Theater of the self 

Intimate expanses populated with ideas — actions here and gone in the space of a breath: If there are clothes to fit the imaginary dramas of everyday life, then Asa Nagao will design them, lengthening the hem on a paradox, taking in the waist of reverie.

Japan-born Nagao has moved back and forth between the United States and Tokyo for most of her life, so that now, at the age of 25, she’s thoroughly bilingual and multicultural. Alternating between traditional kimono fabrics and cashmere, raincoat and sari materials, she expresses the world-village spirit of metro Detroit and appreciates what she sees as its anything-goes cool.

“I try to explore with different materials as much as possible … Wearing layers of clothes makes it easier for you to change how you look … I like dresses that drag on the ground so that when you’re walking, the front of your shoe just pops out once in a while.”

A recent graduate of the Center for Creative Studies, where she studied textile design and digital media, Nagao thinks of her creations as art-making, not commercial activity.

“I wouldn’t say that what I do is fashion … I make costumes. You know how you go in your closet and you pick out some outfit and then you feel different when you’re wearing it? It’s the same idea as an actor wearing a costume, because whenever they get into the costume, they get the feel of what they’re supposed to be.”

It’s just that the dramatic worlds through which these actors move are suspended in the conceptual realm, seeing the light in a temporary installation or one of her short videos. The spacious, white, kimonolike piece (pictured below) that she made recently was for a film about a kind of life-and-death limbo.

“In Japan, when anybody’s wearing a white kimono, that means they’re dead … in the back of the costume, there’s actual kimono material, that’s a silk painting … the sleeves are frayed. It was just a movie about this girl trying to get into an elevator or a door that wasn’t there, but she thinks it’s there … and it’s there, it disappears, and it’s there, it disappears. And she isn’t actually there — is what we do every day actually there?”

Then for the everyday scripts that she acts in herself, those of the workplace, clubs and galleries, Nagao often makes real-world costumes to wear wherever and whenever.

“But I wouldn’t be against doing something on commission, because I have fun making things for other people too.”

As a member of ElementDetroit, the collective responsible for monthly art installations at Motor Lounge in Hamtramck (3515 Caniff — 313-369-0090), she extends her passion for design to the transformation of interiors. It’ll be just this impulse that reigns on Saturday, July 28 when she displays her latest ideas (in the company of some of Detroit’s most exciting designers). Her project for that evening? “Clothing for people 20 feet tall,” she says with a smile.

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at

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