From Miyake to Meguro

Designer Michail Gkinis strikes a balance with aptform

From Miyake to Meguro

Photography by Will Robb

During a spring stroll through Ginza and Harajuku, it’s become evident that the capital’s retail landscape is in a state of major upheaval: no longer are the streets of Tokyo the exclusive domain of European luxury mega-brands, high-end select boutiques and trendy streetwear labels. Japanese, European and American chain stores (quickly dubbed ‘fast-fashion’ by critics) have stamped their considerable authority on city high streets and suburban shopping malls, revolutionising the manner in which we think about clothing.

Usually on-trend, cheap and disposable, the public’s love affair with fast fashion has resulted in indiscriminate consumption of clothing, loss of traditional artistry and a widespread ignorance of where apparel originates and how it is produced.

It is in this climate, then, that the story of Tokyo based Greek designer Michail Gkinis seems even more rare and remarkable. The talented creator behind menswear brand aptform has a passion for craftsmanship and quality textiles which make him a breath of fresh air in an industry which, it can be said, has sadly lost sight of itself.

Born in Thessaloniki in Greece to a fashion family (his mother and sister run a fashion house together) he has a natural understanding of clothing. In a recent interview he says from an early age he became intoxicated by ‘how great and painful it is to make clothes for people.’ His Greek background, he adds, ‘helped me in a more theoretical way and gave me a more natural approach to life.’ This can be seen directly in the aptform philosophy which balances natural and industrial reference points, and is influenced by the Bauhaus principle ‘form follows function’.

A trip to Gkinis’s atelier in Meguro and all these influences are evident. Soft and natural textiles are transformed into classic urban apparel with futuristic elements for the ideal aptform customer whom he describes as ‘(Someone) who is confident in life and likes to experiment with nice materials and shapes. They are not afraid to challenge themselves.’

In the early 2000s he studied for a B.A. in Menswear at the prestigious London College of Fashion and this is, crucially, where he not only learned the tools of the trade (principles of tailoring, deconstruction, analysis, quality of fabrics and the value of rules) but got his chance, in 2003, to be the first ever European intern at legendary Japanese fashion brand Issey Miyake. As a student in London he had worked in an Issey Miyake boutique and following a year-long application process he realized his dream of working with the Japanese fashion icon. Regarding his time as an intern at the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo, Gkinis talks about the variety of work involved, the value of teamwork and the process of making clothes which gave him a useful insight into how Japanese companies work.

In 2006 he designed a collection made entirely from organic Japanese cotton which was hand finished by his family’s company. The collection, which showed in Paris and Athens, was the beginning of his obsession with quality Japanese textiles. Later in the same year he moved to Tokyo and presented yet another collection made from organic cotton materials. When quizzed about his love for Japanese textiles he is typically philosophical.

‘Textiles are everything’ he says. ‘The feeling I get from them when I touch something. I feel close to it and I feel an extra strength and I think of how the fabric could be manipulated to give it form and function. Cotton and wool are my favourites as I’m very close to lightweight materials. I like to see the life that fabrics can have. I think Japanese textiles give me an understanding of my soul and through that I understand what I feel. I have a unique relationship with Japanese textiles that I don’t have with other kind of materials from other countries. For me it’s a personal communication and my journey through design is very close to the Japanese.’

In 2008 aptform was established, and after a superb debut at Japan Fashion Week Designers’ Exhibition Gkinis had the chance, at textile trade show Japan Creation, to collaborate with Kawasuki Sumida – a pigskin leather manufacturer from the Higashi Sumida district of Tokyo. Sumida, which has a rich history of producing pigskin, currently produces 70% of the nation’s pigskin leather. Observing how the material was produced and the traditions involved was the beginning of the Greek’s personal exploration of using leather.

‘I started to design more authentically and really developed,’ he says. ‘I had the (pigskin leather) material but then it needed my own touch and the communication became more plural between the leather and wool and my personal touch. This gave more interest and value to my designs. I want to change the perception of pigskin. It brings softness, vulnerability and a distressed feeling in combination with other natural materials.’

The collection which featured pigskin bonded with wool yarn to make knits, and other pieces which made the leather look as delicate as crepe paper successfully demonstrated the versatility of pigskin. He was so impressed by its adaptability that he continues to work with Kawasuki Sumida today and hopes his work can gain these local manufactures more recognition for their craft.

For the latest Fall/Winter 2010 collection, inspired by the plant photography of German artist Karl Blossfeldt, he had the opportunity to work with a Japanese artisan who devised an original finger knitting technique called yubiami. After a chance meeting with its creator, Kuniko Shinohara, outside his Japanese class (Gkinis was taking lessons next door to Shinohara’s knitting seminar) he asked her if she would be interested in collaborating in some items for his new collection.

Shinohara, who has become something of a knitting celebrity - writing books on the subject and appearing regularly on television, crafted three pieces for the collection – a pure yubiami vest, a male poncho and some sleeves of a cardigan. The accomplished Greek designer explained why having handmade knitwear is of such importance.

‘I really wanted to do something with handmade knitwear but my design mentor in Japan told me that it was almost a dead practice here. This is due to production costs and the fact that many people have lost the technique and the essence of what it is about. But I persisted because I felt my designs could blossom more by using hand finished and handmade knitwear more than by using an industrial manufacturing process.’

For his latest collection he also worked with other Japanese textile makers including Maruwa Knit and Furuhashi Weaving – a firm which uses traditional shuttle looms and age old production methods. Gkinis combined the use of traditional techniques and fabrics with some technologically advanced textiles to make jackets and shirts in conjunction with his own technique of leather bonded with cotton and wool. These were hand finished to create truly unique products that can’t be seen or reproduced anywhere else.

The use of organic material and work with local textile manufacturers and artisans hasn’t gone unnoticed by buyers. The label, which is already sold in Takashimaya, and Sogo in Beijing, was recently picked up by Chicago womenswear boutique Blake. They asked Gkinis, in a request which may have surprised some designers, if he would be interested in making his menswear collection in smaller sizes for the store's female clientele. The concept and project perfectly matched his personal ideology about clothing.

‘It has always been our intention to make men’s clothes which can also be used for women,’ he says. ‘Our comfortable, distressed jackets can be fashionable for women too. Women could wear these utility clothes from day until night. Also a lot of the clothes look classic but have a more futuristic twist. This is partly what aptform is about. We want to take the direction of men’s designs for the women’s market. I like to play with the idea that two people can wear the same jacket. Sometimes my wife and I wear the same items with little adaptations. This is a forward looking way of making (and wearing) clothes.’

Next up for aptform is an exhibition/limited store at Takashimaya in Nagoya from March 30 to April 14. Some Spring/Summer pieces and selected items from the latest collection, which are all made to order, will be available. A full range of accessories including hand painted leather gloves, washed leather belts and a series of hand drawn t-shirts will also be on sale.

Gkinis’s respect for traditional techniques combined with an understanding of technology positions aptform as the perfect exponent of a ‘slow fashion’ movement. The label’s clothing is an opportunity to own something hand crafted, made by artisans using time-honoured traditions which, if cared for properly, can last a lifetime.


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By Paul McInnes
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.



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