Reflecting the meaning of clothing | Exclusive interview with Sadako Mitera

December 10,2018

From the introduction of clothing at roughly 70000 years ago, it never loses the significance to people’s daily life. And we, as the creator and user of the clothing, never tired segmenting it, by gender, by season, by culture, and by the occasion. But each of the segment based on a default setting, which is the users are physically healthy and actively functional. But, what if they are not? What if the users are not assuptionaly usual.

Abandoning all these hypothetical assumptions, one designer has gone practically. Sadako Mitera, the proposer and pioneer of the design concept Universal Fashion, has broadened clothing design into the need of lack-of-attention groups, who are disabled, paralyzed, and unusual-sized.

Today, she talked with Luxe.CO, explained the genuine value of clothing from her point of view, as well as the necessity of universal fashion.

About Sadako Mitera

Professor Sadako Mitera is graduated from Wukukuna Women's University and received a PhD in Art Engineering from Kobe Design University. She is currently the professor and director of the graduate school of the Kobe Design University, and before teaching and researching, she has worked as a buyer, designer, and stylist at Kintetsu Department Store.

Sadako Mitera is currently engaged in research on universal fashion design, including senior clothing, disabled clothing and patient clothing. With more than 20 years of 3D anthropometric research and application, she has become one pioneer in the future development of the Japanese apparel industry and has received invitations of cooperation and personnel training from various major Japanese companies, such as Care Fashion, Toyota, DNP, and Kintetsu. In recent years, her research scope has expanded to the relationship between medicine and clothing, focusing on issues related to the clothing industry affected by society and the environment.

Initiated from the Great Hanshin Earthquake

The opportunity to initiate a universal fashion design can be traced back to the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. In 1994, Mitera joined the Kobe Design University as a lecturer, and in the second year she witnessed and experienced the earthquake. At the moment of death and life, she suddenly realized that she had only luxury brands wool coats, silk shirts, high-heels and other fashionable items, but she had nothing practical such as boots and sweaters, which can help her to run and survive. “I never thought about clothing also plays the role of protecting our bodies before."

Walking on the streets after the earthquake, Mitera found that when facing the natural disasters, elderly, children and disabled are most vulnerable groups, and their vulnerability, somehow relatedly applies to clothing as well. As a result, she began to reflect on the issue of the meaning of clothing to the human being.

What is clothing? The usage purpose is to suit the physical shape and protect the body. But from a certain point, marketing and sales have promoted a biased focus on the aesthetics rather than practicality. Mitera believes, despite the importance of aesthetics, the functionality is certainly indispensable.

With this thinking, Mitera further inspired by the concept of universal design came up by American architect Ronald Mace. She intended to extend this concept into fashion design by making clothing for elderly and disabled. "The current situation is that the trend is for young, functionality means nursing clothes, and the elderly clothing equates out-of-date. The gap is creating trending and practical clothing accessible for everyone, anyone has the right to dress up. "

What is Universal Design?

Universal design, coined by Ronald Mace,  is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. The Center for Universal Design expounds the following principles, including equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

Combining the universal design concept, the characteristics of universal fashion design include: expanding the user ground and makes it accessible for everyone, adjustable size, simple, safe, easy to wear, ergonomic, spacious shape and of functionality. Mitera pointed out that universal fashion should create a clothing environment and social structure that allows more people to enjoy life through clothing.

So, as universal fashion design, what is a good example? Mitera pointed five aspects:

  • Fit: people's body shape such as height, weight and measurements will change with ageing. Even if you simply change from a standing position to a sitting position, the body shape changes. The premise of the current fashion design is standing, not taking into consideration the sitting position. For example, with patients with hemiplegia, the left and right sides of the body are unbalanced and inclined, if the neckline is slightly larger, the clothes slip easily.
  • Physiological function: the body skin will become more fragile if the suture of the garment squeezes it for a long time. To prevent the fragility and the formation of acne, external suture method or seamless knitting technique should be considered.
  • Easy to put on and take off: Take shirt as an example, the button is mostly used in the market, but unfortunately, they are not elderly friendly. It can be more convenient to use the velcro and the zipper.
  • Easy to go to the toilet: Men's pants design is mainly divided into two types, one is the front zipper, the other is the rubber belt, but no matter which one, it needs to be taken off when using the toilet, if the user sits in a wheelchair, what the solution can be?
  • Safety and security (high recognition): Improve the recognition of the clothing and reduce the traffic accidents, such as the use of black and yellow, blue and white and other highly recognizable colour combinations, or the use of reflective materials.

In order to improve the safety and security of the clothing, Mitera has conducted research on reflective materials. In 2017, Toyota Motor Corporation donated 1 million yen for the development of reflective materials. The project has produced 16 sample products such as walking shoes and accessories and hopes to be introduced to the market in the near future.

The potential and the challenge

With the growth of health awareness, people pay more attention to exercise, diet, and disease prevention. In Mitera’s point of view of, fashion design is also one aspect of these. Wearing stylish can make people more confident, energetic and indirectly prevent disease. “Enjoy fashion, can encourage senior and elderly people to participate in social life and enjoy themselves. It can be described as a body and mind vitamin.”

China's current demographic structure is similar to that of Japan 20 to 30 years ago. The demographic changes brought by the ageing population will have a profound impact on the consumer market. Most brands are focusing on the Millennial and Z generation, but they ignore the senior consumers with a more stable income.

A Japanese study with 500 senior and elderly people in age 50-79 shows:

  • More than 70% of respondents said they want to enjoy fashion whenever they are, but it is difficult to achieve
  • 70% - 80% of respondents pointed out that because of changes in body shape and decreased physical function, the clothing choices are reduced.
  • 50% of respondents believe that what to wear is not an voluntary choice

Although senior consumers have strong consuming desires, fashion brands do not accept the concept of Mitera well and launch more related products to the market. “There is no such awareness in terms of production, by the end, fashion should be a trendy thing, and consumers are not aware of the role of clothing in protecting the body.”

French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier once launched a series of items, hoping to break the boundaries of nationalities and genders, but the concept was only spread in the design circle and hadn’t been accepted by the market.

Mitera pointed out that in the future, more commercial brands need to understand and launch universal fashion. Some Japanese companies have consulted her on universal design, hoping to launch a corresponding product expansion the customer base. Once there was a large manufacturer preparing to establish an entire series but later dropped out because of the high investment.

Combine it into the future design

In 2005, Mitera launched the Hyougo Senior Fashion Show in Kobe, intended to inspire the senior people to grow old and grow trendy. The fashion show attracted 1,300 people, most models are senior and disabled, the oldest one was 98 years old, and 25 among the models were severely disabled. Since then, the fashion show has been held regularly every December, and more senior people are participating in it, enjoying the fun of clothing and fashion.

In 2016, with the theme of 10 years anniversary of Hyougo Senior Fashion Show, the film director Yukio Tanaka produced the documentary Live Fashionably or Die, which was released in Japan, South Korea, France, and the United States.

In October 2017, Mitera led a team to participate in the 3rd Shanghai International Conference on Fashion of Mature People, bringing Minamo-Water, Alternation, Wearing Blue, Universal Fashion Design and Embrace five series. Besides, Mitera also combines the needs of social enterprises and carries out the latest research results in research, and establishes a unique curriculum system that outputs innovative technologies and practical talents to social enterprises.

In November 2018, Mitera and Tanaka gave speeches in Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology and held a universal fashion show, the series including "from kimono to modern clothing", "aesthetic about men's casual wear", "elegance in a standing or sitting: design for wheelchair users", " safety priority, convenient clothing” and so on.

Whether it's a speech or a fashion show, it's a way to see how Mitera educate and promote the universal fashion design. She said, "From the education of the younger generation of designers, then gradually promoted, they will have relevant considerations in their future design. There are many designers who do not understand what is the universal fashion design, but when they have more comprehensive knowledge, the current situation will change."


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