If you think of the fashion world as being all air kisses and private jets then meet a design duo who will make you think again. From their studio HQ just outside the walls of HM Prison Brixton, Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto have ploughed – or rather printed – their own furrow for the last twenty years. The pair have created a label that has not only challenged the conventions of how the fashion world operates but has also constantly broken out into the realms of interiors, architecture and technology. Today they let us inside to see the creative space where it all happens – often by hand.
Set over multiple floors, Eley Kishimoto’s Brixton HQ is packed to the rafters. Not only are there huge print and pattern cutting tables, mountains of their trademark bright graphic fabric and rails of paper patterns, there is also 20 years of ephemera. Posters for catwalk shows and private parties, eccentric props and works-in-progress fill every room. To the sound of an industrial sewing machine clacking softly in the next room, Mark and Wakako tell me about how their partnership was formed. “We met in New York in ’89 and got drunk a lot, hung out at exhibitions,” says Mark. “Unusually for textiles, we both had a fine art background to our work, so therefore there was a harmony, a creative dialogue between us from the start. And we both felt unemployable!”
With this in mind, the pair struck out on their own in the early ’90s, and quickly began collaborating with larger fashion names, including Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Alber Elbaz and Jil Sander. However they also made the distinctive move of applying their prints to non-fashion items, including rucksacks, sneakers, chairs and mobile phones. “We did lots of identities for other people but with our own handwriting,” Mark explains. “I used it as a way of marketing to get our label known by many people, by working with other brands with more power.” The volume and diversity of the work which the pair undertake even today is breathtaking, but Mark insists that the main purpose is to keep themselves stimulated, fed, and to keep the studio busy and buzzy.
From the beginning their ambitions and ideas went beyond the catwalk. Mark sees the brand as having created prints that can go anywhere, and the pair have been remarkably bold in translating their prints onto everything from chairs and rugs to motorbikes, with a minimum of dilution. He always pays tribute to Wakako’s unique vision and skill in creating desirable, memorable prints. “We realised early on that that one creative direction was key,” he says, “and very few people have her ability to imagine prints, think them through, and see them as real objects. Fashion has such a short lifespan so I want her work and effort to have a life of its own. Applying the prints to other objects, for me, is giving respect to Wak’s investment of time.”
Colour is one of the defining aspects of their work, but unlike big fashion houses, they do not work to a set palette per season that is then applied to prints and garments. Rather, the process is more instinctive. “When you talk about pattern, when you image a design, it comes altogether,” Wakako explains. “It’s slightly out of focus in your mind, but it has a certain colour already and a sort of shape. It’s not like painting by numbers.”
Today the couple continue not just with fashion collections, but with endless other partnerships, so I ask them if there is anything they don’t think their patterns could be applied to. Any hook-ups that have intimidated them? “We’re fearless,” Mark answers. “There are plenty of things just done for interiors, but surface pattern can now be exploited to any context if you do it correctly. We wouldn’t expect our prints to go into Buckingham Palace!” He pauses, brain ticking. “But maybe if you put it just in one area it could work… ”