For Singaporean-Japanese label Ametsubi, it's the differences that bind
It would be great to be able to say that Elizabeth Soon and Keita Ebihara, partners-in-crime creatively and romantically, boast a seamless partnership. The kind you see in movies where one finishes the other's sentences, or in this case, complete each other's design sketches. Heck, that'll be truly amazing, but Singapore-born Soon and Ebihara who hails from Japan are testament to reality. Their young label Ametsubi symbolises the duo's desire to converge, in more ways than one.
Soon and Ebihara met while pursuing design educations abroad. When it was time to return home, came the question: Which home? "The start of our own label was also down to us wanting to be in one place together. After Milan, Keita would return to Japan while I would go back to Singapore. In a way, Ametsubi is also for us as a couple," Soon shared. The manufacturing expertise needed for the label took them to Japan — in which the pair have opted to remain outside of the country's famous neon-lit cities, and closer to nature.
Geographically, Soon and Ebihara now made sense, with Ametsubi as a common goal. But what of roles and work flow? The two have chosen to operate in tandem, versus one or the other spearheading the creative or business aspects. Soon admits laughingly: "We do everything together, although we fight a lot." For example, "A sketch is just an idea; it doesn't explain how an item is made and how you want it to feel. These elements are hard to communicate," she said, referring to her garment drawings that sometimes puzzle Ebihara, the better artist between the two. Soon chimes in that their idea of what women want too, requires bridging, and he brings up the fact that the history, climate and environment of their respective home countries have shaped their identities — and hence, influencing their designs — differently.
In theory, Ametsubi might read like a long shot. However, the young couple is not just exceedingly self-aware but enterprising, too. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and that of their better half. They've worked the push and pull of their partnership to their advantage, and have big dreams for breaking into the international scene. In the face of their dedication — to one another, and to growing Ametsubi from Japan without forsaking the Singapore market — their differences becomes all but white noise. Rather, impetus for the label's lift off as we've gathered from a chat with the duo post-Singapore Fashion Awards 2017 (SFA 2017), below.
How and why did you get into designing clothing?
Keita Ebihara (KE): I studied fashion in Japan and then Milan. I learnt how to draft, how to sew, and it was through a competition that I received a scholarship that lead to options of me furthering my studies in Europe. I went to Milan and was there for almost two years.
Elizabeth Soon (ES): I was actually trained in music, and I thought I'd do something related to it. But after finishing my 'O' Levels, I realised that music was just a hobby. I was more interested in learning to make clothes; creating something.
KE: I think I was about 16 or 17 years old when I really realised I liked drawing and making stuff in general.
ES: He is very solitary. He has his own studio where he just sits in his own world.
KE: Then, I'd say I was more of a painter.
Having both furthered your fashion education in Europe, why did you want to start your own label instead of training at an established brand?
KE: I did do an internship in Milan at Neil Barrett, but the timing didn't work out. I thought the chief designer was great, but he was pulled to Lanvin or Saint Laurent — if memory serves — when I'd just joined. Internally, the brand was going through a tough time without him. There were lots of disagreements within...
ES: For me, I just wanted to work. The way I see it, the start of our own label was also down to us wanting to be in one place together. After Milan, Keita would return to Japan while I would go back to Singapore. In a way, Ametsubi is also for us, being a couple.
"We do everything together — although we fight a lot."
What does the name Ametsubi mean?
ES: 'Ame' means rain, which also represents the first difference between Keita and I — he hates rain while I love it, and this stems from growing up in Japan versus Singapore. And then 'Ametsubu', our label's name with a 'u', kind of means 'water droplet'. Since we met in Italy, we changed the last character to an 'i', which gives us Ametsubi.
What roles do you each take on for Ametsubi?
ES: We do everything together, although we fight a lot (laughs). We're both designers, but our opinions, backgrounds and cultures are different. Even our approach to design is different. For example, being a man and a woman, our ideas of what women want to wear or look like, differs. Perhaps, I'm unrealistic sometimes. I'm not great at sketching while Keita is great at it, so he doesn't understand what I draw on occassion. A sketch is just an idea; it doesn't explain how an item is made and how you want it to feel. These elements are hard to communicate. As such, our design process takes a long time at the moment.
Does being Singaporean and Japanese influence your work? How do these two identities manifest in Ametsubi?
KE: Identify stems from your origin; your environment. If we talk history, we were exposed to fashion from Europe and America — from the latter, workwear pieces — in Japan, but in Singapore, it could be said that your ideas of clothing beyond that of local cultures first came from the British. I think such varying influences makes for unique character in Ametusbi.
ES: Also, the climates do affect our style identity. Japan has four seasons, Singapore has one. We dress accordingly.
How would you describe the voice of your label?
ES: We're super detail-focused. It is about function. We find that there is no point in going crazy in aesthetic as wearability comes first for Ametsubi. If a garment doesn't need pockets, we will not include pockets. We pay close attention to how seams are constructed, as it affects freedom of movement and how well it drapes, fits, and also, how it looks like it fits. We're not luxury nor high fashion, but neither are we super casual. We've found our sweet spot now, and I'd describe it as 'high daily'; staples in your wardrobe with mileage and are super versatile, but yet, they're not totally barren and have some semblance of "design".
Why did you choose to base the label in Japan?
ES: It's simple — we do our manufacturing there.
KE: In Singapore, it is hard to find ready the right equipment and factories for production. Also, fashion and its seasons in Japan are more similar to that of Milan — where we both furthered our studies.
ES: There are so many types and ways to manufacture. Within one collection, we produce with say, four or five different factories. They specialise in different things. In Singapore, we don't have that many options. If we're entirely based here, those are limitations for our label as at the end of the day, you can only design what you can actually produce. In Japan, we can even create our own fabrics, which we do. We can also control the quality really well; the finishing of a piece. [The finishing of a garment] is key to determining its price point and how it is perceived and valued.
What are your thoughts on the fashion industry in Singapore?
ES: I think Singapore brands don't get enough exposure overseas. The international fashion scene doesn't know about Singapore labels.
KE: But perhaps, the reason is also that for a Singapore label to go international, you do have to follow their timeline and system that's already in place. Again, it's back to designing for seasons.
ES: To sum it up, if you want to grow a brand in Singapore, you have to cater to your local market in terms of how your products are weather-appropriate, which then means you differ from the rest of the world. It is then hard to get out of the Singapore framework to go international.
"There needs to be mutual understanding between a designer and his/her audience."
Are locals supportive of Singapore designers and brands in your opinion?
ES: I think the fashion industry in Singapore is still developing slowly. Brands are improving, and the market is becoming more educated too. However, it is all about a matching of pace; there has to be balance. You can't design something too fantastical as I think it is hard for the local audience to appreciate at this point in time. But on the other hadnd, you do need enough to convince them to pick you above international names. There needs to be mutual understanding between a designer and his/her audience.
You design spring/summer and fall/winter collections, but you're planning to sell in Singapore too. What's the game plan?
ES: We're still working it out. It could either be to tweak our designs and fabrications slightly to suit the weather in Singapore, or, to totally do a separate collection for the Singapore market, apart from our main line.
Which comes first: Producing your fabric or designing the garment?
KE: It's both!
ES: Design is never really linear. When you think of ideas, it tends to be a network; a mindmap, and there is always more than one way to actualise it. Design too, is like that that. We simply try to find the best route for maximum effect. In context, if we've designed a jacquard — a fabric — first, then that becomes the limitation to the garment design. This is because certain parts of the fabric could lends itself better to the seams, and you need to work that out visually. If we have a design that came before its fabric, then that in turn, becomes the limitation. It is down to your intent at that moment, I would say.
What does the SFA 2017 award mean to you?
KE: We're thankful! We don't want to ignore the Singapore market although we're based in Japan. It has always been our intention to do something in Singapore eventually. With SFA, we feel like we have entered the market in a small way having made connections through that.
ES: There are some people curious about us now, in Singapore. Also, for our families, it means that their emotional and financial support that they've given us is all worth it. It is never easy to support a designer's dream. This award is something tangible in return for what they've poured into us.
Shop Ametsubi online from Singapore, March 2018 onwards.