Designers Dish: A Conversation With Tadashi Shoji

Tadashi Shoji Octavia Spencer - P 2013
Elizabeth Snead; Getty Images

Tadashi Shoji Octavia Spencer - P 2013

The Japanese designer -- who dressed Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer for Cannes -- talks red carpets, runways and three decades of working in the "unglamorous" world of fashion.

Time flies, especially in the fashion world. Three decades whiz by in a flash. Just ask Tadashi Shoji, famous for festive party frocks and fetching gowns, who is celebrating his L.A.-based company's 30th anniversary this year and releasing a capsule collection of six iconic dresses from his archives. Just last month, he also opened his second store in China
-- a boutique in Beijing -- enlarging his reach there.

Fittingly, Octavia Spencer (who picked up her Oscar for The Help wearing his gown) gave Shoji a swell anniversary gift by walking the Croisette at Cannes last weekend in his bright-red, tulle-and-lace cap-sleeve gown. She also wore a fall 2013 neoprene-pink caplet to the Art of Elysium party in Cannes.

Shoji opened up his  showroom to the Costume Council at LACMA's Fashion Circle last week, showing off his high-tech, in-house IT and PR departments; pattern, beading and pattern-making areas; and even where garments are shot for his e-commerce website and the dock where gowns are shipped off to international boutiques  

The Japanese designer chatted with THR about the ongoing importance of red carpets, why runways still matter and who could be the face of his signature scent, which is due to launch in fall 2014.

The Hollywood Reporter: How important is the red carpet to your business? Is it still relevant? We noticed Octavia Spencer just wore your designs at Cannes.

Tadashi Shoji: People still pay a lot of attention to what the celebrities wear. Most of the actresses are a sample size 2 but we also do couture for actresses as well. We carry all sizes, even Queen sizes.

THR: You have never had a celebrity brand ambassador. Will you?

TS: Perhaps when we do a fragrance line, yes.

THR: Considering the expense of a fashion show, is it still important to show at New York Fashion Week?

TS: We show twice a year in New York. It takes about four months to prepare and the clothes are on the runway maybe 20 minutes. It may seem silly to spend that much time on a show but it's still very important in this business. All the buyers and press from all over the world are there. The exposure from the runways is huge and it spreads so rapidly because of the Internet. In 10 minutes, the photos are all over the world. This is important because the line is sold all over the world in major department stores and specialty boutiques.

THR: So you only design twice a year?

TS: No, we have to ship new styles every month so we are designing 12 collections a year. It’s nonstop. Everyone thinks the fashion business is so glamorous. It’s completely the opposite.

THR: Do you use a color-forecasting service?

TS: No, we do it ourselves. Using a forecasting company is like going to a fortune-teller. If you believe the company and the color does not sell, who do you blame? The forecasters? No, you blame yourself.

THR: How are you adapting to the web and how important is your online business now?

TS: My IT department is filled with young people. The young understand the web much better. The online returns are huge but even with that, the e-commerce is more than double that of our two stores in the U.S.

THR: What advice would you give a young person who wants to become a fashion designer? 

TS: I went to a trade school, learned to sew, to make patterns, to sketch. I had never sewn in my life. You have to learn to do it all. So many designers only sketch and leave pattern making to others. Pattern making is important so you know the structure. Then if someone tells me, "I can’t make a pattern from that sketch," I can tell them, "I will make it" and then they are quiet. If I can’t make it, I don’t design it.

THR: Obviously inspiration is everywhere. But what would you say is your biggest source of ideas?

TS: For our Silk Road collection, I was inspired by watching a CNN documentary on the Silk Road. So I thought about a budget travel collection inspired by that route, from Venice to Istanbul to China. We already have all our textiles made in China.