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This past weekend, SOPH. founder Hirofumi Kiyonaga officially cut the proverbial ribbon to his first location outside of Japan on a busy Hong Kong street. For the past ten years, he has helmed the SOPH. network of brands that have included his flagship SOPHNET., the football-minded F.C.R.B. together with Nike and uniform experiment, a brand created with friend Hiroshi Fujiwara. An immediate demeanor of subtly, the soft-spoken Kiyonaga and Fujiwara sat down for a conversation regarding both Kiyonaga’s work with his three brands as well as his efforts on uniform experiment label with Fujiwara. For the brand who’s named is derived from the word sophistication, this interview sheds the proper light on the man behind some a seminal series of brands.
Interview: Eugene Kan
Photography: Cavan Mok
How did this whole notion of launching SOPH. Hong Kong begin? Were there certain conditions that were necessary to ensure that you would go ahead with the project?
Hirofumi Kiyonaga: We’ve been partners with I.T (Hong Kong fashion company) for a long time and they’ve carried our brand for many seasons. For us, it was a combination of this close relationship that helped facilitate the whole idea of opening a store in Hong Kong.
What has been your general plan for expansion both in and outside of Japan?
HK: We’ve taken a relatively non-aggressive approach in our expansion. We haven’t exhibited outside of Japan. Every move happens slowly and is very calculated to ensure we make the right decision. Maybe it’s an extension of my own personality. Much like our opportunities with I.T to open this Hong Kong flagship store, it was like a marriage of sorts when you just know everything has fallen in place.
In the past prior to starting SOPHNET., you worked under the tutelage of Jean Touitou of A.P.C. What would you consider your greatest lessons while working for him?
HK: A.P.C. as an acronym represents Atelier de Production et de Création. In its truest sense, this is what I learned. I realized that you need to create something on a more fundamental level and not just mindlessly produce clothing. As his apprentice, I learned quite a bit under his wing.
What’s has been your approach to design and everyday staples?
HK: If I look around, much of menswear’s foundation has already been cemented. Shirts, jackets, pants, they’ve all based on a pre-established pattern. Where my job lies is in re-arranging the design to create something new.
HF: What I wear each day is relatively similar. Maybe denim, a button-down, a checkered pattern or a knit. I don’t really go too much into suits.
How did the idea of creating uniform experiment come about?
Hiroshi Fujiwara: We were speaking amongst ourselves (Hirofumi-san) and discussed what sort of possibilities did we have. So we launched uniform experiment on the grounds of a brand inspired by the uniform aspect seen in fashion.
Among your three brands, F.C.R.B. is unequivocally on its own with a true sportswear aesthetic. However from the launch of uniform experiment until now, we’ve seen a different change in the brand’s direction and in some instances, compared to SOPHNET. they are quite similar and indistinguishable. What are your thoughts on ue’s development which has been less of a focus on the dressier side of things?
HK: As the name suggests, the brand has largely been an experiment. Aspects of our releases were testing our capabilities for both ourselves and the market. After seeing the direction and growth we tailored on future releases based on our past experiences.
HF: But we still aim to incorporate some suits, jackets and other traditional menswear pieces.
Having said that, do you feel that this is an issue that the lines are slightly blurred between SOPHNET. and uniform experiment?
HF: F.C.R.B. is in itself a brand that is most unlike the others. However between ue and SOPHNET., I think it’s best to think of it this way. uniform experiment falls under the SOPH. umbrella so there are bound to be some similarities.
HK: It’s hard to express via words, but if you look closely, there are details that differentiate the respective lines.
Maintaining three brands of relatively different themes and directions, what inspired you to branch out?
HK: From a direction stand-point, they are all reflections of my personal self. F.C.R.B. appeals to the massive football fan in me. uniform experiment appeals to the desire for a uniform in me and SOPHNET. in itself is another label that is perhaps a little more casual.
Obviously by launching a mock-football team as the inspiration behind F.C.R.B., you’re an avid football fan. We’ve seen Dunhill work with the Japanese National Team, what are your thoughts on designing something for the Blue Samurais?
HK: I look at a lot of kit designs for many big clubs, and they are all wonderfully designed. I don’t see any need for additional implementations or changes. However as it stands, adidas is the official partner with the Japanese National Team, I can only hope that they change sponsors from adidas to Nike.
Of the three brands, F.C.R.B. is perhaps the most easily acquirable due to the relation with Nike. However when the brand hits stores outside of Japan, it seems to be a bit lost on the consumer. Do you think that you (Hirofumi Kiyonaga) needs to be the subject of education to foreign markets about not only your exploits but that of F.C.R.B.?
HK: It’s a difficult question to answer… Nike has few designers who straddle the line between their own fashion line and a sports-based lines so perhaps F.C.R.B. could benefit from some further marketing?
HF: Why don’t you make a real football team?
HK: [Laughs] I sponsor some teams now but maybe in the future I can actually launch a full-fledged team.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity Kiyo-san and Hiroshi-san.