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Sean Ishikawa of Persona Non Grata Discusses Themes for his Upcoming Show

By Sierra Petro

New York Fashion Week is here, which means the Persona Non Grata show is coming up at Purchase. The Purchase Print sat down with Sean Ishikawa, Purchase senior and Creative Director of Persona Non Grata, to reflect on last season's show and discuss the themes of identity, freedom, and age that will be presented in his show on February 16.

Persona Non Grata SS19 campaign. (Photo by Leonardo Avo)

Your last show in September was a pleasure to view once the chaos subsided. There were some mishaps when it came to starting on time to coincide with the sunset. What was going on backstage?

This season I want to make sure everything flows smoothly backstage, because I didn’t anticipate the electricity situation during the last show to go the way it did. It was pitch black, and models were holding flashlights as I tried to get every look going. I totally get why some people didn’t want to wait for the show to start, because they didn’t know what to expect. It counts that they came in the first place. God bless Augustines Velo Club and their front man Joseph Kress for keeping the audience entertained while waiting. They are so brilliant, and Joseph played as opener and then ran backstage to walk the show!

Why do you enjoy the backstage chaos?

At my show or at any other fashion show, it is madness and chaos backstage. Stylists are screaming, models are waiting around for hours, and hair and makeup are chasing them down. Then, the audience sits and waits until the music begins, the lights lift, and the models silently, yet stridently, hit the runway in perfection. That’s the dichotomy that really gets me! The chaos to me is the ugly truth of runway.

Do you design your collections with sales in mind?

Some pieces are made for the runway to present a new idea versus being designed knowing that It’ll be a hot seller. Im not a business man, but my father was. I had my share of “dinner drudgery," or business conversations at the dinner table. I dreaded it then, but I’m grateful for his advice now. I wouldn’t say I’ve put into practice all the skills and tactics I’ve learned, since I do fashion because it’s fun and interesting and not for the money. Maybe when I’m starving or about to lose my home post graduation I’ll apply the business skills to the design. For now, I try to stay sincere and disciplined to my ideas and to the community I design with in mind.

Persona Non Grata SS19 campaign. (Photo by Leonardo Avo)

What kind of pieces sold after the last show?

A get a lot of requests for custom pieces, like somebody asking me to do their outfit for the Cover Show at The Stood. From the last show, I had some t-shirt requests, which are easy because they are screen-printed. I just need to worry about the fit. If, say all the kimono dresses were on backorder, I wouldn’t have the manpower to keep up with that. I understand not everyone has about $300 to buy a heavy cut-and-sew piece. Depending on what’s desired upon request, I can skimp on material. I can be smart about fabrication, but it doesn’t bypass the fact that it takes me 300 hours to produce certain items.

Did any audience reactions to your last show prompt you to make changes going forward?

I got a critique that Persona Non Grata has a cold or cool aura, which I thought was a poke at me. I was thinking, “Nobody wants to be a cold person.” I couldn’t tell if it was my use of cold colors; I don’t like reds and pinks. I don't like plushy, warm things, but rather ones that are constructed. I take it with a grain of salt and spoon full of sugar, and I see it as data to explore. Im learning along the way that there’s trolling, which you can sense like a bad odor, and then there is attentive, constructive criticism. If people want to feel warmer, more comfortable, and less intimidated, it means something to me. I think that with this next show, I will be able to explore the warmth that comes with being home, like being around the fireplace.

How will the warmth of that fireplace be portrayed in your new collection? 

The flame that heats the home can be related to my focus on the two types of freedoms I hope to explore in conversation via the next show. The first is the freedom to be one’s authentic self at home. Second is the fire within us to escape our parents’ home, or our past, and find our freedom and our true authentic self.

Where at home did you get your inspiration for the collection?

The last collection was so me, but this time, I studied the way we dress ourselves when we don’t think we’re dressing ourselves. For example, if I’m going to my mother’s church function, I’m dressing for her. The contradictions in situations such as these validate our identity through fashion. I also studied my parents' and their friends' photos from their youth. The forward, which was the last show, was about the nostalgia in playing around outdoors as a child. With the upcoming show, chapter 1, that child is now thirteen, has noticed the pictures of their parents on the wall, and is starting to develop their style around that. I don’t know what feels better than looking at pictures of your parents in their prime and being like, “Ugh that was my mom, what a babe! That was my dad, what a stud! If they went to my school now, we’d have some issues.” I’m bringing those issues to hand in this collection, which is necessary when portraying finding one’s authentic self. No true and long lasting change happened out of nowhere, with no familiarity or reference to help identify with.

Persona Non Grata SS19 campaign. (Photo by Leonardo Avo)

Would you like to see people your parents' age wearing your new collection?

Yes, I’m trying to manipulate people to not feeling like they can't “get away with it” because they don’t feel young enough to pull off the look or not old enough to wear something so mature in style. Women can handle aging with more humor and grace because it’s been so stigmatized to women. They can handle it with more strength than men. You can get comfortable in your body and the world you’re in with age, but there's still the threat of age. I want to put a high worth to the things that are of age. 

Do you receive any ageism as a 24-year-old undergraduate student? 

No, Many undergrad students vary in age. I started at Purchase College in the fall of 2012 as a film student. I was almost too young then at 17 and really not prepared for college. That might be why I've taken my time and dabbled in so many majors until I found my passion in the language arts. I think I've finally mentally caught up with my class, and I don’t feel like I’m set apart. In fact, I feel that having been at this school for all these years and having grown up and changed as a person here, I'm able to really identify with Purchase and see it with a more unbiased lens.

Would you consider casting older models?

I would love to cast older models. I actually considered casting professors, but I don’t think they’d be comfortable, since the show will be at night in The Stood. I’ll be using students, but one day I’d totally be that designer that casts 60-year-old models as well as the young newbies. I’ve never thought this much about casting for any of my shows. Everyone will be around the same age, but some will slip through the cracks of having either more mature or youthful qualities. I’m trying to balance it all with how I put them in the clothing and with what I’m doing with them in the show.​

Catch the Persona Non Grata SS19 show on February 16 in The Stood. The opener will begin at 9:30 p.m. and the show at 10:00 p.m.


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