Nemeth | A Legacy Continued
Interview: Zen Tsujimoto | Photography: Satomi Yamauchi
Dialogue | Issue 03 | p.136
As a burgeoning club scene arose in the 1980s, London would see the birth of a deconstructive movement in fashion, an era one would recognize alongside names such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and John Paul Gaultier. Amidst this movement, one London local by the name of Christopher Nemeth would begin to fashion his own clothes from discarded textiles, later giving way to his eponymous label. The self-taught designer would go on to befriend talented, like-minded individuals such as Judy Blame and Mark Lebon, the same group of creatives who would eventually form The House of Beauty and Culture. Several years later, a serendipitous encounter with then-buyer and future-wife Keiko Nemeth would see the designer setting up a studio, shop and family in Tokyo. Fast forward a generation later, and off the back of a Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter collaboration, Nemeth is now succeeded by wife Keiko and daughters Lui and Riyo - the three of whom clearly share the same creative, DIY spirit as the late Christopher Nemeth. Both daughters — having studied at Central Saint Martins — are artists in their own right and we sat down with the talented Lui and Riyo, as they shed light on Christopher’s life as an artist, designer, and father. The two shared insight into the challenges of moving forward and progressing as a label, whilst remaining true to its roots.
It can be argued that Nemeth was at the forefront of a deconstructive movement in fashion, an era with similar roots to post-punk club culture. It has also been said that the inception of Nemeth has gone on to inspire some of the most esteemed fashion houses in the industry today. Can you tell us what it was like to grow up around this? Can you share some of your early memories?
Lui: When I was just born, our father didn’t have a studio, so he used to sew inside the shop. He had the baby cot next to him, and our mother would stand next to where the cash drawer was. This was around 1986.
Riyo: When the store moved to this location (current Christopher Nemeth store) in 1994, they then kept the previous shop to use as a studio.
L: When we were little, we used to come home from school and go hang out in the shop or at his studio. We would often help make badges for the shop or do some drawings together. At the time our father had two birds, he didn’t want to put them in a cage so he made two tree-houses at both ends of the studio, really high up. He used to sometimes come back with bird poo on his head [laughs].
R: These are all family stories but he was always being a father in front of us. I remember going to his studio, he would have loads of blank t-shirts, and he would draw something on them. When the shop was busy and sold out of t-shirts, they didn’t have enough time to get more printed, so he would directly draw on the blank t-shirts as one-off t-shirts, with each drawing being different. I would also borrow pens and t-shirts, and wore what I drew. That was the kind of thing I used to do in the studio.
L: He would be making clothes, and then another thirty minutes later he would be working on a painting — all these things were exactly the same process.
For a label that largely embodies a deconstructive style, you mentioned your father was always very tidy, with an immaculately organized atelier. Can you comment on some of his working habits while he was in the studio? What kind of music he listened to, or other mediums of inspiration, etc.?
L: He wasn’t very tidy in the beginning…his whole floor was like a rubbish bin — he used to throw everything on the floor. We had to swim through it all to get to the other side! We still remember the smell of the studio, even though it doesn’t smell like that anymore; it was mix of cigarettes, fabric, dust, and oil paints.
R: It’s just an assumption, but I think it’s because he was so focused on making works that he didn’t really care about cleaning up. He gradually started doing more art, this was sometime in the early 2000s. He started organizing all his works and binding his sketches into books and folios. I think that’s why the studio became more organized.
L: He started to make more art and drawings, and he was making furniture too. He appreciated craftsmanship, so he liked to make everything by himself. He always did the shop interiors and furniture designs, all the clothing racks, counter and stools — even the wallpaper — by himself. Every time we moved to a new location or opened new shops in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, he would do everything himself. He was always playing music really loud, often classical, Beethoven, Mozart, but also Hungarian gypsy music, punk, and reggae — all kinds of music. He often used to listen to audio books as well.
And your mother Keiko Nemeth. Could you elaborate on when and how she met your father?
L: Judy (Blame) first introduced our father to our mother. She was running a select store called Sector in Harajuku, Tokyo, so she would go to London for buying twice a year. Our mother loved our father’s works so much that she bought everything he had when she first saw it. She told him to come to Tokyo for work and a bit of sightseeing for two weeks.
R: He only brought patterns for his clothes and nothing else. He really thought he was only going to work here for a short while, but he ended up staying here forever.
Being surrounded in a creative environment from a young age, do you believe this all contributes to your interests in fashion, studying at Central Saint Martins, and eventually doing what you do now?
R: At first I thought about studying fashion because our father was a fashion designer and our mother also encouraged us to study fashion, so I naturally thought I would be studying fashion. However, after high school I started thinking that I should also study art and other subjects, not just fashion. At Central Saint Martins (CSM), the foundation course covered everything from fashion, graphic design, architecture and art. Lui was already doing her Bachelor of Arts in painting there. I always had an interest in photography; however one of the courses I did was videography, and that’s how I started doing video.
L: I wasn’t interested in studying other subjects, unless it was something creative. At first I wanted to study fashion but when I was at the foundation course at CSM, I realized my idea of fashion that came from our father was so different from reality. The seasonal collections, trend forecasts, fashion weeks and so on — it all seemed a bit restrictive to me. So I decided to do a 2D Fine Art course because I loved painting and drawing ever since I was little. I also think art is like a foundation of creativity. It’s like learning one’s mind.
R: Our father wasn’t really suggesting that we study fashion. He once said, as long as you learn how to form your ideas into something, you can adapt that to create anything.
L: He also studied art at Camberwell College of Arts in London. He told us to choose whatever we feel like.
On the topic of London, can you tell us how you eventually came to set up Primitive London? Was it the two of you who set it up?
L: No, it was just my former partner Andrew Grune and I. Riyo was always helping, which is probably why people assumed we were doing it together. She helped by making videos for the brands we represented, and helped set up the exhibitions we did together. I was still in my third year of CSM when we first planned on opening a store. I wanted to have something to do right after graduation. Andrew was living in Tokyo back then, but he came to London, and we wanted to start an interesting project together. We found this really cheap railway arch and started a shop and gallery there. We wanted to create a DIY space that allowed designers and artists from London and Tokyo to exhibit their work. Primitive¹ is still run by Andrew; however, he is going to start again fresh with a new concept.
On that note, you’ve recently arrived back from London to visit long time collaborator and friend, Judy Blame (Judy Blame, stylist, art director, accessories designer). How did you find his solo exhibition “Never Again” at the ICA? What did you particularly enjoy?
R: It was really amazing. I was just amazed by how much work he had. He had kept everything from the '80s, and not only his accessories pieces. There were sculptures, furniture, clothes, and photographs of his styling work and art direction — even some unused materials and letters were exhibited at the gallery. There was this whole era of time that the House of Beauty and Culture exhibited, along with his collaborative works with Adidas, i-D and The Face. There were all these different times you could travel through. It was interesting to see all the different cultures and creative people that surrounded him from the '80s to present time in London. Even his accessories pieces tell different stories through the different materials he used. Whether he used organic materials, metals, plastics, or little toys tied up with string, you can feel they are all from different points in his life. I was also really happy to see a lot of our father’s works exhibited too.
L: They (Judy Blame and Christopher Nemeth) shared so much creative spirit, and Mark (Lebon) as well — the three of them together especially. We currently have Judy’s one-off pieces at our store, which he made with materials from our archives.
Can you recall meeting him for the first time, or how he came into your lives? Nemeth has also been deeply involved with acclaimed photographer and artist Mark Lebon. Can you shed some light on this relationship as well?
L: I’d already met everyone when I was very little so I can’t really remember the first time. We always see them when we go to London. There’s a picture of Judy holding me when I was a baby. My first memory of them would be at the Hard Work show, when our father did a fashion show in Tokyo in 1994. When our father started working in Japan, they weren’t able to collaborate like they used to, so this show was very important for them. Our parents invited Judy, Mark and Jenny Howarth to Tokyo and they stayed with us for about two weeks to prepare the show. They organized the fashion show together; Mark was shooting photographs and videos, Judy did the styling and made accessories, brooches and hats covered in buttons and strings. Our father made a collection that consisted of many all-white outfits, wool checked jackets, trousers, and long dress jackets.
R: Mark first met our father on the street in Covent Garden. He was there for a fashion event for the watch brand Swatch. Our father was cycling through, Mark saw him, stopped him and asked where he got his clothes from. He then explained that he made them and was selling them at the Kensington Markets². So Mark went there and bought everything, he would go on to use them for magazine shoots.
L: Our father used a lot of discarded textiles, some of them were Royal Mail’s used mailbags which he picked up from the street. I recently heard this story from a friend of our father, Adam Howe, who is a stylist and went to the same college as him – he used to collect the mailbags for him. Adam would give him ten mailbags, and in return he would receive a jacket back. Apparently a red mailbag was a special one to come across, and a green one was even more rare.
R: Mark introduced Judy to our father and they got along as soon as they met, so it was very natural they would start making things together. Judy was doing a lot of styling for magazines like i-D and The Face at the time, and he used a lot of items from The House of Beauty and Culture.
Can you explain what The House of Beauty of Culture [HOBAC] is, and who was involved?
R: The HOBAC was a store in East London and also the studio of shoemaker John Moore. The members of the group included Judy Blame, knit-wear designer Richard Torry, photographers Mark Lebon and Cindy Palmano, furniture duo Fric and Frack, artist Dave Baby and our father.
When our mother used to visit the HOBAC for buying, she would ask her friends to drive her because she didn’t know her way there. Dan Doyle was also in London at the time, and our mother knew him back then too. Since he knew where it was, and could speak Japanese, she would ask him to go along with her. The HOBAC used to be located in Dalston, which is very different now but was quite a dodgy area back then. There weren’t really any fashion boutiques, nothing was really happening there.
L: The HOBAC was such a wonderful combination of people — everyone made different things but shared a very similar spirit. The moment they finished making something, it was in the store downstairs. There is also a first book ever written about the HOBAC by Kasia Maciejowska, which was recently published by ICA Books. We photographed some of our father and Judy’s archival pieces from HOBAC in time for the book and borrowed some pieces from one of our oldest customers, Kudo. He has the biggest collection of our father and Judy’s archive. I actually learned a lot about the HOBAC through this book as our parents only ever told us a few stories.
Nemeth is operated by a tight knit team of four people: Lui, Riyo, your mother Keiko and pattern-maker, Ohara san. What is the dynamic of this organization? Do you divide certain roles between yourselves creatively and logistically speaking?
L: Well... kind of. I’ve been back from London for two years and Riyo’s been back for one year, so there hasn’t been much time since we all started working together. We’re still coming to understand who’s good at what. Our mother makes most of the final decisions, she does more of the production and business side of the brand. Riyo does more digital work with visuals and graphics, and I do more of the physical handwork, but we also take turns. Ohara-kun was our father’s assistant 20 years ago and he came back to work with us again last year. Since he has extensive knowledge on our father’s patterns, we are now able to reproduce archive pieces from incomplete or damaged blocks.
R: I think in the future, Lui will be doing more of the designing and I will be handling more of the media and visual side of things and getting the works outside the shop - that’s what I prefer as well. I think some of the work I do here is similar to making video. What I do for video work is to frame what is already there and one of my creative inputs is deciding how to present, and which angle to shoot to create a specific view. I want to adapt the perspective, translating what we have and what needs to be shown to people. I want to combine my method of making videos and creation for the brand.
L: We’re still starting out with a lot of things and I’m still learning pattern cutting. As I studied art, I didn’t know all the techniques in pattern cutting. I could sew a bit but I wanted to be able to create patterns myself. It’s very important for me to understand the technique because the way I work is very process-based, so I need to be touching the work from the start.
Before Nemeth was a free-standing store, it was called Sector. Can you explain what Sector was and what kinds of labels it carried at the time?
L: It was like a little dungeon [laughs]. The ceiling was high because it used to be a garage, and had clothing racks made out of scaffolding pipes that almost reached the ceiling. Our father did a lot of decoration in the store. He used a big cutout cardboard sign to spell out the letters in Sector, but it eventually became too damaged so he changed it to a textile sign.
R: When they moved out from that shop, he stitched each of the textile letters from the sign onto the backs of jackets. Sector used to carry a lot of our father’s stuff, but there were a lot of pieces from other brands as well. When our mother started the shop, she started going to Berlin. Before the Berlin Wall fell, she was only going to the West side to buy vintage clothes. She eventually started going to London more often to buy young designers’ clothes.
L: Sector carried a lot of young British designers: Lee Bowley, John Paul Gautier, John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Judy Blame, John Moore, many things from HOBAC and a bit of vintage too.
With the exception of the Nemeth store, Nemeth is almost exclusively carried at all Dover Street Markets [DSM] and Comme des Garçons Trading Museums. Is there a particular reason for the tight channels of distribution? You also mentioned that Dover Street Market carries an entirely different line to in-store Nemeth, an exclusive collection to Dover Street market?
L: At first it was exclusive and we were only stocked at the DSM in London. But when Comme des Garçons Trading Museum in Tokyo opened, they carried our brand from the very start. Recently we’ve started stocking at other stores as well.
R: Yes we create special collections for Dover Street Market and Trading Museum, which we work on together with the staff at Comme des Garçons. The aesthetic is slightly different to our store, more minimal and monochromatic.
L: Because we don’t carry seasonal collections at our store, we have many different styles that aren’t categorized; each item is individually made at different points in time. We consider each item as an individual work, and as a whole they are one creation.
R: We like having different garments exclusive to different stores. DSM and Trading Museum also carry slightly different pieces from each other. We produced a few one-off items for the Trading Museum in Tokyo. I think it’s interesting to see different items and styles and to have a variation at different individual stores. It's really great that we can have this approach at DSM and Trading Museum.
In 2015 Kim Jones, Men’s Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton, orchestrated a collaboration to commemorate Nemeth for the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection. How did you feel this was received? How did it all start?
L: Apparently Kim was already talking to our father about working together a long time ago, maybe during one of the times he visited the shop. When he contacted us about the collaboration, it was right after I had moved back to Tokyo and I was right in the middle of sorting out all the archives.
R: After our father passed away, we still kept his studio a few blocks away. It was left untouched for almost three to four years.
L: Everything was in boxes and it was all very chaotic, so I moved everything upstairs from the studio and tidied it all up. When Kim and his design team came for the first meeting, I was able to show a lot of artworks. We showed them more of our father’s drawings as opposed to clothes, and Kim was really interested in the rope pattern. He had a few other ideas using other drawings or using the patterns. But in the end, he decided to only use the rope pattern because it had a strong impact on its own and it’s our signature drawing. He also kept the same colour palette that we use for our garments. He respected our father’s works and kept the aesthetic.
R: He also brought all the House of Beauty and Culture members together to be involved for the collection. He asked Judy to do the accessories and styling, Mark to shoot the campaign images and videos, and Nellee Hooper to make the music for the show. A lot of people who are related to the HOBAC were involved in the collection and it was really exciting to see everyone working together.
Nemeth is known for its iconic drawings and paintings of the interwoven rope patterns — a style your father pioneered. What was it like to see this suddenly sprawled on a Louis Vuitton canvas?
R: At first it felt really strange to see our father’s drawings on Louis Vuitton. I grew up seeing this drawing and he was always drawing this pattern on everything: on a torso, furniture, fabric, sketchbook covers. If we did any drawings together, he would just draw this pattern. It was like his signature.
L: His rope print, everything he made… it really feels like a piece of him. So it was quite strange at first to see it on another designer’s clothes.
R: At first we couldn’t get used to it, but we were really happy with how the collection turned out. Kim represented our father more as an artist than as a fashion designer, so he focused on the rope pattern and didn’t use any of the cuts on the clothes.
L: We also couldn't predict how our old customers would react. It was also the first time for us to do something totally new without him in a way. But they were actually very supportive and positive about us moving onto a new step.
R: As Louis Vuitton has a wider audience, a lot of people overseas discovered us through the collaboration. We have people visiting us because they liked the rope drawings, the customers will come from different backgrounds as well.
L: A lot has changed very rapidly in the past few years. After our father passed away, for quite a long time, it was difficult for us to face the truth so things slowed down. But it seemed like Kim encouraged for us all to come back to Tokyo and work together.
Lui, you have recently branched out creatively, working on your own solo show of artworks. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
L: I’m having my first solo show from October 22nd to November 6th at Cale Gallery in Azabu Juban, Tokyo. I’m working on a series of oil paintings on paper and some small-scale etching work. Since I graduated university, I wasn’t making many artworks, just small drawings. With our father’s brand, I have my own input to it but I feel that it’s really important to make my own art as well. I’d like to have my own brand at some point in the future and continue painting as well.
Riyo, you’ve also been quite active on a creative front outside of Nemeth, recently having shot Yohji Yamamoto’s SS16 collection. Can you talk about what other kinds of projects you’ve been working on?
R: When I was in London after graduating from university, I was doing some shows at small galleries and making videos for designers who were carried at Primitive. I was also making music videos. A lot of my friends were in music and fashion so I started working with them; my works would expand from my friends and to their friends. It was then that I made a music video for this London producer called Actress. This video is still one of my favourite videos. Recently I made a film for Yohji Yamamoto with my friend Chikako Nakamura, who is a graphic designer. She’s been making invitations for Yohji Yamamoto’s women’s and men’s shows for twenty years. She does a lot of campaign images and graphics too. She wanted to try different media and wanted to do video, so she asked me to team up and make a video together for Yohji Yamamoto. We went to Paris last year in October to shoot a kind of abstract documentary film. We shot the atelier, the backstage and the show. It was my first full-length film. They made DVDs and gave them away to customers with their purchases during May this year. We’re planning to do more projects, and we’re currently in the process of shooting 3D film at the moment. I also want to focus on my personal work, and do an exhibition in Japan in the near future.
It must be a difficult balance — to further grow and develop, while maintaining a respect for the brand’s roots. Could you share some insight into how you collectively feel about this?
R: A lot of the things still remain the same: we have all the pieces locally manufactured in Japan, designed and sold in the same building. Some of the methods are still very analogue. I like the way we have this base here — the shop with a studio upstairs. I’d like to keep that kind of content and continue what we have, but at the same time I also want to encourage a new side that Lui and I can create and build up.
L: In these few years Riyo and I have been inputting more of ourselves into the brand, working with digital formats, and using online platforms. We’ve been making a digital archive of artworks, photographs, videos and other documents, so we’re finally able to show this online. We mix analogue and digital all the time, so when we create graphics for the prints, we sometimes digitally edit old scans of our father’s drawings. But we also draw some sections by hand, to keep a raw and rough edge.
As you both represent a younger generation, do you think anything has particularly changed with the direction of Nemeth? What are you hoping to achieve through this label for the future?
L: We’d like to present more of our father’s artistic side. We’re preparing to publish a limited edition book containing his artworks, poems and sketches. Our father made a lot of self-binding sketchbooks, folios, and fabric books with stitched drawings and so on. We are going to publish these books ourselves, with each individual book to be like art objects — a similar approach to how we create our one-off garments, and how our father was making books. We’d also like to hold an exhibition with a series of works he created throughout his lifetime. We’re also starting to make our brand more accessible all over the world, through the web and online store. And showing our history and images more as it had been hard to find substantial information on Nemeth.
R: A lot of people might not know that our father was also an artist, and that’s what he really wanted to become before he started making clothes. I think it’s really important to show his roots as an artist and its connection with the clothing designs. His approach to clothes always crosses over with his art. I want to represent him as an artist and facilitate exhibitions of his art, publish books, and tourhis art pieces around the world in museums and galleries.
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