The Japanese-Brazilian Fashion designer Jum Nakao (b. 1966 in Sao Paulo, the second largest Japanese community in the world) is a conceptual designer, meaning that ideas tend to take precedence over function. Nakao’s daring collections, which are characterised by austere, minimal design, monochromatic colours, architectural shapes, and the use of unconventional materials, such as dustbin bags or paper, can be seen to reference his Japanese heritage, and the work of designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto in the early 1980s. He has produced many projects that are independent of fashion, and exhibited at art galleries and museums internationally, including Musée Galliera in Paris, MoMu in Antwerp, Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, and most recently, participated in ‘From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the twenty-first century’ at Somerset House, London in July 2012.
In the early stages of his career Nakao was interested in computer electronics but moved into fashion in 1983, which he found to be the ideal medium for his artistic production. Clothing occupies the boundary between people and the world, and for Nakao, provides a means of interfering with reality and everyday life. He worked as a tailor for two years, creating clothes for different body types. This training was key to his understanding that ‘everybody has a pattern, every defect has a solution – a process where you can, through more organic and straight lines, compensate and create new shapes’. Designing is a form of problem solving for Nakao and he approaches it in a rational, quasi-scientific manner. From the outset, Nakao has sought ways of designing clothing that addresses contemporary concerns and sensibilities, utilising digital technology and sophisticated, handcraft techniques to establish a dialogue between thread, pattern, the body and its surrounding milieu.
Nakao applies aesthetic and working practices to examine the very nature of fashion, and his designs have attracted a critical and discerning international clientele. An example can be seen in the highly acclaimed collection ‘Costura do Invisible’ (Sewing the Invisible) that showcased at Sao Paulo Fashion Week in summer 2004. Constructed entirely from vegetable paper, Nakao’s haunting and delicate fairy-tale designs were embossed with low and high relief-like patterns, decorated with lace cut-outs meticulously cut by lasers, and assembled by hand into intricate origami folds. Elaborate fashion styles from the nineteenth century were combined with black plastic hats inspired by Playmobile toy figures. Despite over seven hundred hours of manual labour and the use of one ton of paper, following the seven-minute catwalk performance the models created a sensation by ripping up their garments. Nakao has commented on the collection: ‘we destroy everything, to show that there is something more important, something much more lasting than what people see and value at first sight’. The designer has said that he was challenging mass-market perceptions of fashion and commenting on its ephemeral quality. He encouraged discussion and debate amongst the audience by creating something that had numerous interpretative possibilities. Endowing paper with a newfound meaningfulness, Nakao’s work is resonant with the Portuguese word Gambiarra, which has no English translation but is used colloquially throughout Brazil to refer to a makeshift contraption or improvised solution. Gambiarra is believed to be a direct result of the unpredictability of everyday life in Brazil, in which things often do not occur as planned; this requires Brazilians to be inventive and agile. For Nakao, more than simply a versatile material with many uses, paper becomes a cultural marker indicating a distinctively Brazilian attitude based on making do with what is readily available.