the new french streetwear brand challenging paris' couture culture
24-year-old designer Noémie Aiko Sebayashi is part of a new wave of young designers in Paris – a city that probably doesn’t even count sweatpants as clothing.
Photography Carlijn Jacobs
Noémie Aiko Sebayashi named her brand, Nattofranco, after her favorite Japanese snack, natto, a love-it-or-hate-it fermented soybean situation eaten with rice. "Natto is like blue cheese," she explains to me (using a very French analogy). "You eat it for the first time, and you're like, 'What the hell is this?!' Then you become obsessed with it."
I look up pictures on my iPhone. I'm unconvinced (it looks gloopy). But 32,500 Japanese people can't be wrong. And I trust her taste - she's wearing galaxy-print Margiela boots, men's jeans, and a soft-brown turtleneck from her spring/summer 16 collection (her fourth so far) with a detachable velcro patch. The playfulness of the velcro and the off shade of brown have the slight goofiness of classic Walter van Beirendonck pieces, but the shirt's overall vibe is more like something you'd see on a cute boy on the street in Tokyo.
The other half of Noémie's brand name, "franco," is a tribute to her Frenchness. Noémie's father is Japanese - and she travels there every two years - but her mother is French and Noémie grew up in "the 78," a banlieue so far on the outskirts of Paris she says it feels more like a separate town. "My brand isn't about Paris and Tokyo," she says, specifying, "it's about suburban France and Hokkaido. That's where I'm from."
Two years ago, after graduating from a private fashion university in Paris and an internship with Mongolian designer Tsolo Munkh, Noémie made a few silk-screened T-shirts. They had intricate drawings of koala bears on them, sandwiched between lines of graphic text that spelled out the Japanese for "koala" and an English translation. A couple of magazine editors stumbled across the shirts online, and the brand grew from there. "People still ask me about those t-shirts, but I'm like, 'too late!,'" she says. "That's so French." It takes a while, she explains, for new things to catch on in Paris - at least when it comes to fashion.
Now that she's stocked at Opening Ceremony in New York, it's easier to convince people back home. But in a city of haute couture lovers, a designer whose core shapes are sweatpants, turtlenecks and sweatshirts is always going to be swimming upstream. (Noémie jokes that her silhouettes are basically the uniform of a 80s dude who just discovered jogging.) Still, she does think Paris is changing. "Finally!" she mock-sighs, "I think it's just the beginning. But you look at brands like Vetements and Jacquemus... I'm excited to be a designer in Paris now."
She's also psyched to be producing her spring collection in France. Her latest pieces are being made in Marseilles, where she's able to maintain tighter quality control than she was when she was emailing with factories in Peru. "In Marseilles, they have some of the best artisans in the South of France," she adds, "and it's very important for me to support French artisans." They're also able to do the silkscreening just how she likes. "It's all about the graphics for me, always," she says.
Her graphics are what sets Nattofranco apart from other streetwear brands. For one collection, she became obsessed with the 80s and developed a numbered dot-to-dot print (like the puzzles you did as a kid) that reveals the outline of Stephanie Seymour's breasts. "But you wouldn't know it was her chest unless you actually joined the dots!" And in another throwback, she based the embroidered patches that covered her fall collection of tailored jersey sweatpants and nylon bomber jackets on old photos of her father in his Japanese school uniform.
For fall/winter 16, Noémie is experimenting with the packaging of her brand's namesake snack. She loves the combination of gold and orange on the wrapper of her favorite natto brand. And the black logo is iconic, she says, "like Kellogg's in America." She might stretch out the lettering and turn it into stripes on T-shirts. She's not sure yet. But she's not about simply reprinting a household logo and calling it design. "I like things that people recognize and connect with, that are pop and fun - but I always do it differently."
She's also introducing menswear next season. "I've always thought of my pieces as being for men and women," says Noémie. For February, she's just going to make them in bigger sizes. "I mean, I'm a tomboy," she says. So it's not much of a stretch.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Carlijn Jacobs