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Q&A: Sean Ishikawa on Persona Non Grata

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

by Sierra Petro

Photos by Sierra Petro

The Purchase-student fashion brand Persona Non Grata is hosting a fashion show this Friday at 7 p.m. in the West 1 parking lot. The Purchase Phoenix sat down with creative director Sean Ishikawa to learn more about his brand.

What does Persona Non Grata mean and how is this meaning incorporated into the brand?

Persona Non Grata is a statue and it means a person who is not gratified. It’s not about being a rebel; it’s about not being gratified by the world. This is part of the story I’m trying to tell. Each show is a chapter and the previous one was the table of contents. The theme was beauty and chaos. Tomorrow’s show will be the foreword.

How did you get your start in designing clothing?

I have been sewing since I was a little eccentric kid making movies. I made costumes and I come from a family involved in fashion. I observed my grandfather’s brother who was a tailor. I can ask my mom questions about sewing because she was a dressmaker for fun and was very skilled. When I look at my baby clothes, I wish they still fit; she made us look lit! My grandfather’s other brother was a kimono maker in Kyoto, where they hold onto the customs for a long time. They would weave a piece of silk and then remove some strings and replace them mathematically with gold ones. It was a form of code because they would do this to plan out a design.

I notice that you’re not hesitant about sharing this personal info and meeting me in person. Why do you go by a pseudonym?

I was a new media major my freshman year before I started studying literature. My professor announced that if anyone wanted to go by a pseudonym to start now. I made one because I didn’t want my work to get back to me. My parents were bloodhounds growing up and if I posted anything with a girl’s skirt above the knee I had to reshoot it. Eventually they eased up on me. Now I don’t want my work to get back to me because of social insanity and criticism. It goes both ways, things that impact my real world don’t touch my art.

Do a lot of people know your real name?

Half of the crowd knows my real name and the other half is kind of aloof. My friend told me about an email among faculty in which someone said there is this person named Sean Ishikawa that has been leaving stuff in one of the buildings with a sign on it. We looked up his name in the directory and there is no person that has ever gone to the school with that name. It made me laugh because it’s still me; the only thing that changes is the name.

Does your Japanese background you were describing earlier have a large impact on your life?

I relate to Japanese culture in terms of propriety. A lot of Americans don’t have this. They’re like I’m going to be a celibate bitch from now on then the next day they're talking about hooking up with some guy? It’s like you’re celibate and you had sex, how does that work? A moral of mine that serves me well is being patient.

How does your patience help in terms of your design process?

The sewing techniques I use require a lot of patience. Clothing should last a lifetime and a machine-made piece will fall apart because the sharp needle goes straight down very fast. The human hand can invert the needle. If you want the needle to go a certain way you have to pretend you’re going into the body and then that way. It’s like you’re using your gesturing to conjure clothing out of the fabric.

Do you consider what you create to be art?

The art is in the clothes; the clothes aren’t art themselves. They represent the idea of art. A lot of people find value in the fact that I can make something and I appreciate that. However, that’s not what I focus on. The only way to communicate like that (snaps) is through fashion. My art is the curation of what I do to communicate my ideas. I love this process because I get to take my literary notions of the world and translate them to needle and thread. My performance art piece is the show.

Where did your inspiration come for your runway shows?

I first felt moved by 2006 and 2007 runway shows. This was the wind-down of the tradition of running the show twice back-to-back, which existed because runway’s fast-pasted nature created room for error. New technology made it easier to get a good shot because many cameras could capture every look. It became very organized and austere. It was the birth of conceptual runway, which became a way to play with the audience. Miuccia Prada made a collection and invented this kind of mohair that looked like fur through brushing and steaming. During the first round she planted a PETA member in the from row to storm the finale. It was a media tactic and it made me want one! I try to do this in a very acclimated way for my generation and Purchase.

What was the preparation like for tomorrow’s show?

I spent about five months thinking about the idea, event, the collection, and in the last month-and-a-half I addressed the clothing. That’s my last step. Shirts depending on the cut can be very fast. Pants if they’re fitted might take a day. Dresses can take up to 300 hours. Men only really have three dimensions to account for when it comes to darting (a technique used to fit clothes to the body). Women have 10 because they are more aesthetic.

I noticed your posters in the art building and was wondering what they were. Why did you create a campaign instead of an announcement of the show?

People at Purchase hear about events by word-of-mouth. I also don’t know a lot of people at Purchase, so I used social media as well. I’m setting up a website that I’ll announce on the Open Forum. Until then, the way to purchase will be directly through me. Everything is made-to-order. Everything at the show will be for sale, but some items are price upon request.

Is anyone else part of the brand?

There are two others, and I don’t talk about clothing with them. Both are Purchase students. Ross Dener is the show manager and keeps me in check of reality. He gives me another perspective on the drama we discuss. He went to FIT and you would never know. Andrea Cholula keeps the principality of our ideas in check. She also gives me insight into the feminine mind. I call them part of the brand, but this isn’t a collaboration. I’m the director.

I’d like to find out some more about what the audience will be experiencing at tomorrow’s show. You said that it’s part of your story, but is there anything you’d like to do differently since the last show?

Yes, I got some backlash about not having a diverse group of models. People were saying that I had all these white girls, but the girls they were referring to are Muslim. I didn’t have any Asian girls, and I had two black girls. The comments I heard were that I didn’t have enough black girls, so this year i’m going to have more of both. People also said that they couldn’t see the clothes for a long enough time, so the models will be on the runway for a minute-and-a-half tomorrow. There will be five designated videographers.

What is the theme of the show?

It’s a love song. The ascension of the staircase at the location is so necessary in the philosophy of the show. The models ascend and then go back to nature. The music is melancholy and then will build to unabashed optimism. I’m thinking about Summer in high school. We were the Persona Non Grata kids in Greenwich, CT. I think about my friend trying to lift up the bucket of water balloons. These simple times are nostalgic to me. They won’t happen again, but I’m using them to heal what I’m not satisfied with today.

Persona Non Grata S/S19 Runway Presentation will take place Friday Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. in the West 2 parking lot


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