspired collection challenged what could be achieved with knitwear. But despite her wide-ranging curiosity, she also feels that inspiration isn’t something that you can rush:

Hiroko Nakajima

Hiroko Nakajima

“I visit Galleries and meet different people and do different things to get inspiration. I recently found out that for me it takes at least one year to digest inspiration until it comes out as a personal experience. For example, if I saw something amazing last week and felt very inspired to create something, actually I wouldn’t be able to create it in depth. I believe there are things that become more beautiful when they come from the past. Thinking about what the inspiration means to you is certainly important to creating your own original work. After I decide on a theme, I research and try to create the mood, and then start designing as well as sampling from fabric swatches—I tend to do big ones because we never know how the fabric drapes, especially with knitwear. The making process is always like two steps forward and one step back. Here we have to challenge a lot what actually can be done.”

“My SS14 collection was inspired by origami and some performance art. I loved the very thick matte colors and double sided origami. How I work with graphics is very important. I want the graphic to dominate more than your body, so that you can just sit behind it. For me, being not worried about your body shape is one of the keys for the comfort of the mind, and knitwear in particular gives the best physical comfort.”

Influences, inspiration, and technical understanding are necessary to help her create, but as Nakajima explains, an important aspect of being a fashion designer is to actually have clothes on show. She shows at important fashion events every year such as London Fashion Week, and in February she presented her AW14 collection at Fashion Scout’s “Ones to Watch” show during London Fashion Week. And while Nakajima has spent her adult life outside of Japan, she feels that her background shows through in her designs, in an understated way: “The more I spend time abroad, the more I realize my identity as a Japanese person and I wanted to bring in an element of this—it more naturally comes to mind. The Japanese character does not come across directly in my work, it appears very subtly and abstractly, but that is my understanding of how beautiful Japanese ‘beauty’ is. I hope to enrich it more in the future especially when I can work with Japanese manufacturers.”

Nakajima is now developing an online shop and has become a permanent feature in the British fashion industry; she has collaborated with others and is going from strength to strength in her collections. While only at the beginning of her career, she is already truly one to watch and it is really amazing to see a Tokyo-born designer make such an impact abroad in the UK. And given the variety of her influences, we can’t wait to see what Hiroko Nakajima comes up with next.