For more than 30 years, Tadashi Shoji’s namesake collection of special-occasion dresses has made women around the globe—including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, first lady Michelle Obama and countless members of wedding parties—look and feel beautiful. Between trips to his offices in New York and Shanghai, the Japanese-born American designer sat down with Where at his Los Angeles headquarters to discuss his inspirations, aspirations and packing tips.
When did you know that you’d “arrived” as a designer?
I didn’t plan to be a fashion designer. ... I wanted to be an artist since I was kid in Japan. But when I realized, “I can’t make it in this world in the art scene” … I ran away from Japan to the United States as a tourist. I ended up in junior college, Trade-Tech [Los Angeles Trade Technical College], in the fashion-design department. I had never sewn in my life. In the first semester, they were teaching about draping, and [I thought], “This is so interesting; this is sculpting! Fabric is sculpting on the woman’s body.” That hooked me.
What is your most memorable fashion moment?
When I started, maybe the second year or third year, so 30 years ago … Bullocks Wilshire department store [in Los Angeles] was the best department store at that time. And that year, for the Christmas show, in the six windows facing Wilshire Boulevard they put all my dresses. … It was a highlight.
What was the inspiration behind your fall 2015 collection?
The beauty of flying. But I didn’t want to do the regular uniform, the goggles. It’s about flying and the feather and bird, all those mixing. Mechanical flying is very interesting. So we started collecting all the pictures and inspiration. That part is fun for me. ... But usually, when our regular customers have to go to a cocktail party or black tie [event] or wedding, they don’t care about my inspiration. When they put on a dress and feel so pretty and so comfortable, that is most important.
Who is your muse?
Everyday women. Our core customer is late 20s to late 40s, very self-confident. Working women or, like a soccer mom, very busy raising kids. The kind of person who loves life.
What pieces are key for fall?
We do a lot of capes. And the capelet dress. Always very packable, easy to wear. [The dresses are] two-piece, so you can wear [the capelet] with pants, you can wear a jacket or you can wear the miniskirt.
Do you think about travelers as you design?
Oh, definitely, because I never check things. In the airport, carrying a bag of heavy stuff is too much. … You have to edit. Edit out—same thing we do [for a] fashion show. Women especially.
Do you have any other packing tips?
It’s easiest if you do a theme of color. If you do black, then maybe accessorize with scarves or shoes in a different color. In the summertime, it’s all white, or blue and white. Color coordinate and you can interchange all the occasions, all the items.
What essential item should be in a chic traveler’s suitcase?
One time, when I was coming back from New York to Los Angeles, this guy [was wrapped] in his own cashmere throw. Oh, that is so chichi, so cool, I think!
What are the perfect ingredients for your suitcase?
Driver slip-on shoes, drawstring pants and then T-shirts and a cardigan in the summertime. In the wintertime, a down jacket. Everything you can smash, make tight and, still, it’s OK, doesn’t wrinkle.
When choosing shoes for travel, how do you bridge the gap between style and comfort?
[My priority is] definitely comfort. But, you know, I do bright color, this kind of driver slip-on shoes. My favorite pair is red. Red or blue. Even in black attire, if you wear red shoes, it gives you an “I’m dressed up” kind of feeling.
What do you shop for when you travel?
Books. Fashion books. [But] when I went to Bali the first time, I started ordering all the furniture. I shipped a whole container of furniture! … When I was in Bangkok, I [bought] statues. So it depends on the place.
Do you have an indispensable piece of clothing when you travel?
Always extra T-shirts. … [After] 10 hours, 12 hours in the airplane, even spraying on [cologne or deodorant] doesn’t make you clean, but at least if you change T-shirts, it’s a new, fresh kind of feeling.
What is your next travel destination?
Wednesday, I am leaving for Shanghai. Then my friend is visiting from New York, so I have to take him from Shanghai to Xi’an and Xi’an to Beijing.
If you could impart one piece of fashion advice to travelers, what would it be? It depends on where you go. If it’s a 10-hour flight [over] the Pacific Ocean or whatever, don’t wear high heels, wear flats. I think flats are in. So you don’t need to torture yourself in the airport walking in high heels.
Other than clothing, is there any essential item that you always travel with?
Not only during travel, but definitely the iPhone and iPad. One time I lost my iPad in the airplane. I was panicked that I couldn’t get it back. I also lost my iPhone one time. If I don’t have that one, I can’t survive!
What’s next for you as a designer?
Branching out all different lines. Like now, we are coming out with the mini-Tadashi Shoji girls’ line for 2 years to 10 years old. Occasion dresses, like wedding flower girl or party dress.
If you could wake up tomorrow in any part of the world, where would it be?
Morocco. I went to Andalusia in Spain, and I tried to go to Morocco that time. Didn’t happen. I did a Moorish theme one time, so maybe I should go there.
Is there anyone you would like to dress but haven’t?
When [my publicist] came to work for us last year … I told her, “You have to dress Michelle Obama.” And it happened! So maybe I can dress a queen of England. [Laughs.] Maybe Princess Kate. I think maybe the next dream is if she wears our dresses. It’s a real big thing, I think!
Tadashi Shoji's designs are available online at www.tadashishoji.com. They are also available at his boutiques in South Coast Plaza (Costa Mesa, CA) and The Forum Shops at Caesars (Las Vegas, NV) and at Lord and Taylor, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.