Inside the Collection

Serenely Akira: from storyboard to exhibition

Dismantling Reigning Men took a full week of sweat, noise and dust. But from it the MAAS team has crafted a cocoon of serenity designed to celebrate the creativity and subtle complexity of Akira Isogawa, in a new exhibition which opened on 15 December 2018.

We started talking with Akira in late 2016 about the possibility of an exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of his fashion label. With his nod, we got to work in 2017. The first step took about eight months as we worked with Akira to hone the themes and choose the garments and related objects to be featured in the exhibition.

Two men and a woman stand around a table discussing fashion drawings and fabric samples. They are in the designer’s studio with garments hanging on racks in the background.
Akira Isogawa (left) in his studio with MAAS curators Roger Leong and Kristina Stankovski. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

We looked through Akira’s seasonal look books with their more than 1,000 images, which former assistant curator Melanie Pitkin scanned and storyboarded. Out of this emerged a road map of sorts, a set of ideas and categories which, over the next 12 months, evolved into the four predominant themes of the exhibition: Journey, Craftsmanship, Kimono and Collaboration.

Closeup of a pin-board with handwritten notes and themes, in amongst photographs of garments.
Just a small corner of the storyboard we used to distil the more than 1,000 images from Akira’s seasonal look books into four main workable themes. The process took up to eight months. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS

The next step was to dive into Akira’s archive of around 3,000 garments and over 300 examples of design development from which we shortlisted around 800 individual items. Over several months we pulled these artfully-crafted clothes out of dry-cleaning bags to photograph and add to the growing number of themed storyboards.

Photograph taken over the shoulder of a man he paints the word 'Kimono' in calligraphy. The text is black on a white sheet of paper and there is an ink pot in the top right corner of the paper.
Akira Isogawa, himself an accomplished calligrapher, created the headings for each of the exhibition’s theme panels using brush and ink. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

We have recently been back to the studio to select a further 300 items that Akira has pledged to donate in future. These works complement the 25 works by Akira Isogawa previously acquired by the Museum from the early years of his career, including the infamous ‘Dress that saved Sydney’ and two dresses (here and here) donated by the four-times Oscar-awarded film, stage and interior designer Catherine Martin.

Back at the curatorial desk, newly-arrived assistant curator Kristina Stankovski and I penned labels and interpretative panels (edited by Cristina Briones) to accompany each of the objects on display and explain the themes and sub-themes. Many of the words in the exhibition are Akira’s own, talking about his life, his motivations and the serenely beautiful clothes that he designs.

Another important aspect of exhibition design is choosing the right dress forms and supports on which to display our garments. Textile conservator Suzanne Chee was crucial to this set of decisions as she dressed each of the garments. Suzanne also created wonderfully sinuous forms out of synthetic felt for mounting the silk chiffon costumes worn by members of the Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s Grand (2005).

A woman works on a dress form lying on the table in front of her. The dress form is covered in aluminium foil over which Suzanne is steam-moulding a synthetic white felt in order to create a stylised body shape.
Conservator Suzanne Chee creating the bespoke display supports that are then moulded to fit the exact shape of each of the dance costumes. This white moulded form will be removed from the dress form and used to support a garment for display. It will be cut to fit the garment exactly so as to seem invisible. Photo: Belinda Christie, MAAS
A dance costume designed by Akira Isogawa that is supported by one of the 'invisible' white moulded forms. The dress is made from off-white fabric, with a short skirt, wide v-neck and elasticated waist. The edges of the fabric are left deliberately frayed.
One of the ethereal costumes designed in 2005 by Akira Isogawa for the Sydney Dance Company’s production of Grand. Photo: Belinda Christie, MAAS

Meanwhile, over the past few months, the MAAS workshop team led by Penny Angrick, built structures to ‘frame’ the displays. Our registrars, Sarah Pointon and Sarah Heenan, along with Kristina, have been documenting each piece on the museum’s database in readiness for the exhibition while arranging for loans to be shipped in from Melbourne, Canberra and Glen Innes.

A white sleeveless top with floral applique pattern on a mannequin. In the background, out of focus, are a second dressed mannequin, and beyond that, a woman dressing a third mannequin.
Conservator Suzanne Chee dressed the linen torsos in the two months leading up to the exhibition opening. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
Two women in the process of placing the clothed dress forms into position on the display plinths.
Two weeks before the exhibition opening, we placed the dressed forms in line with exhibition designer Jemima Woo’s plans. Here Jemima (right) and assistant curator Kristina Stankovski are refining the positions, heights and angles of outfits in the Collaboration section. Placements changed according to sight lines and relationships of colour, texture and form. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

With the garment selection completed, in early 2018, Kristina and I began working closely with MAAS exhibition designer Jemima Woo and graphic designer Maria Mosquera to envision the design and layout of the exhibition.

A man with a paintbrush poised over a plasterwork plinth. Written on the plinth is exhibition text with the heading 'embroidering and beading'. There is a spray bottle next to the man's hand.
Scene painter Pablo Donnan puts the finishing touches to the textured plasterwork adorning the display plinths. Photo: Roger Leong, MAAS

Based on the proportions of the tatami, the standard mat flooring unit of traditional Japanese homes, Jemima designed a series of floating plinths above which the garments are suspended. Maria created text panels inspired by hanging scrolls. Their work evolved into a graceful environment that invites you to reflect on Akira’s reverence and love for his own heritage while alluding to his studio’s semi-industrial-meets-craftsman ambience.

Two men stand with their backs to the camera. In the background, out of focus, a man and a woman lift a yellow garment. Two other yellow garments are already suspended beside them. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS.
Exhibition designer Jemima Woo and workshop preparator Iain Cooper suspending garments as Akira and I look on. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
A man standing on a chair pinning fabric and other objects on a large board. To his left is a brown cardboard pattern piece and a prototype evening dress made from paper tissue pinned to a dress form.
Akira Isogawa preparing a ‘mood board’ of fabric, beading, embroidery and printing samples combined with patterns, toiles, finished garments as well as trims, templates and numerous elements of his design development. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS
A man and a woman untangling long, linen threads on the back of a woollen jacket while another woman untangles threads on the front of the jacket. There is a stand with camera equipment mounted on it in the background.
From left, Akira Isogawa, with MAAS’s Suzanne Chee and Kristina Stankovski, untangle linen threads on a garment being photographed for the book that accompanies this exhibition. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovksi, MAAS

So much more goes into the making of an exhibition like this than meets the eye. More than 40 people across 15 teams contributed, including teams from project management, photography, workshop, multimedia, marketing, communications, development and events.

Distilling 25 years of creative output by one of our country’s most loved designers into a 700 m2 space is a bit of a challenge. To truly honour his work, we also had to ensure we balanced Akira’s passion for craftsmanship and traditional Japanese aesthetics, with what is ultimately and uniquely his ode to the Australian lifestyle.

A man holding a coathanger from which drapes a blue and white patterned silk top. The man has a broad smile.
Me, waiting to position one of Akira’s kimono silk ‘shibori’ garments. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovksi, MAAS

So, after you’ve visited the exhibition or read the accompanying book, drop us a comment on this blog and let us know if we succeeded in achieving that balance.

Written by Roger Leong, Senior Curator, December 2018

4 responses to “Serenely Akira: from storyboard to exhibition

  • Totally fabulous exhibition. In awe of the creativity, fabric manipulation and techniques used. Absolutely wonderful!

    • Hi Danika
      thank you very much. I’m so glad you enjoyed the exhibition and Akira’s beautiful work. Roger Leong, MAAS

  • Hello
    I have just returned to Canada after spending most of January in Australia – amazingly beautiful landscape, architecture, history and culture! The Powerhouse in Sydney was very helpful in adding to my understanding of place.

    Enjoyed the Amira Isogawa exhibit – beautiful creations meaningfully presented. I am looking for a piece of information from the exhibit – a small circular template for what I think was called a shibori stitch that was used to make a gathered “rosette” or bauble of fabric that made up the upper portion of a flowing bodice. After I left I tried to find information on this fabric texture technique online but have been unsuccessful.

    Thank you for your time and for a truly inspiring exhibit.


    Jeff Vasey

    • Hi Jeff
      thank you for your kind comments and so glad you enjoyed the exhibition. The template allows the maker to pencil spiral lines on the fabric which are then followed through with quite loose stitches and short intervals which are then gathered. The resulting spiral gathers are then pinned into place and the threads secured with the pins. The maker then sews through the fabric folds/ gathers to permanently secure them in place. I’ll see if I can find a reference in a book and let you know. I hope this is of some help.
      kind regards

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