Designer Tadashi Shoji embraces plus size
“SHE signed it for me – she is so cute! So sweet!” the designer Tadashi Shoji gushed as he lovingly clutched a piece of paper to his chest. On it was the original sketch he had made of the gown that the actress Octavia Spencer had worn to the Academy Awards in February. Next to the drawing of the gown, an elaborately draped white sheath covered in sparkly beads, Spencer had signed her name, along with the words: “Love you!” Spencer would go on to take home an Oscar for her supporting role in The Help But even if she hadn’t, her dress would have been a winner on Hollywood’s biggest night, landing her on many a best-dressed list. In addition to its feminine elegance, the garment was praised for the way it transformed Spencer’s voluptuous curves into more slimming contours.
“She’s not a thin-thin girl, so I had to give the illusion of her as tall and thin,” said Shoji, 64.
The diminutive Japanese designer, whose close-cropped hair is speckled with gray, was at his studio near downtown Los Angeles, sitting in a Zenlike showroom that was minimally decorated with an orchid and Japanese art. The only blast of colour was Shoji himself, who was wearing a cobalt blue cardigan and a pink polo shirt buttoned up to his neck.
“And she is always conscious of her upper arms, so I wanted to hide that,” he added of Spencer, taking a delicate sip of green tea that had been delivered by two assistants who bowed ever so slightly as they left the room.
Shoji is not a household name, but for years women whose silhouettes don’t conform to sample sizes have sought out his relatively affordable evening wear (his dresses retail for $400 to $900) at department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. A fan of stretchy, non-constrictive fabrics and patterns that prize comfort and wearability, Shoji does not discriminate against size or age. (His motto is “17 to 70.”) While most designers don’t deign to make a garment larger than a Size 10 or 12, Shoji’s pieces run up to Size 16, and, in some cases, 24 or “queen size,” as he puts it.
But since the debut of his higher-end runway collection at New York Fashion Week in 2007, Shoji, like Bradley Bayou before him, has quietly become a go-to designer not just for the masses, but for celebrities who aren’t cut out for the latest bodice-clenching creations from Prada or Balenciaga. His following is particularly strong among plus-size black stars, like Queen Latifah, Oprah Winfrey and Mo’Nique, who wore an electric blue gown from Shoji’s 2010 spring collection to that year’s Academy Awards, where she won best supporting actress for the film “Precious.” “That was a big surprise,” Shoji said of Mo’Nique’s gown, which was his Oscar debut. “Mine was a backup dress. She had another designer designing, and then the morning she tried it on, she didn’t like it and the stylist didn’t like it, so she wore my dress.” At this year’s Oscars, Shoji’s name was again evoked on the red carpet, as members of the fashion police ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Spencer’s dress.
“It fit her body beautifully,” said the fashion stylist Jessica Paster. “She looked absolutely stunning.” The enthusiasm is still being felt. In the weeks since, Shoji said that he has been fielding a barrage of calls from stylists, international buyers (his collections are sold in 4,000 department stores in 40 countries), and “some girl who wants to wear one of my dresses to a wedding – just a regular customer.” But his biggest devotees remain his clients – who, it should be noted, also include wasp-waisted stars like Kate Beckinsale, who wore a gauzy, cream-coloured concoction from Shoji’s spring collection to announce the Independent Spirit Award nominations in November.
Still, it is shapelier women like Gabourey Sidibe, another Oscar nominee for Precious, who most appreciate Shoji’s smoke-andmirrors ability to “turn your body into the type of silhouette you really want without having to get surgery,” said Sidibe, who has discussed her weight issues publicly, including a heart-to-heart with Winfrey.
His dresses “really hide exactly what it is you want to hide,” she continued, referring to the silk and chiffon she wore to the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in 2010. “It made me feel like a superhero.” Asked about the designer’s following among black women, Sidibe attributed it to the fact that “African-American women are possibly more curvy.” But, she added, “there aren’t any secret, black meetings where we’re all whispering his name, or anything like that.” In an e-mail, Spencer – who, according to Shoji, cried when she first saw her Oscar dress – wrote that his designs “don’t discriminate against those of us with fuller figures but accentuate our positives.” “Other designers aren’t used to cutting for women my size,” she wrote.
As Wendi Ferreira, who along with her sister, Nicole Ferreira, helps to style Spencer, put it, “For women like Octavia, Givenchy and Chanel are not an option.” Indeed. Apart from a handful of designers like Diane Von Furstenberg, David Meister and Michael Kors, high fashion generally snubs women not kept alive by a diet of espresso and cigarettes, not just in terms of sizing, but design.
Discrimination against zaftig figures is so rampant, it’s often openly aired, as in the case of Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, who commented recently that the singer Adele is “a little too fat.” (He later apologised for the statement.) Enter Shoji, who prides himself on the kind of figure-flattering techniques – draping, ruching (gathering fabric to form ripples) and shutter pleats – that guide the eye away from Pilates-resistant paunches and wobbly upper arms, and whose choice of fabric seems more appropriate for a Nike factory than a fashion house.
Pointing to a mannequin dressed in a Chantilly lace cocktail dress, Shoji said that the fabric underneath the lace was soft jersey.
“Usually, a woven fabric doesn’t give, but we do jersey fabric, so it gives,” he said. “Or Lycra, or soft chiffon. Everything is meant to stretch. Even when it’s beaded lace or embroidered, there’s give.” He added: “There’s almost a T-shirt feeling to wearing my evening dresses.” Shoji has embraced this populist attitude ever since starting his business in 1982 after “failing,” he said, as an aspiring artist in Japan. He went to art school in Tokyo and worked as an assistant to the avantgarde artist Jiro Takamatsu, before deciding to move on to fashion. Based on the West Coast instead of New York, with boutiques in the strip-mall meccas of Orange County, Calif., and Las Vegas, he has always kept a distance from, and is something of a rebuke to, Seventh Avenue’s clubby elitism.
“I think maybe because I’m from Japan,” Shoji said. “It’s a Japanese way of thinking, that I give value for my merchandise. So I don’t want to sell unnecessarily expensive dresses and make just 10 or 20 and then feel satisfied. I want to design for real women who can afford my dresses.” Even his decision to start a runway collection and become a regular at Fashion Week had less to do with ego than commerce.
Shoji said it was a way to drive his global department store business, which he said accounts for nearly half of his $60 million annual revenue. This year he plans to expand his reach even further by opening two boutiques in China, where he already has a showroom.
Not that he makes any attempt to hide how tickled he is by the Oscar fuss. His eyes practically welled up as he recalled how Spencer thanked him not only on the red carpet but backstage after the show.
And will he be dressing more nominees next year? Shoji’s eyes widened like a child’s, and he let out a delighted chortle.
“I don’t know!” he said. “I hope! I wish!