Japanese design: Maureen Doherty

The founder of Knightsbridge store Egg – and former right-hand woman to Issey Miyake – outlines the indefinable and contradictory qualities of Japanese taste

Watches & Jewellery 29 May 2019

During the years I spent in Japan, what struck me was that you’d find these extraordinarily beautiful buildings you just wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world. The peacefulness of them, the way they find their pockets of peace and the sense of the ‘make’ of a building, or a pair of shoes – it could be anything – was totally unique.

But there’s this other thing, which is ‘bad taste’, but it’s still well made. If you go to the stores in Japan you’ll find miles of floral stuff – kitsch I suppose – but if you go to Europe, you’ll still see miles of floral stuff, but the difference is it’s badly made.

I wonder if it’s taste or the antithesis – there’s a strange thing that goes on, because you’re drawn to this extraordinary taste for whatever reason, but when you’re within it you see it differently. Like the kimonos are really just like lady’s aprons in Margate! I can’t put my finger on it. It’s so hard to define, it’s like putty – it’s constantly changing.

Obviously, working with Issey for 30 years, things tend to rub off. He was my master basically! When I met Issey I was 21. I had been buying for a group of shops. We had been looking at three of the Japanese designers including Yohji Yamamoto, but I just completely linked in with Issey. The first time I met him, it was as though I knew him. It was just one of those links, an amazing contact, I can’t explain it. But every time I bought from him I had to take two or three days to go through it all, to make sure it was right for a Western audience. And even then it only sold to what I suppose you’d call the ‘high intelligentsia’, artists – it was a difficult one. There was a theatre and a freedom factor to it that appealed to me, because I’d always wanted to work in theatre and film, not fashion.

Everything that Issey made, you had to jump in it, run in it; it wasn’t made for cocktail parties. And the clothes that I had back then from Issey, in my 20s and 30s, my daughter is wearing now, and she’s 35. So it was the longevity, the fun, and the extraordinary fabrics he used. It always started with a piece of cloth; it never started with a drawing. There’s a famous story of his mother making a suit for him out of a Japanese flag – so even then, it started with a piece of cloth. He listened to the cloth. And now, still, in his 80s, he’s got a design studio, making cloth that keeps you warm. And that’s what he does.

I don’t think Issey was anything to do with fashion, it was to do with a movement. It’s a difficult question to think how much of that comes from being Japanese and how much was him. He always said, ‘My ass is Japanese and my brain is international!’

Maureen Doherty’s respect for Japanese design celebrates the qualities embedded in Seiko’s own design principles; seikowatches.com; eggtrading.com