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Nao Okawa: the art of casual tech

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Few designers have such a glowing CV, so extensive and yet so loyal to a particular style, and the career that Naohiko Okawa (who everyone refers to as Nao) has enjoyed to date is every bit as amazing as his funny Japanese accent. His fluent French is peppered with Mazamet inflections (after all, one does not spend a decade and a half working alongside François Girbaud without certain repercussions) and sometimes with chanted intonations à la Jean-Paul Gaultier, with whom he had previously stayed for 5 years.


Nao Okawa. Photo Marco Pietracupa

Nao is an outstanding cook who likes to share, as is reflected in the infectious enthusiasm with which he presents his upcycled hooded sweatshirt dress bearing his initials-cum-logo, N.O., at the beginning of the interview. The logo itself incorporates a multi-gender symbol, which stands out in 3D when the model is photographed. Check out this miracle of new ‘metaverse’ technologies and augmented reality using a 3D app available at https://continuumdecom.com. A model created for the recent exhibition: Continuum in Digitage at the Iconoclaste gallery in Paris.


Other feats that his ever-developing brand has accomplished include its ingenious reversible and versatile ‘four-in-one’ leather jacket and its transformable [LR1] short playsuit, offering a new take on the ideas of both protection and fashion. Nao has fostered this ‘Gyro Gearloose’, mad scientist side of his work through his involvement in the numerous collections he has managed.


Coming from a traditional Japanese family, this extraordinary creative talent likes to pay tribute to his grandfather, who used to make pastries in the shape of flowers and birds for the imperial family. It was his mother, in fact, who gave him his first taste of the world of fashion when she introduced him to the art of matching kimono patterns and colours at a very early age.


After completing a bachelor’s degree in economics at Rikkyo University, he joined ESMOD Tokyo in 1990, but Paris was already calling him... This Parisian dream would come true for Nao in 1992, when he came to finish his fashion apprenticeship at ESMOD Paris. This bright spark was already undertaking a joint degree in both men's and ladies’ ready-to-wear fashion design, but his heavy workload didn’t prevent him from winning the grand prize for both men’s and ladies’ fashion design in 1994 - a first for a Japanese designer at the Parisian school. His great skill earned him access to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s studio, where he created accessories for the couture and ready-to-wear collections, along with special models for the fashion shows.

In the Okawa studio. A young Nao, to the right of Jean-Paul Gaultier, and his wife Maria, to the left.

At the same time, starting in 1996, he designed up to 14 licensed collections for the designer,

before going on to spend a year working for Barbara Bui in 1999, during which he designed the ladieswear and accessories collections. An impressive number of collaborations followed this as of the year 2000, including for Emmanuel Ungaro, Masaki Matsushima, Jean-Louis Scherrer, Emmanuel Khan, Stephane Kélian, Chloé, Guy Laroche and solar designer Adeline André - designers and prestigious brands for whom he created accessories, shoe and leather goods collections and even comprehensive ready-to-wear lines.


Only his meeting with Marithée and François Girbaud would result in him staying put with the same company for a decade and a half. He would consequently become right-hand man to the brand’s designers between 1999 and 2013, and notably serve as artistic director of their various collections.


More recently, Nao has worked for Le Coq Sportif Japan, Repetto and GEYM (Go East Young Man), among other collections and consulting assignments for various brands. Nao entertains at his brightly-lit studio apartment on Avenue Parmentier.


Planet ESMOD: Where did this passion for sportswear come from? And first of all, would you describe your approach to fashion as being sportswear-based?

Nao Okawa: No, not really. My graduation collection was ‘casual’, so to speak, and I was very interested in denim, but it was the street that appealed to me, in fact. There is a certain versatility to denim that still appeals to me. You can dye cotton and denim yourself to suit your own tastes and personality, and even if you don’t make any changes, these materials evolve over time simply through washing and even change every time they’re worn. In fact, we often feel that jeans become like a ‘second skin’ because they adapt so well to our bodies. I like people to have fun with what they wear, and for them to have the freedom to play around with their clothes and bring them to life. When I started my research I hated overly distinct designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons, but I changed my mind when I arrived in Paris! So much so that I now own pieces by Yohji, Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyaké myself that I have acquired over the years. That said, those sorts of forced complete-looks can be so restrictive. I like to combine elements of sportswear, tailoring, casual, etc. and I don't like distinct styles that are too strongly defined. I like flexibility. Maybe it stems from the rules of Japanese society, because as a child and teenager I couldn’t dress the way I wanted to.

Nao Okawa in his studio, by Marco Pietracupa

P. E.: Why did you first get a degree in economics in Tokyo before going into fashion?

N. O.: I was 16 years of age when I decided I wanted to become a designer and come to France, but I was attending a private secondary school that also had a university, so it was easier for me to get in there. I wasn’t bad before, but I preferred sports, especially football, and at one point I might have considered a career as a professional footballer, except that I broke my knee. Fashion was also a passion of mine. My parents supported me in my fashion aspirations, provided that I first complete 4 years of higher education in economics at this university, but I actually completed almost the entire 4-year programme in just 3 years, so in the fourth year I was able to prepare myself to undertake some more creative training. I used to draw in secret, used to make a few sculptures, learned about the history of art, that sort of thing, and during these years at university I also took French lessons, so I enrolled at ESMOD Tokyo but in a special class that prepared me for continuing my education in France.


“Everything at ESMOD is structured and professional, even the school!”

Nao Okawa


P. E.: How were your first years at ESMOD Tokyo and later in Paris?

N. O.: From the very beginning of my time in Tokyo it was a lot of work, and as I was progressing quickly the tutors asked me to work on 2 projects for each assignment. So the others were doing the usual one project and I was doing two, but it did help me to further develop my working skills, without a doubt.

When I arrived in Paris, one of my tutors, who saw what I was capable of, allowed me to take two courses, in Men’s and Ladies’ fashion, at the same time. I only wanted to do menswear at first. Obviously it was very hard, but I like a challenge, so I would create different styles for each gender every time, like the more ‘street’ male look and the more designer ladies’ look of the time, Montana etc. I used to draw a lot. I like that. At one point, I had so much work on that I wasn’t sleeping, maybe just an hour or two a day sometimes. There were no computers or creative software at the time, so everything took much longer. Once I realised, at the end of the year, that I could use the same basic idea for both my ladies’ and men’s designs, it changed my life, and then the designs started to come all by themselves, and I finished my graduation project in no time!



Nao’s logo in 3D floats around this ‘degendered’ sweater (Continuum de com)

P. E.: So what made you choose ESMOD?

N. O.: I chose ESMOD for its pragmatic approach to learning. Creativity is something that can't be taught; it's something you have to work on within yourself - you have to find your own creativity. ESMOD places great emphasis on technique - how to construct a garment, how to put a collection together, etc. and especially how to make others understand your ideas by means of a clear and structured project. Everything at ESMOD is structured and professional, even the school!

P. E.: And you haven’t changed the way you work since then?

N. O.: No, but the way I get my inspiration has changed. I used to start a collection with images, watching what was going on out on the streets, reading magazines, etc. My time at Girbaud taught me to take the fabric as the starting point for my creative process; it all starts with the material. Knowledge of the fabric composition and the quality of the fibres and the blends are the things that allow us to design a coherent final piece, and that's also how I try to give each brand different references.

P. E.: And did your initial degree in economics come in handy later on in your professional career as a fashion designer?

N. O.: Of course, because there’s always a budget that has to be adhered to and it’s becoming increasingly important to be aware of the cost of each metre of fabric and each creative step. At Girbaud, for example, no-one knew that I had studied economics, and at one point, their collections were proving too expensive to produce, and I spotted that very quickly. So I asked Marithée and François to monitor all of the studio’s expenses and they were consequently able to save quite a bit of money.


A technical feat in its own right, this jacket can be worn in four different ways. Photo: Antoine Harinthe

P. E.: Which brands inspire you today?

N. O.: I’ve looked at a lot of Off White stuff and found I could really relate to Virgil Abloh. Adidas Y3 is another collection that appeals to me, and I also think that Gaultier, whose codes I am, of course, familiar with, could become a great ready-to-wear brand. I’m very impressed by what Comme des Garçons has become, too, in terms of its brand organisation, its collection adaptations, its stores, its fragrances, etc. The business model is fantastic! I’m talking about both the creative and economic aspects here - it’s an incredible brand.

P. E.: What advice would you give to current ESMOD students?

N. O.: You have to be yourself - special and unique. The highly developed information and communication systems we have today, the Internet and social networks make it so easy to be influenced by others, or even by a somewhat feeble general consensus. I mean, of course, we have to compare ourselves to others - it’s important - but it’s also important not to lose yourself in your relationships with others, either. You have to be open-minded but still remain true to yourself.

The other problem with social networks is that this new generation doesn’t mix with others any more. They keep themselves to themselves and no longer engage in enriching interaction with adults that are different from them, or even with older people, and that’s certainly a very real problem.



Nao Okawa’s versatile extreme sports suit is suitable for any situation. Photo: Marie Elodie Fallourde.

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