At the Singapore Fashion Award (SFA) this afternoon, virtual unknowns Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon won Emerging Designer of the Year (Fashion) for their label Ametsubi. In a rare moment for SFA, the future looks bright
Designing newcomers: Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon. Photo: Jim Sim
Newlyweds Japanese Keita Ebihara and Singaporean Elizabeth Soon have been busy since returning, a few days ago, from Japan, where their label Ametsubi is based, to attend the Singapore Fashion Awards presentation. It is a family trip of sort, too, as Mr Ebihara’s parents are visiting the Singaporean in-laws in our city-state for the first time. So packed have their days been, Mr Ebihara admitted, two days ago, they have not done anything that could later be remembered as honeymoon moments. Heady from a marriage that was registered barely two weeks ago, on 11/11, ironically Singles Day in China (and some retailers in the rest of Asia), Ms Soon was happily showing us a photo of their Japanese marriage certificate—mostly filled out in kanji and katakana—on her iPhone.
Her husband was amused that she was still unable to get over the possession of the marriage cert and teased her about it. Undeterred, she said, Ariel-like, “It’s our first time; it’s my first time. Maybe, the Japanese wedding system is very common for you.” And added, “You are used to it,” quite unaware of what she might possibly have implied. Mr Ebihara smiled at her; his attention not quite ready to be diverted to the conversation at the table.
The Ebiharas’ good humour, easy laughter, and teasing nature belie the intellectual heft that imperceptibly characterised their Ametsubi collections. In sharing with us their design and product development processes—which took up one evening(!), they gave a deep impression of being designers who are not only interested in the exterior and visual effects of clothes, but equally in fashion as applied arts. Even in explaining how the name Ametsubi came about, they spared no effort to impress upon us with the haiku-eque significance of the name, rather than the semantics.
Key visual from the Ametsubi spring/summer 2018 campaign
“Ametsubi is a Japanese word,” Mr Ebihara explained. “It comes from the word ame, which means raindrops.” Ms Soon, taking a pen out to elaborate on paper, continued as she wrote, “The original word is ame-tsu-bu—that is water droplets. We took these characters (pointing the tip of the pen to the first two) and changed the bu to bi.” But that wasn’t all of it: “We met in Italy,” Ms Soon carried on, “and we are one (1) male and one (1) female, we chose [the Roman numeral from the] Latin alphabet ‘i’.”
There is more! “I am Japanese and she’s Singaporean, right?” Mr Ebihara rejoined. “In Japan, I hate rain, especially rainy season. Every day is wet and humid, and it is very uncomfortable. Normally, Japanese hate rain. But she, Singaporean lady, said to me, ‘I love rain’, because after the rain it is cool. Later we were talking about fashion, and how fashion is related to the environment. So when we discussed this, we thought this could be a reference point: I hate rain, she loves rain.”
All that for a name!
It is interesting that at this year’s SFA, there’s a couple in each of the two fashion designer categories: Yong Siyuan and Jessica Lee of Nuboaix and Keita Ehibara and Eilzabeth Soon of Ametsubi. In many ways, the story of both pairs are similar, which illustrates a fact without alternative: that young designers face the same problems and hurdles, regardless of where they are based, who they are selling to. Undeniably, the Ametsubi duo has a leg up, as Japan has a lively fashion scene and an ecosystem that designers can tap into.
This afternoon, after receiving the trophy for the Emerging Designer of the Year, both designers were too moved with the honour to be able to articulate their feelings. Ms Soon could only say, when she stepped off the stage, that she wanted to cry. For many fashion observers, the win was hardly surprising. One of the judges Tina Tan enthused: “Their things are truly beautiful.” The other contenders, in fact, were up against two talents who are technically on another plane. Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon has shown that looking beyond the obvious augments flair to make fashion more engaging, more unique, totally desirable.
Fellow nominee Amos Yeo of AmosAnanda is a favourite among young TV stars. His clothes capture the spirit of a certain UK men’s wear designer-of-the-day, and cater to those who only care about the surface and not what’s beneath. And Rebecca Ting of Beyond the Vines has carved a distinguishable aesthetic of supreme gentleness, but she has yet shown that she’s adept at manipulating shapes and infusing her designs with details that can excite the eye.
The 2013 graduation collection of Ametsubi’s Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon. Photos: Domus Academy
Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon met in Milan in 2013, when they were MA students at the prestigious Domus Academy (DA), ranked by BOF last year as the 19th best global graduate school for fashion. As Ms Soon recalled, “the first day of school was my birthday” and Mr Ebihara was there, mistaking her to be a Japanese lass, but spoke to her in what, by his admission, was then halting English. One renowned Singaporean who went to DA to complete his post-grad studies is the Paris-based designer Andrew Gn, after he graduated from Central Saint Martins. As DA programs are based on the idea of “learning by designing” and students busy themselves in “workshops”, the grouping and intermingling allowed Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon to interface frequently enough that pairing up as co-designers was an attractive idea.
Prior to their academic life together in Milan, Ms Soon, who was born in Canada and moved back to Singapore when she was six, was a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Fashion Studies, where she graduated with a BA (Hons) in fashion design in 2012. In the same year, her graduation collection zipped to the UK to represent Singapore at the London Graduate Fashion Week, and was met with rave reviews in the English media, which noted her designs’ “powerful visual impact”.
Mr Ebihara, who was born in Tokyo, had gone to Sugino Gakuen, one of the top-10 fashion schools in the city to study fashion design; he graduated in 2009. Although he had “learned more about techniques: Japanese sewing and draughting”, he wanted to know “more about the product.” Terra Italiano was his greener grass on the other side.
While still in school, Mr Ebihara was selected to work for the Milan-based British designer Neil Barrett, and continued for four months after graduation in 2013. It was an experience that he admitted he did not enjoy. With his wife giggling in the background, he said, “to be honest, I found it to be very boring. Because their style is… how should I say? It was something I did not like too much.” While her husband-to-be was designing for a fashion house he did not take pleasure in, Ms Soon was picked to join someone she admired, the Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, but she opted out of that opportunity. With her husband mock-chastising her, “you should have gone”, Ms Soon explained: “I had a housing obligation then. I signed a rental contract for a year, and I could not back out of that.” Mr Ebihara repeated himself, and she concurred, “I should have, but I was paying 700 Euros a month for that apartment. I couldn’t just go. And I was scared. I was 22, and I was spending too much money in Italy. I can’t go to Amsterdam and pay rent there and continue to pay rent in Milan. I was just scared of any monetary risk.” When asked if she’s a pragmatist, she pointed to her husband and said he is more “realistic”. Who is the dreamer then? Both laughed.
Ametsubi spring/summer 2018 look book. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
About a year after they left Domus Academy, Mr Ebihara and Ms Soon decided to firm up the plans for Ametsubi, and in September of 2014, the couple registered the company here. Before that, Ms Soon made a trip to Japan and contemplated living in the land of cherry blossoms. It could also be where the Ametsubi design studio would be based. A couple of months later, everything the couple had in Milan was shipped eastwards, but it was not to Tokyo, where their friends had thought they would take up residency, but to Mr Ebihara’s family home in the prefecture of Ibaraki, known for plum trees.
Ibaraki-ken is 150 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, edged along the pacific coast. It would take about two hours by train to arrive at the heart of the capital city in the south. The decision to situate the Ametsubi office here is primarily to avoid Tokyo’s exorbitant rentals, no doubt a forbidding cost to a new fashion business. In Ibaraki-ken, the young Ebiharas were given a small house, “that sat on my grandfather’s land,” Keita Ebihara shared. His wife had earlier told us—with discernible pride—that he had taken upon himself to fit-out the design studio, and that included “building our own draughting table. And a cage for my pet hedgehog!” The studio consists of their living quarters too, which both happily said is upstairs.
Would a business card without a Tokyo address diminish the prestige of the brand? “We don’t think so,” Ms Soon said, “but being based away from Japan’s fashion centre has its negatives and positives. The positives: we’re undisturbed. Our creation is very pure, in that sense. We are not influenced by the [urban] environment, or ‘Tokyo Street’ [a trend]. We do not make Tokyo collection—there is a movement in Tokyo recently for young designers that is known locally as Tokyo colley, which is quite street, well ‘Tokyo Street’—there’s no other way to describe it.” This isn’t the mad-cap street style once seen in Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori or the less manic, Americanised get-ups of those who hang out in the so-called ura-Harajuku (backstreets). With Instagram eating into most young people’s lives, street displays—once a Sunday joy—are no longer necessary and are, in fact, oddly old-fashioned. ‘Tokyo Street’ is unmistakably post-kawaii, too; it’s a milder incarnation of its former self, its previous madness.
“The negatives,” Ms Soon continued, “means we have to travel a lot as we have to have our meetings in Tokyo and other towns, no one is going to come to us.” Mr Ebihara added, “We have to communicate with the patterner and fabric suppliers.” “And we can’t stay out too late, or it would be hard for us to go back. Our meeting usually starts early. If it’s at 8.30 in the morning, we have to leave by 5 or 5.30.” The social aspects of the business cannot be disregarded and not being in the heart of the action is a negative too. Ms Soon said, “It just means we have to try harder to be spoken about.”
Images from the Ametsubi spring/summer 2017 look book. Photos: Ametsubi
Talking about a brand with something to talk about is a starting point that’s easy to initiate. Between the evolution of a spark of interest and the full social media onslaught, however, few will get to know the developmental grind the Ebiharas have to go through to see a collection to fruition. Despite the outward simplicity of the clothes, much thought is given to every shape, every line, every seam, every detail, every fabric. Textiles are of a particular interest to the couple. Although their brand is still in its early years, they have started developing their own fabrics. Ms Soon was pleased to show us a sheer, salt-washed, water-resistant, polyester taffeta that they have co-developed with a mill and was even more delighted when she presented a lightweight poly-blend jacquard of repeated patterns of a somewhat pixilated motif mapped on a grit that they have designed, describing how it all came about and animatedly explaining the workings of a weaving loom fitted with a paper, patterning mechanism.
The passion became even more palpable as she went on to explain the origins of another motif that appeared in another jacquard, this time designed specifically to use as lining for their coats, jackets, and outerwear. “We wanted to do something that is like the old lining the British tailors used in suit jackets,” she explained, “but we did not want to use a medallion pattern, or a paisley.” As they are wont to explore unlikely sources, the Ebiharas started looking at something rather removed from fashion: cymatics. This is, simply put, the excitation of modes (a pattern of motion) in, say, water when a drop hits its surface. The water droplet image is not lost in its association with the name Ametsubi. But, more than that, Ms Soon, a self-confessed geek (“I love data and numbers”), was specific enough to say that the particular nodal pattern they have picked is based on the A-tone vibration of 220/230 gigahertz. This is mind-blowing stuff. And she wanted this water reference to be worn close to the body, hence the lining, “which touches the skin”, presumably to help the wearer feel, if not stay, cool. But how did this came about? “He just gave me some key words,” she continued, “such as ‘frequency’ and ‘harmony’ and ‘symbolism’; words like these,” tailing off with a giggle. Yes, the mind boggles.
While all the thinking, research, and long hours of developmental work are not immediately identified in their designs, as equally lengthy time spent on embroidery does, Ametsubi is steep in detailed, but un-showy crafting that has a tradition that goes back to early Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. Ms Soon said, “When we’re asked to describe our clothes, we call them ‘high daily’.” The elevated positioning of their wearable designs adds up, as much has gone into making clothes that suits various body shapes. The Ebiharas took out a shirt—always a key item—from their spring/summer 2017 season to illustrate: It is designed without a yoke, with a back panel placed in such a way that a bias effect falls over the shoulder, allowing it to accommodate shoulders of any broadness and thickness. The same idea is applied to a jacket, only now, seams are manipulated to better accommodate the arm, and extra-long facing is added to the ends of the sleeve so that you can fold the sleeve up as a turn-back cuff to better accommodate different arm lengths of customers. Even when they’re working in the relative remoteness of Ibaraki-ken, they’re sights are set on the very real world further afield.
We started following Ametsubi in 2015 when they showed during the inaugural Fashion Graduate Italia, a presentation of the best graduate collections from all the fashion schools in Italy, much like London Graduate Fashion Week that Ms Soon had participated in, three years earlier. Although there were only five looks, they impressed us with a sophisticated simplicity that was clearly built on far more complex ideas, unlike anything their fellow graduates were doing. At that time, Ms Soon was quoted saying, “We wanted to do something that could merge our cultures together, and merge our experiences in Milan. We focused on the details, as well as the shapes.” Although that may not satisfy those who need more by way of backstory or front-side flourish, we could see that Keita Ebihara and Elizabeth Soon were onto something a lot more tangible, a lot more unconnected with what was buzzy at that time. Which, inexplicably, reminds us of Mama Cass singing, “You gotta make your own kind of music; sing your own special song; make your own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along.”
Photos (except where indicated): Ametsubi