Junko Yoshioka is one of the top 8 wedding dress designers in the United States. Her simple but avant-garde designs are a departure from the classic concept of a wedding dress as showy and decorative. Many fashion and wedding magazines such as WWD, In Style, and New York Magazine have been running her dresses, and she has admirers all over the world including in Hollywood. After studying and working in Italy, she started her own brand in New York. Here, she tells us the source of her passion for wedding dresses.
Interview with Junko Yoshioka
– After graduating from Instituto Marangoni in Milan, you worked for big fashion houses like ATSUO TAYAMA and ANTE PRIMA. After that, how did you come to start your own brand in New York?
After studying and working in Italy, I went back to Japan and stayed there for a year to prepare for starting my own brand. Then I came to New York in April 2000. At first, I was working as a couture designer and an instructor at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), then I started my own brand in 2002. I presented my first collection in August 2003, with about 5 dresses. At that time, I was doing everything myself, from drawing patterns to making phone calls to manufacturers. I have moved several times in the Soho and Chelsea area and now I have this office in Soho. I should say that I am the type of person who loses interest in things after a short period of time, but I guess I have been propelled by curiosity to come to this point. Maybe because I was so relaxed and laid-back in Italy, I feel New York is a place where I get energized rather than comforted. This city makes me tense and somehow forces me to be restless.
–Your wedding dresses are very simple but make a strong impression on us. How did you end up with such simple designs? Tell us how you actually design and make dresses.
Yoshioka :A woman wears a wedding dress once in a lifetime, so it is something very meaningful. And a wedding day is the very important day, especially for a bride who has kept dreaming of this precious day from childhood. A wedding dress remains forever in photographs, and here in the United States, wedding dresses are also often passed down to the next generation. Such a dress for the most priceless moment in one’s life will be remembered forever by her family members and relatives. On the other hand, with everyday clothes for instance, we don’t remember even what were we wearing yesterday. Thus a wedding dress is the most memorable garment among all clothing. In the United States, unlike Japan, wedding dresses are usually for sale, not for rental. So I decided to make wedding dresses that people can visualize when they are thinking of such an important event. I have two older sisters and they both wore tailor-made dresses at their weddings. In fact, when I was planning my own wedding, I also could not find a dress I like at bridal shops. Most dresses were old-fashioned or so to speak, traditional. I wondered if people still prefer those styles. For example, a puffy dress is so enveloping that the bride is almost invisible in it and it looks as though only the dress is walking around.I wanted a dress that reflected my personality, in other words, something very calm and simple but still detailed and overall, creatively designed. Since I could not buy such a dress anywhere, I made one myself. So I could say that was the start of me being a wedding dress designer.
Now, let me talk about the actual process of dressmaking. For the customers that can visit my showroom, I always have a consultation. I would describe my dresses as organic, maybe because inspirations and ideas come to me naturally, especially when I am relaxed. They also come from what I feel or find while I am traveling. For me, a trip is to rest in a natural environment. I usually go on a trip before starting my next collection. I have been to places like Morocco and Alaska. So it is not easy to put ideas into practice by drawing designs in the office. After we have the pattern drawn, one of our sewing staff takes charge and makes one dress from start to finish. If a dress become very popular, it could be sold for three to five years
– We always find examples of your thoughtfulness in your dresses, for instance, they are made lighter than usual taking into account the fact that brides have to wear them for long hours. And even if a dress has very simple silhouette we still find some detailed designs. Beside those qualities, I’ve heard that you are very conscious of ‘how the bride’s back looks’ when you make dresses. Why is that?
Before, I didn’t like designs that accentuate sexiness, but as I was invited to many weddings I noticed the fact that brides mostly turn their backs toward the guests. We have so many chances to see a bride’s back during the ceremony, the party, and especially when she is dancing. We can say a woman is beautiful because of her face or an expression that comes from her state of mind, but when I specifically think of a most beautiful body part of a woman, I would say her back, neck, or collarbone is sexier than breasts, maybe because I am a woman. So I wanted to make a dress that emphasizes these parts of the body. Also since guests see a bride from the back a lot, I started focusing on how to make the part looks more beautiful.
–It has been five years since you started your own brand in New York, what would you say about surviving as a fashion designer in such a competitive place?
I am not making dresses as a hobby or for self-satisfaction, so I would say considering the customers’ needs is essential for a designer. For instance, there is the difference between an artist and a fashion designer. An artist is someone who expresses him or herself. On the other hand, a fashion designer is someone who expresses him or herself prioritizing the market and customers’ needs. So balancing these factors and taking them into consideration are very important. But first and most importantly, I think I have to keep holding onto my concept whenever I present my collection in public. When I just started my brand, my new style design was not embraced readily since the buyers were a lot older than me. Recently, there are so many young designers who disappear 2-3 years after their debut. I think the reason is mostly lack of marketing skills. This is happening in Europe too, that’s why nowadays European designers are bringing in marketing specialists from the United States to strengthen their marketing power. So I would say I was lucky to get into such a good environment in the United States to start my brand. Unlike culturally conservative Europe, young people have more chances to set up a company in the United States. Japan is gradually changing as well, but still it isn’t the same.
– You were born in Japan, went to Italy, and became a New York-based designer. Since you have been looking at Japan from outside, you must have noticed or realized some great characteristics. What do you think about Japan at this moment?
I think we can see the beautiful things about Japan clearer when we are away. After I left, I felt Japanese people are very wise. We are the people who always try to find the next level of a thing and make it better. We have this attitude both when we are working and just doing something creative. That’s why there are many Japanese products that have better quality and design than the originals. That is because the level we reach to maximize the excellence of a thing is very high. On the other hand, we are often described as being very modest. So I really appreciate the fact that I was born Japanese. While most American products state a clear and strong message on the packages, some Japanese products have simply designed packaging. I think such a feature indicates humility of Japanese and I really like it.
–We know you will continue working in Europe as well as the United States but beside that, please tell us about your plan from now on.
Now I have a family here so New York is going to be the hub. Currently, I introduce my new collection twice a year–in April and October–and the one in October is larger. At the show on October 19th, which was just a few days ago, I presented 21 pieces on the runway. The April one is only for buyers with appointments and I’d like to keep doing things this way. Now my focus is to branch out into Japan and Europe and I want to make a borderless working environment. Plus, I’d like to expand into China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Also, although they will be limited in number, I’d like to design cocktail dresses in addition to my evening dress collection for the customers who attend red carpet events.