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The Fashion Designer Making Arka Out of Offcuts

BEFORE THE JAPANESE fashion designer Tomo Koizumi started making giant ruffled dresses out of neon-bright polyester organza — sometimes up to 90 yards of it for a single gown, worn by singers like Lady Gaga and Sam Smith — he spent nearly a decade in obscurity creating costumes for local performers, many of whom worked in Tokyo’s underground queer nightlife scene. Before that, Koizumi, 35, studied sculpture, painting and drawing at Chiba University, in the suburb where he grew up, hoping to become a children’s art teacher. Last summer, the gallerist Yukiko Mizutani heard him talk about his background on television and sought out the designer, one of fashion’s rising talents, to tell him that he should try being a visual artist himself.

But beyond merely representing him, Mizutani also offered the use of a gallery she runs in Shinagawa, an industrial neighborhood turned arts hub in the city’s south, so that Koizumi would have room to experiment with nonwearable work. (“I didn’t have space in my dressmaking studio” in Shinjuku, he says. “And oil paint stinks.”) He’s spent six months creating 30 or so pieces; his first solo show will be held there this December. Most are constructed using leftover fabric, which he sews into small or wall-filling rectangles, then smears with layer upon layer of oil and acrylic paint, which collects like alien goo within the folds of the ruffles. The artist initially used brushes, but it took too long — the crenulated surfaces are a few inches deep — so now, like Jackson Pollock, he uses his hands.

Koizumi’s “Forest” (2022).Credit…Courtesy of the artist

One month, inspired by readymades and sustainability, he covered an old sofa and some side tables in the same painted polyester fabric; the remaining pieces — including a pair of 15-foot-long rainbow banners and a matching adult-size teddy bear — are also recycled, repurposed from a retail pop-up he held in Osaka (his dresses are typically custom-ordered and not sold in stores). “I loved rainbows as a child, even though I didn’t know what they represented,” says Koizumi. He decided to include shades beyond the customary seven, so his rainbows “feel even more inclusive.”

ON A HOT June afternoon, several paintings are arranged in grids on the cement floor “like a garden,” says the 26-year-old curator Takahiro Kurihara — albeit one that looks a bit sun scorched, a plot of mottled greens and wilting umbers. Flowers are, in fact, Koizumi’s main motif. His mother has long worked for a company that produces hanawa, traditional funeral floral arrangements. Like many artists, he sees his abstracted blooms as symbolic of life and death, and he’s particularly influenced by animism, the Shinto concept that all things — from plants to paintings — possess their own soul-like energy.

Koizumi’s “Rainbow” (2022).Credit…Courtesy of the artist

“When I think about flowers, I think about my mother, which makes me think about love,” he explains. “But when I think about love, I think about my boyfriend. But when I think about my boyfriend, it reminds me of the fear that he might cheat on me, or even leave me. It’s all connected,” he says, going back to his feelings of abandonment in childhood after his parents divorced. (A few weeks after telling me this, Koizumi and his boyfriend broke up.) “Even though the things I make are joyous and happy, that fear makes the works feel more layered,” he adds. He lifts his shorts to reveal a small tattoo: “Sadness,” it says in English across his thigh, next to an outline of a Japanese cartoon character and a cookie from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.

Despite all that, Koizumi seems upbeat. In September, he’ll present his clothes in Paris, where he plans to show something new: painted dresses. Afterward, he wants to find an international gallery. Lately, he’s been studying kakejiku, the ancient paper scrolls that people put up during tea ceremonies to bring the outside into the room. Koizumi’s paintings are similarly ephemeral — most have no rigid backing and flutter back and forth in the wind when lifted from the ground. He’d love to see one inside a tearoom, where, like paper craft work, it might come to represent nature’s shifting beauty. Right now, as Mizutani’s gallery decides how to organize the forthcoming show, many of the paintings have been haphazardly stapled to the walls. “But maybe,” says Koizumi, “we should just hang them outdoors.”

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