Fashion designer Tia Tanaka on flowers, Studio Ghibli and self-expression

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The work of fashion designer Tia Tanaka centres a vibrant, narrative approach, drawing on a love of animation and her personal artistic expression.

This is apparent in the LA-based artist’s Central Saint Martins graduate collection, entitled Spirit of the Garden, which is inspired by her grandma’s garden. In creating these garments, Tanaka balances digital technologies with a peaceful connection to nature, recreating the flowers and with them a sense of childhood nostalgia through virtual designs and bringing together these different worlds.

The Blooming Fuschia piece from Tanaka’s Spirit of the Garden project featured in our Aesthetic shoot with artist Lous and the Yakuza. Here, we catch up with the designer to find out the process behind her pieces, hear her advice for young, aspiring fashion designers and learn what inspires her.

Designs: Tia Tanaka. Photographer: Kean Tyrone Tagaro. Models: Charlotte Kateera, Eleanor Morton-Smith, Donna Kim

Firstly, what is your name and what do you do?

I am Tia Mai Tanaka, a womenswear graduate from Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion. I’m currently based in Los Angeles, and I am interested in exploring digital fields and incorporating them into fashion.

Your website mentions the “essence” of your grandma’s garden, could you tell me a little bit more about this project?

The collection Spirit of the Garden was greatly inspired by my late grandmother who passed away in 2018. My grandmother had a huge green thumb – I have fond memories of helping her in the garden as a child and eating mulberries directly from her tree. After her passing, my mother cared for many of my grandmother’s plants and re-homed them in her own garden. My collection is an interpretation of the love of nature being passed down to my mother and now placed into my hands.

Currently, I am working to use digital technology to create personalised designs for virtual spaces. I believe that virtual clothing – easily fit and customised to the user’s needs – will push the boundaries of style whilst being more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than physical fashion. That said, it is important to be mindful of the balance that people will want to have tangible experiences; I am currently exploring ideas in which I can combine the experience of couture and virtual reality together to deliver a tangible product alongside the digital garment.

Left: photo: Kean Tyrone Tagaro; model: Donna Kim. Right: photo from Tia Tanaka’s runway collection

Animation is a regular reference for you. What animated films or images can you remember connecting with growing up?

Growing up as a Japanese-American, my childhood was often filled with a collection of films from Studio Ghibli. Watching Hayao Miyazaki’s films fostered my appreciation for nature, strong women, and overall love for art. As I got older, I’ve come to realise how watching those films as a child further inspired my desire to become an artist. Although I quickly learned my skills were not in animation, as I had first hoped, it helped me understand my own personal strengths and potentials.

What I love most about Ghibli films is the consistency and intense thought process that goes into every detail of each film. Animation is not just drawings and fashion is not just clothes. When creating my collections, my goal isn’t to create the greatest look one has ever seen, but to capture an emotion and story within each look. I enjoy making garments along with creating video and music to capture the exact feeling I hope to invoke in others.

Do you have a favourite animated movie ever?

The Bee Movie. It’s completely factually inaccurate and probably not as funny as I think it is, but it’s my comfort movie that never gets old no matter how many times I watch it. It defies anything I said that inspires me but I enjoy that the movie is a timeless nonsensical piece that was probably made for no reason other than that… they could.

Designs by Tia Tanaka. Model: Eleanor Morton-Smith

Talk us through your graduate collection and the influence of flowers of petals on your work?

Each look in the collection is an interpretation of a specific flower in my family’s garden and specific moment of life for the flower. Fuchsias are a favourite to the hummingbird, a representation of my grandma and a protector of the home. Fuchsias are a symbol of elegance often called the ‘fairy flower’. The piece, Dying Fuschia, emphasises the cycle of life and new beginnings. Similar to the passing of the garden, the flowers return to the earth and bloom again another year.

In homage to my grandmother, I lastly created the piece Visiting Hummingbird as her presence remains eternal but in constant passing of the garden.

Do you have a flower that has always stood out for you?

Personally, I love cherry blossoms. A symbol of rebirth and hope, they bloom once a year lasting only a week – but that is what I find beautiful about it. They strike a feeling of nostalgia, beauty, and short lived moments in life. During its full bloom and till its final days, the petals cover the sky and ground with varying light tones of pink.

Are there fashion designers who inspire you through the way they lift from the natural world?

I like to take my inspiration from outside of fashion; I’m inspired by a multitude of different artists from musicians to playwrights. I believe it allows me to gain new and different perspectives that I can further incorporate into fashion design. Living and breathing only fashion can create such lackluster and recycled ideas; both things I try to avoid when working on my personal projects.

"When creating my collections, my goal isn’t to create the greatest look one has ever seen, but to capture an emotion and story within each look"

Lous and the Yakuza, Crack Magazine, 2022. Photo: Michelle Helena Janssen, Shirt: Tia Tanaka, Skirt: Masha Popova, Tights: Kristin Son, Gloves: Kristin Son, Rings: Sara ChyanDosisg6c

Could you talk us through the technical process of the piece worn by Lous and the Yakuza?

The piece, Blooming Fuchsia was inspired by the fuchsias in my family garden. My goal was to find a material that was able to capture and maintain the movement and shapes of the flower. I initially dabbled with bio resin and algae jelly but settled on leather, a material I had never touched before. I learned the hard way that leatherwork has a completely different process than regular sewing. However, it was a great self learning experience that I ended up really enjoying.

Through trial and error, I created organic shapes from chicken wire to use as molds for the leather to dry on. By wetting and drying vegetable tanned sheepskin leather, I was able to create petals that kept their shape while also allowing gravity to organically let the petals sit however they wanted to. Each petal was hand painted, leather paint edged, and leather stitched together.

Despite looking light the petals each weighed a ton, and attaching said petals to a bodice presented many challenges. Despite skepticism from my tutors, I was able to sturdily attach each petal to a bodice that was secured with multiple interfacings, snaps and loops. In order to prolong the life and minimize the space of the garment, I made every petal completely detachable.

Although the look is not exactly everyday wear, one of my key goals as a designer is to keep in mind the accessibility and function of every garment I create. Separating the pieces allows easier care, wash, and fixing in the long run. As the fashion industry is one of the biggest environmental profligates, I believe it is important for aspiring designers to keep in mind the longevity of garments. Designing with intent rather than waste.


Left: Model: Donna Kim, Right: Model: Charlotte Kateera.

You’ve studied in London then LA. How would you compare the looks of those places?

In my opinion, LA embraces people’s personal expressions more than London. Although I saw plenty of eclectic styles while at university, the average Londoner would dress quite conservative. In LA, it is very easy to spot many different styles on streets. I feel because LA culture is often a lot more easy-going, people feel more comfortable to be able to dress how they want, even if that means walking outside just in a bikini or a full-blown dinosaur suit.

However, style and concept can be very different. The fashion of London comes often with conceptual purpose: those who dress, dress with intent. Both have their own personal flares, but I definitely found myself second guessing my fashion choices before walking out on the London streets.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring designers? Is formal educational training essential?

Nowadays, simply being good at your craft no longer cuts it. We are required to be multi-talented stars: excellent speakers, social media advertisers, influencers, the list goes on. I don’t believe formal educational training is essential but it will be a strong guiding force in your journey if you choose to go down that path.

Attending a university prepares you for the realities of the industry and the expectations companies uphold you to. Although a little traumatising, the constant critiques and tight deadlines helped me realize the pressure that comes with being a designer. Formal education also allows you some time to see what you really want to do. Fashion design is such a broad term and there’s many specific departments to venture into. At the end of the day, I believe formal educational training only benefits those who truly put in the dedication and effort to succeed.

Each institution prioritizes specific departments within fashion, so it’s important to figure out what you want to do before applying to specific schools. With institutions such as London College of Fashion or Central Saint Martins, the emphasis is on self-directed learning. In the long run, connections and titles do mean a lot when applying for internships and jobs. Attending a fashion school will help open doors to opportunities that someone attempting to make it on their own might not get.

Ultimately, fashion is an extremely competitive industry and I find it’s often easy to listen too much to other’s opinions or become too engrossed in your own work and worth. It’s important to not lose sight of who you are and the personal needs to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy. The fashion industry is tough, but follow your instincts and do what you can do.

Follow Tia Tanaka here.

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