Kei Ito

Kei Ito flower bag by Kei Ito theatre costume set by Kei Ito
crin white dress by Kei Ito
Project by Kei Ito

Japanese-born textile artist Kei Ito makes elaborate, sculptural garments by manipulating fabrics with a series of pleats, cutting techniques and folds. Her pieces push the boundaries of conventional fashion, swathing the wearer in a series of elaborate, geometric folds and volumes. A recent example was modelled by Deirdre Figueiredo of Craftspace when she did her stint on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth highlighting the importance of craft and making.


Can you explain how you originally got into garment making?

It’s quite a long story as I originally started training as a fine artist in Tokyo [where Ito was born]. I then realised that if I wanted to be more independent and have a career it would be more realistic to do something more practical, so I changed to graphic design. After college I started working for a graphic design company. Through them I came in contact with a fashion company who was one of our clients, and the more I visited this studio delivering things etc, the more I realised that textiles and fashion was what I was really interested in, so I changed my career again and began working with a fashion designer.

Did you enjoy working with the fashion designer?

Not really! I discovered that it was very business-based and that there wasn’t much room for creativity. I was quite an idealistic, even dreamy girl and I didn’t like just re-working other people’s ideas to make money. I came to the conclusion that Tokyo wasn’t really the place for someone to work creatively so I decided to come and study in London, where I did a degree in fashion at Central St Martin’s.

Did your degree help you realise what areas you wanted to specialise in?

It took me a long time to work out what I really wanted to do as I couldn’t find out where I fitted in. I knew I was interested in making costume and knew I wanted to express myself creatively but also knew I needed to do something that would enable me to make a living. Liberty purchased my whole collection at my graduation show and so I started my own label when I left college, but I soon realised that I was much happier making one-off pieces directly for clients rather than working on collections as I wanted to be involved in the whole production process.

I realised that it was clothing that interests me, not fashion. I am interested, not so much as being in time, which is what fashion is relative to time but another type of time, a time that repeats and comes back to us in new ways, reinventing with this a relationship of the body and textile. This is also why I am so interested in designing costumes for dancers because dance is staged within imaginary time as opposed to realistic time.

How important is the notion of function in your work?

All my costume is made to be worn. Sometimes the ideas are more predominant but most of the pieces are quite functional. Obviously the pieces I make for exhibitions are much freer as I can make anything I want in this context – also, I see these pieces as an exercise in research and development. When I’ve finished them I look at them and think how to turn these pieces into wearable clothing.

What are your sources of inspiration?

My Japanese background is of course an influence on my work, but equally I have looked at a great many other cultures over different periods of time. In the East the relationship between the body and fabric is totally different to that in the West where clothes are much tighter fitting. But I was bought up wearing Western clothes so I am able to move between the two different approaches to the body very easily which gives me a lot of creative freedom. Other elements of Japanese culture such as origami and ideas about folding materials also play a part, but they’re also some European influences like the work of Mariano Fortuny [the Italian textile designer and master of pleating] which I discovered when I was working as a graphic designer.

What materials do you like working with?

I like working with all sorts of different materials. I enjoy working with simple materials which you then have to do something to – like cutting or pleating – to modify them and make them special as it forces you to be more creative. I use natural fibres as well as super modern fibres. At the moment I’m starting to work on a commission for the Geffrye Museum gardens made out of a material incorporating LED lights which will be part light installation, part sculptural textile.

Interview by Diana Woolf