new gender neutral label gaijin is inspired by loneliness
Perth born designer Sean McKenna on fighting isolation through design.
In 2015, Perth born designer Sean McKenna was living in Tokyo. Finding himself amongst the Westerners who made up just two percent of the country's population, he was consumed by feelings of isolation. But this sense of seclusion wasn't new, his adult life in Perth — the world's most isolated city — had also produced these feelings of being disconnected from the world around him.
Unable to connect or express himself freely in either city, McKenna turned to fashion to channel his feelings of loneliness through his non-binary designs. Two years later, and the product is his new gender-neutral label GAIJIN (guy-jin).
Fusing sports-luxe and classic silhouettes that reject gendered binaries, the brand's philosophy is welcoming to everyone, celebrates differences and champions solidarity. We spoke to the designer about his priorities for the new label.
Before we start, what exactly is GAIJIN?
Gaijin is a Japanese word, it's sensitive in Japan… kind of. The Kanji characters '外人' translate to 'foreign person' and it was first used in 13th century texts to reference members of foreign clans. In contemporary Japan, it is a label given to foreign nationals, specifically those of western descent.
GAIJIN is the title for my new label because it not only pays homage to my experiences of being a minority in Japan and my adoration of Japanese garment construction, but also because it's representative of the personal experiences in my adult life to date. There's obviously another dialogue here surrounding appropriation. This project was conceived whilst travelling in Japan and refined a year later, in consultation with a lot of Japanese friends, whilst living there. I could have used my own name or come up with something else, but to me, GAIJIN is perfect.
How have feelings of disconnection inspired the label?
I grew up in Perth, which is a small city. As is the case in any small community, it's very incestuous. The kind of openness that exists in a city like Melbourne is absent. When you reach an age and come to the realisation that you no longer share the same interests and priorities as the people you grew up with, it's difficult to transition and build new relationships. This experience of isolation characterised my adult life in Perth and was re-triggered in a more positive way when I first travelled to Japan. The experience of isolation was familiar but almost comforting now that I could verbalise it.
Why make GAIJIN gender neutral?
It wasn't necessarily a conscious decision. I wanted to create something different to what any other brand is doing at the moment. There are a lot of exciting new labels which tend to either be quite modern or quite classic. The goal of GAIJIN is to combine these two schools… contemporary, luxury sportswear fused with classic silhouettes. I've always liked clothes that look good regardless of who's interchangeably wearing them. Jackets and tops aren't really a problem as everything is designed oversized. Pants are obviously more difficult, but I'm proud of what we've accomplished.
In what other ways have you tried to bring your own social beliefs to the brand?
Well, I've worked really hard to ensure that sustainable and ethical standards are met wherever possible. The garments are produced here in Melbourne and I'm dealing with the highest quality materials I can source exclusively from Australia and Japan. Ticking these two boxes comes at a cost though, and this is why consumer education is so important.
Most of the outerwear pieces in Collection 01 use Japanese, waterproof, polyester shells accompanied by Australian merino wool linings. We're also working with organic Japanese cottons and other Australian wools.
Where do you plan to take GAIJIN in the future?
My primary objective of getting the label off the ground is a reality, so that's exciting. I've continually reminded myself throughout this process that essentially all I'm doing is making clothes that I want to wear, so if all else fails, I've made myself a new wardrobe, which is pretty fresh. What happens next is a combination of how hard I apply myself and whether or not luck goes my way.
Text Alex Manatakis
Photography Nadeemy Betros