Born: Maki Akira, Oita, Japan, circa 1949. Education: Graduated from Oita University; worked for and studied fashion with Reiko Minami, Tokyo. Career: Moved to New York, 1974; tailor, Halston, 1976-81; showed first own collection, 1982; began designing wedding dresses for high-end department stores, from late 1990s.
Morris, Bernadine, "Bolder Designs for Evening," in the New York Times, 27 August 1985.
Hyde, Ann, "Akira on Bias," in Threads (Newtown, Connecticut), October/November 1991.
Horyn, Cathy, "Saying 'I Do' to a Radical Gown," in the New York Times, 4 January 2000.
"Akira," available online at First View Collections Online, www.firstview.com, 30 September 2001.
"Fashion Victim," available online at www.fashionvictim.com, 30September 2001.***
In the romantic imagination, the artist thrives on alienation, a critical distancing of an "other." Akira is of two worlds. In Japan, he is addressed by his surname, Maki; in America, he uses his first name, Akira. These are social conventions of two cultures, but they are also the theses and antitheses propagating Akira's fashion. An American designer when he designs ready-to-wear clothing in Japan, Akira is conversely viewed in America as a Japanese designer working for the American custom market. He is, however, both and neither; his state is only relaxed elegance. After studying and first designing in Japan, he came to New York to work with Halston, having been inspired by the work of Halston he found in American fashion magazines.
After working with Halston until 1981, when Akira established his own business, he has become a designer of two identities, with businesses in two countries and a single design philosophy, a synthesis of East and West. In Akira's custom business in New York, he creates out of the distilled, almost astringent principles of design he has maintained since working for Halston, with stress on bias cut, quality materials, color, and timeless elegance. His American custom clients come to him for a sense of personal comfort and self-assured dignity. While some of his American dresses, often bridal gowns, are adorned with beadwork and other decoration, their principle is in the cut. His is the abiding modernist conviction of truth to material and essential geometries of cut that animated Halston. An external simplicity, like that of a composed Japanese interior or a modern Western painting, is achieved through decisive reductivism and the primacy of the fabric.
In his Japanese productions, Akira creats clothing for young women of Japan no less elegant than their American counterparts but perhaps more fashion forward. His suits for daywear and early evening emphasize a comfortable, soft shaping inspired in part by Claude Montana. American sportswear inspirations for the collection in Japan, like Claire McCardell, help create what Akira has acknowledged is a "very American look" reflective of the emergence of Japanese women in the 1980s and 1990s into active, comfortable American lifestyles.
Ann Hyde, writing in the October/November 1991 issue Threads, pointed to the seeming contradiction between Akira's intellect in design and his sensuous achievement. "He is a rationalist at heart," states Hyde, referring to his intense interest in the underlying mathematics and geometry of garments, but he is also a designer of supreme elegance and grace. The unifying factor, like that of Renaissance architecture, is proportion, indivisibly a coolly mathematical calculation and a supremely romantic sensibility.
Citing that he learned from Halston the value of the designer looking in the mirror, seeing front, back, and side in cubist simultaneity and seeing thereby the garment as paramount—not the wearer— Akira points out that the mirror's impression is more canny than the human eye in discerning proportion and balance. Working in the custom design studio of Halston and in his own design business in New York reinforced Akira's principle of design specific to the client but generic to the design ideal in proportion. The same idea is carried through in the ready-to-wear collections in Japan.
Bias has always been an essential feature of Akira's designs, allowing both his design primacy and comfort in wearing. Recalling Halston's layered chiffons as "outrageously beautiful" in color and draping, Akira has used bias to wrap the form, conceiving of fashion not as a series of planes but as continuous volume realized three-dimensionally in the twist and torque of bias. Some collections were inspired by Byzantine art and Turkish culture; others by early Netherlands paintings, especially the work of Jan van Eyck.
Akira's good business sense has kept him afloat in the high flux of the fashion world as it reached an end of a strong economy and a sure decline in client investment in luxury clothes, furs, and accessories. The 21st century found him supplying high-end, avant-garde bridal gowns to Barneys New York, the prewedding mecca of the smart set. Within the new bridal salon, a source of a new trend toward chic understated wedding wear, Akira's line rubbed hangers with the likes of Vera Wang, Jil Sander, Christian Lacroix, and Geoffrey Beene.
If East and West, reason and style have been the antipodes of Akira's work, there is careful synthesis in Akira's garments in both the 20th and 21st centuries. It is an impressive joining of Japanese formality, American simplicity, the restraint of design, and the universal common sense of comfortable, wearable, and yet beautiful clothing.
updated by Mary EllenSnodgrass