Repetto - Knitted sweater, polyamide and elastane leggings, lycra hood, leather zizi shoes


By Armelle Leturcq

Arriving in Paris in the 1990s, Japanese designer Nao Okawa was determined to make a career in the French capital. After studying at Esmod, he joined the creative team surrounding Jean-Paul Gaultier during his glory years. Next, he set up shop as a freelancer and worked for a range of ready-to-wear brands in accessories and footwear: Barbara Bui, Marithé and François Girbaud, Chloé… Today, he sits at the helm of Repetto, where he is tasked with adapting his innovative vision and vast knowledge of technical materials to the world of dance. Spotlight on Repetto’s Athleisure collection, imagined by Nao Okawa.

How did you get your start in fashion?

My mother wanted to be a stylist, but gave up on it along the way. Her father was a famous Japanese pastry chef. My father’s father built temples. I grew up with a heritage tied to handiwork and artistry. My family loved craftsmanship. I started out wanting to be an architect like my uncle. But when I was looking at fashion magazines when I was sixteen, I realized I could construct a garment just like I would construct a building. So I decided to become a designer. I absolutely wanted to go to Paris. I didn’t want to work in Japan. I studied at the only French fashion school in Japan, Esmod Tokyo. I spent a year and three months there before going to Paris in 1992 to start my second year of school. In my third year, I double majored in menswear and womenswear. At the end of the year, I won first prize in both categories. I graduated first in my class. Working in Japan was too easy for me, and I wanted a challenge. One day, Jean-Paul Gaultier offered me an internship at his design studio. That was in 1994, so it was still the height of Gaultier. After three weeks Gualtier asked to see my book. He wanted to hire me on the spot. But like all foreigners, I needed a work visa. I only had a student visa, so it was complicated. So I did more internships at other places, went back to Gaultier for a second internship and then returned to Japan. Since he liked my work, he wanted to try to hire me again. But I had an accident and spent two weeks in the hospital, while I was supposed to keep working on Gaultier accessories. There were no cell phones or internet back then… I had to take inspiration from whatever was in my hospital room. There was a bed, a cover, a quilt, a pillow… Being Japanese, I knew how to do origami, so I made things with paper I found lying around. When Jean-Paul found out what I was able to make at the hospital, he was blown away, and I officially started working for him the next day. I spent five years there.

And after Jean-Paul Gaultier?

After Gaultier I went to Barbara Bui, and at the same time, I did accessories for Ungaro’s men’s collection. I also freelanced for Marithé and François Girbaud. Then I stopped working at Bui and Ungaro to start doing shoes at Chloé, during the Phoebe Philo years. I started at Chloé during Stella McCartney’s last collection. I stayed there for three seasons. I was working for the European market and Japan, too. 

Is sketching an important part of your process?

Yes, I sketch. When I’m designing I need to see the volumes, so I do material tests. I can’t work exclusively on a flat piece of paper. I need to bring the material to life on a body. As soon as I touch the material, I know what I’m going to design.

How long have you managed the Athleisure line at Repetto?

In 2014, Repetto’s Dance Manager Dorothée Blacher contacted me to help take dance in an innovative new direction. Even before our collaboration, she was impressed by the pure lines of my work, which are related to my Japanese heritage, and my knowledge of technical materials. Right away we felt the urge to take things further, by exploring new ways of focusing the creative process on movement. Today, the Athleisure line includes textiles and sneakers that strengthen the brand’s technical, innovative and modern dimension.

It’s true the brand’s DNA is dance, which is athletic.

Yes, but dance is not just classical ballet: movement has become our philosophy. Dance is an art that demands a physical condition similar to a professional athlete. The line between art and sport is disappearing…

Dance is inspiring, even at Dior for Maria Grazia Chiuri. 

Yes, it’s true. Dance liberates the body, and so clothes, too. Dance has always been a major source of inspiration for brands.

How did you put together your Athleisure collection for Repetto?

The Athleisure collection is divided into three parts: Performance, Wellness, Lifestyle. For the Performance part, I use technical materials: moisture-wicking, breathable, stretch extension that adapt to movement in dance or any sport. I often seek out recycled materials, but technical materials are still hard to develop in an eco-responsible way. Protecting nature is one of my concerns. I’m continuing my research in this area, because perfecting these materials takes a long time… I also use functional materials that are easy to wash and quick to dry, which saves energy. For the Wellness portion, I use materials that are soft to touch, pleasant and adapted to disciplines like yoga and meditation. They are pieces you can wear inside or outside, with ample volumes. For the Lifestyle portion, our goal is to integrate technical materials into women’s everyday activities, including innovative materials and processes that offer extraordinary comfort while maintaining a strong feminine aspect in my work.

What are your inspirations and color choices? 

Before designing anything, I think about iconic dance garments like a wrap top, skirts, tutus, ribbons. I also like flowing and transparent light materials to contract with more rigid and supple materials like stretch fabric. I focus primarily on the movement involved in dance, while adding an athletic, simple and elegant touch. The materials that envelop the body, as well as the drape, create movement in the clothes. This season, I wanted to reinvent warm-up knits by adding a graphic effect through a play of raised stripes. I also included a transparent thread that adds light and femininity to the line. In my research, there are volumes, squares, the kimono of my home country, and I even mix East and West, with the same urban, romantic and contemporary Parisian spirit, using details from dance, knots, pleats, ribbons, etc. One detail I added is an elastic ribbon or athletic stripe that lends a graphic style. I add a lot of volume in my clothes, which can be tightened or transformed with hems or built-in belts. In terms of colors, I use a pink color scheme to guide my collection, which emphasizes the dance imagery and the DNA of Repetto. Pink, gray, black and white are part of the brand’s identity. This season features a pop inspiration – yellow, purple, and a palette of soft, light, fresh and poetic pastels.

What constraints are involved in making athletic clothes? 

Athletic clothes often have a unisex style that is not very elegant. I try to break with these codes to include a feminine aspect. Even if I use masculine volumes or silhouettes, I contrast it with details or materials to create a more chic, feminine style. I focus on unimpeded movement, and I pay special attention to finishing work to ensure real comfort. Clothing should cling to the body like a second skin. My work is also light because we travel so much today.

You recently designed a line of sneakers for the brand?

Yes, two lines even. We started over two years ago with an ultra-light sneaker integrating our research on technical ballet shoes. We were only able to develop such an ambitious project by using knit mesh: our dance sneaker is 125 grams of comfort. For this season, we decided to launch a collection of urban sneakers on the theme: BREAK THE CODES X KEEP THE CODES. The idea is to strike a balance between the instantly identifiable Repetto codes and a new signature that is more athletic and contemporary (a new sole, two-tone colors, branded elastics, etc.). But obviously the challenge has only just begun…

Repetto – Seamless bra, jacket with zip and perforation, tulle skirt, sneakers, Tudor – Watch Black bay bronze with fabric bracelet

Repetto – Viscose jumpsuit, nylon jacket, bag, high sneakers, Rayban – Metal glasses with miror lenses
Tudor – Watch Black bay bronze with fabric bracelet, Stylist’s own bracelet and necklace

Repetto – Leotard with mesh back, polyamide panties with braces, high stretch pants, sneakers
Tudor – Watch Black bay bronze with fabric bracelet

Repetto – Leotard with mesh back and sleeves, leather zizi shoes

Repetto – stretch académique, mesh jacket with zip, high sneakers, Fred – White gold and diamonds Calibre necklace

Photographer : Frank Perrin
Stylist : Armelle Leturcq
Model : Nikki Vonsee @Viva
Make up : Aya Fujita using TAKEDA Brush @Calliste agency
Hair : Paolo Ferreira using Leonor Greyl @Calliste agency
Casting : David Chen

Stylist assistant : Pauline Grosjean

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