by Kelly Wetherille

When Ayumi Sufu’s line of quirky women’s fashion debuted at the spring/summer 2010 Japan Fashion Week last fall, it garnered much attention in the press, creating a fair amount of buzz. It was a breath of fresh air at a time in which Japanese fashion, once closely associated with avant-garde and humor, is considered more conservative or unimaginative than that of many Western designers. “My fashion is full of wit,” says Sufu. “Fashion should be more fun, but most of the Tokyo designers think more seriously.”

Sufu herself, who is full of sunshine and probably the friendliest person one could meet working in fashion, left Japan at the tender age of 16 and headed for England, an experience that would forever influence her ideas about design. After graduating from high school, she attended the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, but found it to be “too fashion.”

Everybody wanted to be different, but for me, it looked the same,” Sufu says of her classmates at Central Saint Martins. She decided to transfer to Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, which is known as a recruiting ground for designers who are seeking young, talented (but not conceited) assistants. Sufu landed a job as a student assistant for Vivienne Westwood, which she did for a year before packing her bags yet again and heading for Paris.

Once in Paris, Sufu quite literally hit the streets in search of a job. She recalls knocking on the door of Belgian designer Bernhard Willhelm’s studio as often as once a week. Finally, her persistence wore him down, and she was hired to help backstage at his next fashion show. This eventually led to a job with Via Bus Stop, one of Japan’s leading importers and retailers of luxury fashion. Sufu moved back to London and served as liaison between the Japanese company and the designers it represented. “I learned how business is really important to continue the fashion designer’s house,” she says. “There are so many talented designers, but they are always struggling [with] money and the business [side].”

But despite all the wonderful experiences and opportunities afforded to Sufu in Europe, she decided it was time to return to her home city of Tokyo. “If I didn’t go back to Japan, maybe I [would have] spent my whole life over there, but my Japanese spirit was calling me,” she says. After a stint working at a modeling agency, Sufu established her own company in July 2008 and showed her first designs at the fashion tradeshow Rendezvous in Paris the same year. Just over a year later she debuted her brand Jazzkatze in Tokyo.

That first collection paid homage to the neighborhood in which Sufu had lived in London, Old Kent Road. She created a hodgepodge of cultural references, but relied heavily on Nigerian and other African influences. She collaborated with a well-known Tingatinga artist, reinterpreting his paintings as prints on bodysuits, leggings and dresses with cutouts. Her models, their faces painted with streaks of colorful ‘tribal’ makeup, strutted down the runway in a kaleidoscope of color, many of them barefoot.

Sufu’s second collection, which she showed at Japan Fashion Week in March, had a title that means ‘rights to dream’ in Russian. She was inspired by Russian avant-garde art from the late 1800s to early 1900s, identifying with artists that at the time were “dreaming of a new world, a new utopia.” For this collection she juxtaposed metal parts (representing the Russian working class) with whimsical Russian doll prints, all pulled together with elegantly modern silhouettes.

As for what the future holds, Sufu is hoping to be able to continue putting on runway shows each season, but feels pressured by the amount of money and stress that go into such a production. She is currently working on her spring/summer 2011 collection, which she says will reference Spanish-influenced Celtic themes and the art of David Hockney. “Think of it as David Hockney’s Riverdance,” she says. She hopes to collaborate with a suitable artist again to make her prints, but is still searching for the right person. Whether or not the collection will be shown during the next Japan Fashion Week remains to be seen, but one thing remains clear: no matter what challenges or hardships may be thrown her way, Ayumi Sufu always comes out smiling.

Designed by Ayumi Sufu

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