Hanako Maeda is the founder and designer of women’s ready-to-wear line ADEAM. The Tokyo native and Columbia alum interned at Vogue and Phillip Lim before launching ADEAM in 2011 with pieces that mix the avant-garde and spontaneous style of her hometown with the runway sensibility of New York. Since the launch of ADEAM, Maeda has presented in Shanghai, Tokyo and New York, secured a spot in Saks Fifth Avenue, opened up her own flagship boutique in Japan and made fans out of Lady Gaga and Rashida Jones.
Tell us about how you started ADEAM. What’s your design background like?
I started my line in Tokyo in late December 2011/early January 2012. In the beginning it was me outsourcing a lot. I work with patternmaker, Nicolas Caito, and he’s amazing. He does everyone. When you look at his fashion week calendar the roster of people amazes you. He’s like, “I can fit you in this day after Jason,” and he means Jason Wu. He works with Thakoon, and has been doing Proenza Schouler ever since they started after Parsons. He does Prabal and Joseph Altuzarra was his intern. It’s crazy he works with everybody. But when you work with him you really understand why he’s so amazing. He has the couture touch. He started at Lanvin in Paris and was there for 5-6 years and was with Olivier Theyskens at Rochas before joining Margiela at Hermès.
I didn’t have a traditional design background – I studied art history at Columbia and studio art a little bit. I’ve always been interested in having a creative outlet, but wasn’t so focused on fashion until after my internship at Vogue and Phillip Lim, and then I really felt fashion was my calling. I had kept my sketches from college and started developing this collection. I was watching the Proenza documentary, and I saw this amazing patternmaker working with them backstage and on a daily basis, just being their mentor. And I thought I really wanted to work with him. So I Googled him, and sent him an email telling him I was starting my own line and asked if he would work with me. He had no idea who I was, but it was in between seasons, Resort and Spring, and he didn’t have a lot going on, so he said we could start with a few different styles, and see how things go. Together we made a 15-piece capsule collection I showed to the buyers and started doing pop-ups in department stores in Tokyo. For Spring 2012, I did a small presentation in Tokyo and then for Fall 2012 the Japanese government selected me to participate in a runway show as part of their Japan Next program taking place in Shanghai. They were sponsoring three designers at Shanghai Fashion Week and I showed alongside Mastermind, a Japanese menswear designer, and Somarta a conceptual womenswear brand.
What happened next?
After this I moved my studio to New York in the summer of 2012 and began developing the Spring 2013 collection which I showed at Tokyo Fashion Week but was made here. It was the first collection I started building a team with and having assistants. It was a lot easier since Nicolas is here and I started working with other patternmakers in the Garment District, which I think helped broaden the collection by adding a new style. For Fall 2013, I showed in New York with a presentation at Lincoln Center and we got a really good response. That collection was exclusive for Saks Fifth Avenue New York. It was very exciting to see my collection sitting next to Peter Pilotto and Proenza Schouler.
Is that also where your pricepoint sits?
Yes, entry-level designer like Derek Lam and Proenza.
What was it like having that support so early on?
It was really important to have that support and mentorship from a major retailer as a young designer. Having the smaller boutiques interested is important as well, but this was on another level. The collection had a 75% sell-through. The personal shoppers at Saks were great, they really liked my collection, which is important for a designer in my pricepoint and when no one knows your name. It’s great to have people on the sales floor being so supportive.
Saks has had a very impressive New Designer set for the past few seasons; they’ve been very supportive of the emerging designers.
I think they’re trying to be more experimental. Before they were definitely more conservative. The season they added us they added Simone Rocha, and Barneys doesn’t even carry Simone Rocha. It almost feels like they are taking more of a risk than someplace like Barneys who’s known to stock young designers.
Do you consider yourself an American designer?
When I applied to the LVMH prize last year, Julie Gilhart, who is a great supporter of the brand, sent me an email telling me I was one of the last few designers in consideration but they couldn’t have so many American designers. It’s interesting because I grew up here. I moved here when I was five and went to elementary school and middle school in the city, moved back during high school for a bit and then stayed for college. I’ve been here for a long time! I think because all of my creative is done here, based in the US and all my clothes are made in New York, it is an American brand. But I do think it’s a little bit of both since I get so much inspiration from Japanese culture. My Fall 2014 collection was inspired by Japanese literature so it is a good balance of the two.
How do you balance the appeal to the Japanese market as an American designer?
One of the reasons I moved my studio from Tokyo to New York is because I love New York fashion. There is a connection between what’s happening on the runways and how women dress on a daily basis. There’s a dialogue between the two. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in Tokyo. Everything is so entrenched within street style. Even with Tokyo Fashion Week there isn’t much of a designer culture. My mother is also a designer. I grew up in an environment surrounded by clothing and I’m enamored by old school couture and European tailoring. Some of that may feel a little outdated now, but one of the things I want to do through ADEAM is bring something that feels old fashioned into the modern woman’s wardrobe. And I felt New York is a better place to do that. I love the fact that Tokyo is so different and the street style is amazing and there are so many young people doing crazy things that wouldn’t happen in other cities, but I wanted to incorporate a little tradition. It’s important for clothes to be well made and sometimes that’s overlooked these days.
What do you mean by overlooked?
I feel like that shock factor of something seems more important than a garment that is really well made. For me personally, it’s important to merge the tailoring and the beauty of a garment with an idea or concept that is more innovative and thought provoking and not just another pretty dress.
You have a flagship boutique in Japan – so it seems you’ve found a way to appeal to both markets despite the city’s attachment to street style?
What sells in Tokyo is very different than what the buyers like here. There’s a term called kawaii in Japanese and it’s the idea of being cute in a girly and quirky way. A lot of the street style fashion is kawaii and the harajuku fashion is like this also. There’s a lot of this influence in fashion. I feel like Marc Jacobs looks to this aesthetic. In Tokyo, you would be surprised to know a lot of the women working in their 30s and 40s dress very girly or what may seem young or not age appropriate here, but it is widely accepted in Japan. In the US it’s more important to be sexy in a way that’s more grown up and age appropriate. I think it’s more the ideal type of beauty as opposed to the Japanese’s ideal of being cute and forever young.
I’ve always been a feminist so it’s comforting to know that women in the US are not attached to being young forever. I feel like that’s one of the things I talk about with the editors in Tokyo – I think it’s important for girls to feel beautiful at 19 or 60. Growing up here opened up my eyes to different lifestyles for women and that’s not readily available in Asia. Not just Japan but China and Korea as well.
How do you find this balance in your personal style?
One of the things I think about when I dress and when I design is the balance between masculinity and femininity. I’m drawn to women who are more independent and strong so I want to incorporate ideas of menswear tailoring and structure, but I love feminine things as well. I always have this debate internally because I think is it sexist of me to think it looks more powerful to incorporate menswear tailoring because that’s like saying men’s clothing is more empowering than women’s clothing. So is it more of a statement if you make something that’s really feminine but not degrading to women? With Céline and brands with new creative directors the discussions around androgyny and tribal trends are huge and how they’re designs are empowering to women, but if you have to borrow ideas from menswear and other cultures for women to feel empowered is that inherently sexist?
In French, Comme des Garçons means ‘like a boy’ so there’s this debate on whether Rei Kawakubo is a feminist and she has said she is not. It was interesting to hear she doesn’t regard herself as a feminist but her line is centered on this idea of unisex dressing. It’s not cross-dressing; it’s like un-gendered.
Rei Kawakubo probably has a much more evolved definition of feminism than we could possibly begin to understand!
I’m sure! And I’m sure she’s at the point in her career where she probably doesn’t care! The CFDA gave her a lifetime achievement award and she just told Anna she wasn’t going to go. Who does that?
It’s refreshing to hear about designers who aren’t caught up in the hoopla though right?
I agree, if everybody was concerned about the fame and the partying fashion would not be as interesting. We need people like Rei, Margiela and Dries.
Let’s talk about Fall – where do you start with a new collection?
My inspiration is usually external to fashion. This season it was the literature. Past seasons have been nature, art or music, but I usually find one thing, create a mood board, and then start sketching. That’s when things go into work and it becomes pieces of clothing. It always starts with one idea and then stems out from there.
How long do you give yourself for this process?
It happens simultaneously with other collections. As soon as I’m done with one collection I have to start thinking about fabrics for the next collection. I have ideas saved in my mind and then decide if I want to use this for Spring or use it for Resort. I don’t really have a notebook I just try to make mental notes of things I’m inspired by on a daily basis.
How many collections do you do a year?
I do Fall, Spring, and Resort. I’m not doing Pre-Fall yet. The lead time between Spring and Fall is not that long and to squeeze Pre-Fall into that it’s crazy. When I have more time and a bigger team it’s something I will consider.
I think that makes sense to ease into the four collections a year.
I’ve learned patience is very important. It’s one of the things Linda (Gaunt) told me in our early meetings; everybody expects to be the next Alex Wang like tomorrow. And it just doesn’t happen like that and if it does you’re not going to stay around very long. For me it’s more important to build personal relationship and a solid fan base before making it big or becoming the next star. There is a lot of pressure and expectations on young designers but if you reach the peak or your career at age 30 where will you go for the rest of your life? Especially if you’re still in your 20s it pays off to be patient, focus on your craft and really figure out your brand.
That’s a great perspective. You sound like you’re really preparing yourself for longevity?
I think that’s the Japanese in me. I feel like having met a lot of people here in New York, young people are obsessed with idea of “making it” when you’re 25. It happens if you’re very lucky but usually it takes time. Rick Owens was 55 when he started his line! It just takes time!
You started with a 15-piece capsule collection and just presented your fifth season with Fall 2014 – how have you grown as a designer?
I think now that I have a sales director and people merchandising the collection with me so the full seasons are 60-70 styles and Resort is usually 50-60. It’s definitely a more developed collection. Now I’m able to decide what will be an editorial piece or a show piece versus a sales piece. You have to think about the balance of fabrications and the pricepoints. It’s more about understanding the business side of fashion.
Do you design with specific pieces in mind for Japan and the US?
Not when I’m designing, but after when I’m editing the collection I think about that.
What other markets are you currently in?
This past Fall we got two new stores in the Middle East, D’NA, Princess Deena is amazing! She was so encouraging and supportive. She’s mentioned ADEAM in almost every interview she gave after fashion week. Jeannie from Satine picked up the collection in LA also. She’s so sweet and her appointments are a lot of fun!
You’re launching e-commerce next week – why did you decide now was the time to launch e-commerce?
Our wholesale locations are expanding and we’ve been getting a lot of emails from people in areas where we don’t have retail locations. Tenzin and Magnus from the Last Magazine do a lot of art direction for ADEAM and are the creative team that did the website and are doing the e-commerce site. It’s really exciting!
This interview has been edited and condensed.