In a season dominated by hiking-inspired looks, the work of Yosuke Aizawa and his White Mountaineering label is all the more prescient. Long before streetwear became the juggernaut we know today, the Japanese designer was sending models down the runway decked in head-to-toe outdoorsy design. Even more shocking than this, they were sporting pieces that place functionality on a par with fashion (we never were fans of the no pain, no gain maxim anyway).
Aizawa earned his formal fashion training at Comme des Garçons before founding White Mountaineering in 2006. Since then his Tokyo-based brand has continued to push the bar in performance wear through its thematic collections, designer collabs and vibrant styles in technical Gore-Tex fabrics.
To mark the launch of White Mountaineering at Harvey Nichols, we sat down with Aizawa to survey the SS19 landscape, taking in everything from ice hockey to his love of 90s hip-hop.
Where did you grow up and how do you think this influenced your love of the outdoors?
“I was born and raised in the Saitama prefecture, about an hour drive from Tokyo. I’ve been playing ice hockey since elementary school, but my passion for winter sports really stems from my father. He grew up in Hokkaido, which is the northernmost tip of Japan and a mountainous island. For his postwar generation, American culture was a big influence, so I grew up immersed in the whole sports and outdoorsy culture of the states. My favourite hobby is to go snowboarding in the mountains, although I am very busy now so it’s a matter of when I can make time to hit the slopes.”
Did you ever dream of becoming a pro or were you always set on fashion?
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for athletes – especially for their motivation – but I naturally gravitated towards design. I graduated from an art university in Tokyo and at that time was more interested in contemporary art, so I’ve always thought of myself as working more in design than fashion. I was inspired by Alexander McQueen and Dries Van Noten, but equally, I’ve always loved the work of product designers like Giorgetto Giugiaro, Poul Kjærholm and Tibor Kalman.”
When did the concept of fusing fashion and performance clothing begin to take shape?
“I’ve been wearing sportswear and outdoor gear since I was a kid, so I guess it’s always been there. After I graduated from university, I worked at Comme des Garçons where the world of fashion and the ‘mode’ became my obsession. When setting up White Mountaineering, I wanted to make clothes that have the same sense of presence rather than being purely functional – pieces that aren’t solely made for purpose but inspire the wearer.”
Am I right in saying you worked under Junya Watanabe while at Comme des Garçons?
“That’s correct, I was an assistant as part of the Junya Watanabe team for five years. When I joined, I had no idea about making clothes but I was good at drawing and especially on textiles – that’s actually how I passed the entrance exam. I learned about the process of making clothes later on, but I think what was more important was understanding the essence of the brand. My work was more than just products, it was about translating Watanabe's vision.”
What’s the process when you start designing a new collection?
“I choose the fabrics before I design anything. Of course, the theme is decided separately and a moodboard for the season is created – but the design and the textiles are always considered in parallel. Even if the design is great, it won’t be a good piece if the fabric is lousy.”
On the subject of fabrics, your SS19 collection is full of bright colours and checked patterns – what was the inspiration for this bold palette?
“Throughout elementary and high school I was obsessed with NY hip-hop and the way my favourite artists were always dressed in sportswear. It must have been the early 90s, and this was added to the fact that I was big into playing sports, so I started emulating them by wearing my ice hockey jerseys. Outdoor clothing wasn’t thought of as fashion back then, so it was something new and unusual. There were a lot of colourful clothes, which is quite a contrast to now when dark tones have become mainstream. I wanted to bring that sense of fun back to fashion.”
How do your collaborations with brands inform your own designs?
“All of my manufacturing is done by a very small team. We’re currently only five people and have worked closely for a long time. When working with brands such as adidas, Eastpak and Moncler, it’s the complete opposite. There’s an entirely different methodology and technology at my disposal. As a Japanese designer, these collaborations provide an opportunity to introduce the brand to an entirely new audience. It’s also nice because adidas T-shirts have long been my go-to and I wear them 365 days a year.”
As we’re about to hit festival season, do have any big plans for summer?
“I’m generally flying all over the world, but I have been in London quite a lot recently. I really love British culture, so much so that I regret not coming to London to study. So far I’ve managed to go to a couple of football games plus a rugby match here, as I always try to see sports events wherever I’m visiting. I think White Mountaineering is suited to things like music festivals and sports as you need something comfortable that can adapt to the weather, just like when you’re in the mountains.”
"I wanted to make clothes that have the same sense of presence rather than being purely functional – pieces that aren’t solely made for purpose but inspire the wearer.”