Akira Isogawa is a busy man, but let it be known that he’s not really a full name type of person. He’s a one-name super-talent, like Elle, Cher, Madonna or Pele. Certainly, the Isogawa exists, but it is unnecessary when discussing or referring to him.

Being shoulder tapped to take care of almost 300 individually fitted, ballet-spec, designer quality costumes for The Australian Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet is no easy task, but add the several collections he is simultaneously working on for his eponymous label – and the fact that Sydney is home and the Australia Ballet is not so conveniently located in Melbourne – then we really have something.

When speaking with Akira – and this is not lost, on him or me – there’s a certain sense of pressure. His time in Melbourne has been very carefully allocated in the lead up to the production, and even so, it took us three attempts to complete the interview. That said, when Graeme Murphy, Romeo & Juliet’s choreographer joins us to discuss the very reason we’re all here, you don’t argue or ask questions. Murphy hasn’t shied away from handling the classics; his resume includes The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and his reviews read like taglines on movie posters.

So I give them time, this powerhouse couple of creativity and talent. They first worked together in the late 90s when Murphy asked Akira to come on board for the Sydney Dance Company’s production of Salome. “I had never thought about designing costumes, just like I had never thought about becoming a fashion designer,” offers Akira in his calm, softly spoken way. But at that time he felt nervous. “I had never done this before, but it is in my nature that I need a challenge and to make my life worthwhile I guess.”

His relationship with Murphy has since been going strong for 13 years, and Murphy has asked Akira to contribute to several Sydney Dance Company productions. Romeo & Juliet, however, will mark Akira’s first assignment for The Australian Ballet.

The pair’s understanding of one another’s thought process and aesthetic is evident throughout our chat. As we progress, it becomes apparent that Akira simply seems to ‘get’ dance, yet no matter how many times the question is asked, he still sees no difference in the work he is doing here and the work he does for the label.
Akira has regularly worked within the arts since becoming a fashion designer, and although the commerciality of fashion has always made it difficult to concede its artistic merit, pieces and shows by designers like Akira and his ilk have always suggested otherwise (refer to the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty show at The Met in New York).

“Fashion and art is so blurred, very difficult to divide or establish what is art or what is fashion,” he says. And maybe he has a case. The brief glimpses I am afforded of Romeo & Juliet suggest the usual Akira traits of lightness, drape and movement and he constantly returns to these words when describing the range. “I feel when I get involved in designing costume, it’s kind of an extension of what I do…working with the body, making it flattering as possible…movement is essential, because they’re dancers, [but] they need to shine and look amazing,” he laughs at his extremely modest form of braggadocio. “They move and hopefully look fantastic.”

There’s a strong, some might say inevitable Asian feel to the collection. There are touches of India and Akira’s Japanese motifs, re-imagined for the ballet, continue to pop up. But the heavy colours – the blood red and purple – represent the sinister and tragic symbolism that define the story’s tragectory. It’s a modern interpretation and he is designing it to “transcend time and place,” so despite the geographical references in delicate brocade, silk tulle and organza, it exists in no definable locale. The deft hands at play combine the colours and textures to create identifiable Akira signatures, but don’t overshadow and simply add to the ballet. No doubt why Murphy has consistently returned to him.

There’s leather and metal that have been formed and forged into armour and breastplates, gold and silver beading, metallic’s in all shades, appliqué, screen-printing and metres of embroidered cloth waiting their turn. Suffice to say, the Montagues and Capulets won’t know what hit them.

As we finish up our interview and Akira prepares to get back to his ever-delicate work, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the extensive archives of The Australian Ballet and the great legacy it will leave for future designers and dancers to ponder and marvel. Akira seems genuinely stumped for a moment and laughs at the prospect. “When I started fashion, I never thought I would be doing this.” Lucky for us he is.

Romeo & Juliet will play at the Arts Centre from September 12 to 24, 2011.