Last week I had the incredible honor of interviewing Tadashi Shoji on the 30-year anniversary of the iconic brand and on the eve of Tadashi Shoji’s acceptance of Marymount University‘s prestigious Designer of the Year award. Past recipients of the award have been Diane Von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, just to name a few. When I asked Shoji what this award meant to him he said he felt humbled to be in such incredible company. Humble is definitely one word I would use to describe him, hard working, thoughtful and creative genius are the others. All attributes that have led to his monumental success.
Let me set the scene for you. I was over excited (of course) to meet such a visionary and established designer, not even meet, but interview! I entered a small conference room where Shoji and his PR genius, Zeba, were patiently waiting. I was full of nervous and excited energy, but was instantly calmed by Shoji’s centered presence. He is larger than life, but relatable at the same time. Upon entering the room, I showered him with copious amounts of compliments, partly because I was nervous and couldn’t stop, but mostly because I meant it all and felt it had to be said. Instead of brushing it off as if he had heard it all before he was grateful and appreciative of my overzealous kind words. This genuine sentiment carried throughout the interview. Shoji did not get where he is today, because he accepted his success and rested on his impressive laurels, he got where he is today and continues to climb, because he is hard working and continues to “work harder than before.” He describes his career as “still in the process,” always unfinished and always reaching for more and I found this to be incredibly inspiring. This attitude also comes from the industry he exists in, because with success comes insurmountable amounts of pressure, which he cooly describes as “very high.” When I asked him what advice he had for people just starting out their careers he said work hard and work towards longevity. A career is not built overnight and Shoji’s career was certainly not built overnight.
Shoji, born in Japan, studied high art, as he calls it, until the early 70s when he moved to the U.S. He was in need of a visa and a student visa was the easiest to obtain so he attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College and because of this he says he became a designer “accidentally.” Shoji first realized that clothing design was an art form in itself (low art as he calls it) when he had to drape his first dress on a dress form, he likened this to sculpting. He also attributes this moment to his respect for the female form, which he describes as a “canvas.” Shoji is one of the most thoughtful contemporary designers, making clothing for real women with real bodies. Shoji’s gowns always pepper the red carpets during award season and are more often than not worn by women that aren’t a size 2 or 4 or 6. Shoji’s main goal with evening wear is “to make women’s figures more beautiful” and the women wearing his gowns “more comfortable.” Shoji explained his gowns as being as comfortable as a tee shirt while being red carpet ready. I mean really, how thoughtful is that! He spends a great deal of time making sure his dresses make sense. For example the arm holes must be flattering, while also having enough stretch that you can easily drive a car in. Something that real women are likely to do in his dresses. I had the honor of wearing a Tadashi Shoji gown for an Inauguration special and I can tell you first hand that the dress was an absolute delight!
This thoughtfulness helps propel him forward, but his determination, meticulous attention to detail and intuition is what keeps his brand on top. Shoji is in the weeds of the business, designing of course, but making sure shipments go out on time, opening new stores, and jet setting around the globe to promote his brand and gain inspiration and insight. When asked what influences his collections the answer is everything. The female body, history, art and shockingly the economy. Shoji was aware of the recession and designed his line accordingly, which allowed them to emerge unscathed. Shoji perceptively described fashion as a combination of “commerce” and “art,” but he is careful to “never sacrifice art for commerce.” He also thoughtfully explained that pricing is part of art and design. When speaking about the economy he shows his true worldliness by explaining one must always continue learn. Shoji explained that fashion is a component of life, but is not everything, there is so much more that must be explored and appreciated, economics, politics, literature, history, and art being such things. His awareness and thirst for knowledge is genuine, inspiring and give his designs the “unexpected” edge he strives for.
I left the interview inspired and as cheesy as it sounds ready to take on the world. For such a surreal experience I found it to be grounding, leaving with the understanding that hard work is the only thing that will get you where you want to go and that is something everyone is capable of.