From Tokyo Gay Clubs to Georgia O'Keeffe, Tomo Koizumi Has References

From Tokyo Gay Clubs to Georgia O'Keeffe, Tomo Koizumi Has References

by Evan Ross Katz

It began, as it so often should, at the gay bars. That’s where dress designer Tomo Koizumi first discovered a world that observed his outsider status as something of great value. “I was shy and a bit chubby boy in my childhood, but I started going to these gay clubs and admiring high fashion beginning at 14 years old.” Koizumi credits gay culture and high fashion and its often intersecting interests as the touch points that opened his eyes and titled his axis. His dream of being an origami teacher (“I still don’t even know if there is a such thing as an origami teacher,” he laughs) were set aside in favor of something that could feed the yearning for creative expression. Origami is about exactness; Koizumi was searching for anything that allowed for creative expression.

Thanks to his fashion-loving mother, Koizumi got his hands on fashion magazines from a young age in his hometown of Chiba, about an hour outside Tokyo, and even encountered seminal books like John Galliano for Dior, all of which helped set him on a path that would, years later, have him making his New York Fashion Week debut with a model roster that included Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid and Joan Smalls. (As debut runways go, this one was categorically not understated in any way.) Koizumi poured himself over these books and magazines in an effort to not only better understand fashion, but to see as much of it as he could. He even connected his experiences at the club to the works of Galliano. "I immediately understood the culture of the club — the drag queens, especially — strongly connected to Mr. Galliano’s esthetic: The exaggerated dresses and make-up, the big hair... everything was so connected and inspiring for me.” From there, he started designing dresses for the queens and even the go-go dancers.

But it wasn’t just fashion and nightlife. His influences spanned everything from magical girl anime like Sailor Moon ("I’m always inspired by these girls who are cute and strong at the same time”) to the paintings of Mark Rothko and Georgia O'Keeffe (“I loved how they used colors on canvas.”) With no formal training, he began experimenting with garment making for his friends, but only saw it as a hobby that brought him joy and could bring joy to others. He pursued an arts degree at the National Chiba University, launching his namesake label as a side project in 2011, a year before graduation. There’s a tactility about Koizumi’s approach that keeps coming up throughout our conversations. It looks beautiful, he might ask, but does it feel beautiful?

Photography: Tim Walker

He began working as a stylist and a costume artist assistant before becoming a costume designer. And it was while working as a costume designer in 2016 that he got the call from Haus of Gaga requesting one of his looks: a white and grey ruffled gown from his “Ballet” collection for the Academy Award-winner to wear during the Japanese leg of her Joanne promotional tour. Koizumi, who calls Gaga one of his biggest inspirations, was thrilled for all of the obvious reasons, but also for the larger implication it had on his designs moving forward. “I was so encouraged because she only wears unique and strong pieces, and as a result I got more confident with my uniqueness.”

As he continued to get more work outfitting Japanese singers, Koizumi faced challenges in getting people to see his work on the grand scale he envisioned it. “Even though I tried to make high fashion pieces, same as what I do now, people in the fashion industry in Japan would often put me into a box as a costume designer and never a fashion designer.”

Two years later, during a presentation before Sara Maino, the deputy director of Vogue Italia, Koizumi would have another career-defining moment that would cement his status as a fashion designer — and one to watch at that. Impressed by his work, Maino posted it on her Instagram which led to new followers including designer Giles Deacon and actress Gwendoline Christie. The subsequent reposts caught the attention of Katie Grand, the founder and then-editor-in-chief of Love Magazine. “Katie DM’d me like, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever seen in years.’ We chatted some and decided to have a fashion show 15 minutes later.”

Grand pulled out the big guns to help support Koizumi with his debut at New York Fashion Week: Marc Jacobs provided his famed 655 Madison Avenue store as the location, and the talents of Guido Palau, Pat McGrath, Tabitha Simmons, Anita Bitton Victoria Hunter and Jin Soon joined Grand in helping to bring the show to life. In a rather full-circle moment, Christie closed the show in a gown composed of 200 meters of Japanese polyester organza. “That was definitely a life changing moment for me,” he says. “Until that first show, people often thought of my design as just costume and not fashion, even myself really. That show changed everything.”

Last month, two years after their original link up, Koizumi and Jacobs teamed back up when Koizumi produced a capsule collection for Jacobs’s namesake label. He created a variety of Snapshot bag straps made of his signature tulle and T-shirts that, appropriately, feature ruffles. “Marc is a great designer and an icon in the fashion industry,” Koizumi says. “He already has many strong design signatures which makes it really easy to collaborate with him.” He’s proud of this collab as well as one he did with Pucci a year earlier, and says Nike is on his list of brands he’d like to collab with next.

These days, Koizumi can be found visiting local factories and craft stores throughout Japan. Talking to the workers there is as important as touching the materials. He wants the stories, the lineage, the life lived, not just the beauty beholden or the possibility of what the material can become. “I’m seeking more beauty, to uncover and to make.”

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photos courtesy of Tomo Koizumi