Japanese fashion designer
Born: Tokyo, Japan, 29 July 1945. Education: Kuwazawa Design School, Tokyo; Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, 1960s. Career: Fabric designer, Itida, 1960s; pattern maker, Norma Kamali, mid-1960s; sewer, Karl Lagerfeld, mid-1960s; designer for Ann Taylor, 1980s; designer, Vogue pattern company, 1987; introduced the Hana line, 1999. Awards: D.I.V.A. (Design Impact Vision Atlanta) Bridge Designer of the Year award, Atlanta Apparel Mart, 1997. Address: 214 West 39th Street, Suite 305, New York, NY 10018 U.S.A. Website: www.tamotsu.com .
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Spirit of Understatement," online at Tamotsu, www.tamotsu.com , November 2001.
In a fashion world overwhelmed by sylphs in bikinis, wrap skirts, and capri pants, Tamotsu is the one holdout, the designer who envisions consistently polished, wearable garments for a variety of female shapes. From the pursuit of a growing niche market share in pluses, talls, and misses, his vision, which he calls "The Elegance of Understatement," is gaining acceptance in more department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Harrods, House of Fraser, Jacobson's, Marshall Fields, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom. Tamotsu's sales manager Ellen Mullman explained to Women's Wear Daily fashion reporter Rebecca Kleinman, the concept was "not to make clothes for big people, but just to make clothes." Tamotsu's timeless, U.S.-sewn designs in gentle, body-flattering fabrics have found champions in Senator Hillary Clinton, television hostess Joan Lunden, and actresses Rosie O'Donnell, Star Jones, and Camryn Manheim, who have modeled dresses and suits for the company.
A native of Japan and graduate of Tokyo's Kuwazawa Design School, Tamotsu designed for Itida, the nation's prime fabric manufacturer. After a visit to New York, he took up permanent residence in a small West Side New York apartment in the 1960s. He studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology while earning a living freelancing in the fashion industry. By day, he made patterns for designer Norma Kamali; in the evening, he sewed uniforms for Karl Lagerfeld.
Tamotsu got his start as a private-label couturier late in the 1960s while stitching up jumpsuits to order for friends. To introduce his designs, he let the clothes speak for themselves. Late in the 1970s, a retailer saw someone wearing one of Tamotsu's simple, elegant suits and placed an order. Advanced from one sewing machine, the operation rapidly needed a pattern maker, cutter, seamstresses, sales staff, and office. To ensure quality, Tamotsu hired employees but monitored each production stage. In the 1980s Ann Taylor swamped his small firm with orders for as many coats as his staff could produce. By 1987 he became the top designer of the Vogue Pattern Company's wardrobe division and an alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology, for which he has served as a mentor.
Tamotsu's influence on the market grew from customer loyalty. In October 1997, Southeastern retailers voted him the Atlanta Apparel Mart's D.I.V.A. (Design Impact Vision Atlanta) Bridge Designer of the Year award. By the following year the Tamotsu label grew into a $16-million enterprise in suits, rain coats, careerwear, dresses, dress slacks, and sportswear sized 4 to 22. To meet demand, he assembled a close-knit staff of 200 to complete 10,000 to 15,000 garments per month in up to 40 styles.
Untrendy and uninterested in fashion buzz, Tamotsu focused on neutral tones as well as the red, navy, and black that suited urban needs. Introducing four to eight pieces each month, he reduced length, hem, and sleeves from standard sizes to fit women with high waist-lines and short strides. Most appreciative of his unfussy basics were large women and petite larger women, ones the toney designers had long ignored.
In business terms, Tamotsu targeted buyers wearing size 14 and above, who make up 60 percent of clothing purchases. To flatter a range of body sizes, he chose Italian viscose acetate for its fluidity, as well as imported silks, cottons, and wool blends for quality and durability. For spring 1998, he created "wedding cake" pieces, textured rayon acetate garments in soft praline, cream, caramel, and oyster. Comfortable and functional, the basic pieces harmonized classic lines that suited career and social occasions.
Tamotsu's company has earned respect for consistency and quality, which he maintains through carefully controlled growth. He respects employees, a tight coterie who think of themselves as family. The staff work out problems jointly, including times when the designer is not present to guide them. To Small Business Opportunities, he remarked, "I don't ask them too many questions as long as they are doing business." Generous and unpretentious, he distributes bonuses unexpectedly and is so devoted to his workers that he flew them to Hawaii to visit his new house.
In mid-1999 Tamotsu perked up his image with more vibrant color, more variety, and a younger, more playful silhouette. He took his cue from his customers, who indicated an interest in relaxed clothes, he embellished without compromising texture and comfort. Without alienating faithful clients, he enhanced his Tamotsu line to include a second tier called Hana, a washable, long-lived collection made from tencel, nylon, and Lycra in black and ivory. The line bore the name of his cat, who he called by the Japanese word for flower. The decision to update Tamotsu's sell-out clothing collection required his usual caution. He told fashion writer Donna Gold his philosophy of change: "In the past I would try different things, but the fans didn't always accept them. Now they are giving me more freedom to experiment, and I'm very happy about that. It gives me the opportunity to discover something new, something different."
Design was only the beginning of Tamotsu's innovations. To his staff, he added Steve Jacobson as Chicago sales representative. Tamotsu increased his outreach by plotting an August ad campaign for the New York Times Magazine, Mode, Town & Country, and Harper's Bazaar. He field-tested designs for Saks at stores in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Virginia and sent in-house teams to educate sales staffs on fitting the "Tamotsu woman." The initial outlay of $1 million also covered trade show promotions, two color brochures, and an appealing and informative company website.
Overall, Tamotsu's career has flourished from a steady balance of familiar, enduring garment shapes in minimalist style with a hint of newness and adventure. To Small Business Opportunities magazine he confided one of the joys of popular success: "Sometimes I see people wearing my designs of 10 years ago. They still look good—I like that." He also explained his method of selecting materials, "I have a good eye; I know fabric and I look very quickly. I catch the little things people miss."
Tamotsu has summarized his business style: he began with simple, understated elegance and based his business on fabrics and designs he liked; over decades, he built a one-owner empire to suit the large female shopper; valued staff and customer loyalty and shared proceeds with his staff; chose his niche and made it a reality by developing a home business into a fabled element of the clothing world. Unconventional in managerial style and principle, he has disdained corporate hierarchy and has remained honest and responsible about paying bills, avoids incurring debt, and keeps his word.
Essential to the Tamotsu business paradigm is another element— knowing how much he needs. The control of his operation stems from his attitude toward money. In February 2000, Nikki Swartz of Apparel Industry Magazine quoted Tamotsu's haiku-like thoughts on self-enrichment: "I ask myself, 'How much do I need?' not, 'What more can I get?'"
—Mary Ellen Snodgrass