Photography: Marc Haers + Words: Liam Maher
I met Teppei Sugaya a full year before I discovered the myth of the lost history of the Militant Guild or Rural Tailors, but the two events have been closely linked for me ever since.
Like the members of the Guild, Sugaya is fierce in his anonymity. Despite checking all of the boxes required by those wishing to be promoted as design “personalities” – that illusive combination of talent, wit, charisma, energy, and photogenics – he shuns publicity. His winning the 2nd edition of Diesel’s prestigious ITS Design Award propelled him momentarily into fashion’s promotional machine. Perhaps thankfully given his disdain for the spotlight, this occurred before Instagram or Twitter, and even the ubiquity of FaceBook.
Like the members of the Guild, and excusing the pun, Sugaya practices a doctrine no longer very fashionable within the realm of fashion; namely the practice of practice. For him repetition undertaken with high sustained levels of concentration is a critical means of realising progress.
Like the members of the Guild, he regards the development of acumen and the old fashion idea of acquiring and honing basic skill as tenets that are so achingly obvious that they have become nigh on invisible to most which locates them in the world of gnosis. When discussion turns to the mysterious subject of the origins of acumen, skill and even talent, Sugaya will remain silent as if protecting what should be self-evident but has receded despite itself into secret knowledge. He exercises the dignified discretion of a guildsman in the company of people whose misunderstanding might lead to a corruption of this truth, but the thing most guildsman-like is Sugaya’s design philosophy itself.
Frank Lloyd Write once said something like “mass production need be no barrier to creativity as long as creatives are in charge of mass production,”. In other words, if the machines can’t do it then change the machines.
For Sugaya this is another instance of self-evidence and he doesn’t pontificate on the subject. He expresses his views on the matter in action. Sugaya is that rare designer who is equally adept at each of fashion’s architectural solids; concept, narrative, atmosphere, innovation, fabrication, merchandising, optics, line and workmanship. His critical thinking is sharp, his gift for storytelling is unique, his drawings are sublime and his practical ability as a tailor is enviable. Despite all this he chose to set himself the task of changing the machines instead. The machines in this case are both the tiny machines that make garments work – zippers, buttons, snaps, clips and other carefully engineered and overlooked bits of hardware, and the machines that produce these items – large complex multinational corporations like YKK where he has laboured behind the scenes as the European Creative Director.
During the day Sugaya has engaged with YKK’s mind boggling archive and matchless design and engineering resources endeavouring to create a bridge between form and function that transcends the idea of “collection” or even of “brand”. He understands that strides taken on the machine side can cut across these definitions and ultimately be felt across the entire industry. Like a guildsman, Sugaya would be also happy to replace the concept of industry with the concept of tradition because his real ambition is to lever-forward the garment making tradition itself.
That’s during the day. Evenings and weekends are spent further refining his acumen. A sequence of rigorous artisan disciplines provides a steady rotaLon of Zen like kōans. Each takes its turn as his intellectual, physical and to some degree spiritual preoccupation pointing him toward new canons of knowledge and technique. Evidence of this is visible all around him. Nearly every garment he wears has been painstakingly self-made; “They will recognise my face the tailoring they see there. I will be as handsome or familiar, inadequate or strange as my handiwork”. His home is a neatly organised cabinet of curiosities populated equally by items from past projects as by carefully curated materials likely to be integrated into some future output.
The idea that the man can be recognised by the workmanship of his garments has also motivated Sugaya to produce multiple self-made uniforms which he will wear in rigid rotation fusing his clothing and identity even close together – an experiment that works primarily because he has made them himself. Or to say it with a slightly different inflection; he has made them.... -himself.
He describes a time before mass-production when one might have walked into a public house and noted the presence of a good friend on the premises not because the friend himself had been seen, but because his coat was hanging at the entrance. A time when the coat was inseparable in some ways from its owner. One is reminded specifically of Beuys’ iconic Felt Suit or Hundertwasser’s painterly explorations of man’s Five Skins (yes, I’m aware Beuys and Hudertwasser did not admire one another) and it becomes very clear that this is about elemental identity, not fashion in the conventional sense.