Some fashion designers are obsessed with needle and thread from a young age. Others fall into the industry on a fluke.
Such was the case with Tadashi Shoji. He started painting and drawing at a young age in his native Sendai, Japan, and worked for three years as an art assistant to prestigious artist Jiro Takamatsu. But at 22, sensing greater opportunities, he moved to Los Angeles, learned English while working odd jobs, and eventually studied fashion design on a whim at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
Fast-forward 40-plus years, and Shoji, at 71, is a red-carpet veteran, his eponymous brand worn by celebrities of all ages and sizes, from Oscar winners (Octavia Spencer, Helen Mirren) to pop singers (Katy Perry) to of-the-moment trendsetters (Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris). What sets his eveningwear apart—besides elegant design—is the comfort factor, due to his skillful use of stretch Lycra jersey under lace and in the lining of dresses. That has gained him customers across the globe: In addition to shops in the U.S. and Shanghai, he recently opened stores in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Qatar.
You’re renowned for creating special-occasion clothes women can actually breathe in. Besides Lycra, what’s your secret?
It’s all about playing with illusions, like creating a waistline that curves up slightly instead of being a straight line—it gives you the appearance of a smaller waist and stomach. Also, we work with different size [fit] models, one for each category—petite, standard, and queen [the latter being Shoji’s term for the plus-size category].
As opposed to standard practice, making one design and just, say, shrinking it to fit petite women.
Cut and fit are very important. I spend countless hours ensuring that each piece is impeccably tailored.
You split your time between Los Angeles and Shanghai. What do you miss about each when you’re away—where do you go as soon as you get back?
When I arrive in L.A., I’m eager for a plate of truffle and pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung, or authentic Italian food from Gale’s, close to my home in Pasadena. When in Shanghai, one of my favorite restaurants is Fu He Hui [a posh dining spot with a star from the Michelin guide]. The chef creates vegetarian dishes using a blend of Chinese and Western cooking techniques.
After more than 40 years in fashion, some might think of retiring. But you seem to be ramping up.
In the past year we’ve introduced a new bridal line, handbags, lingerie, shapewear, and fragrance. We’re growing our e-commerce presence, and working to evolve into a complete global lifestyle brand.
How do you do that, exactly? How do you know what women in other countries want?
I’m a designer who enjoys travel—and I’m constantly looking [at what women wear]. I’m able to pick up on what women need and incorporate that into future designs. Like during my visits to Qatar, I was inspired by the culture. The Middle East market is conservative, [but] the women there are very fashion-forward and stylish—they lean toward long sleeves, round and V-neck gowns with embellishment in vibrant rich colors. They also wear capes, as a separate piece or attached to the gown.
So high style doesn’t have to suffocate—and modest doesn’t have to mean, well, boring.
No. The looks are bold, fresh, and make a statement.