Lolita History: ATSUKI ONISHI
Disclaimer: Lately, I’ve been really interested in researching older brands that influenced early Lolita history. I’m only in my 30s and I’ve only been wearing lolita for about 10 years, and I definitely didn’t grow up in Japan, this is simply my best understanding of these things, based on my research. Please treat it more like a book report, than a primary source.
Atsuki Onishi (大西厚樹), was born November 17th, 1950 and graduated from Vantan Design Institute in 1971.
In 1978, Atsuki Onishi formed Quatre Saisons (キャトルセゾン) under BIGI Group (parent company of the parent company of Pink House).
In 1983 Atsuki Onishi presented three collections as a member of Tokyoism, which is considered by many to be the Official founding of the brand ATSUKI ONISHI. While the main brand changed names, they would still operate under the corporate name Quatre Saisons co., LTD.
The brand was popular with Olive Girls (readers of Olive Magazine). Fairytale and Alice motifs were popular, as you can see in these images from a knitting pattern book the brand put out in 1985. (The knitting book is out of print, but second hand copies are sometimes available via Amazon Japan)
You can also see one of their original Alice in Wonderland textile prints in the background of this instagram photo. Note the A.O. in the lower right.
Baby, The Stars Shine Bright founder and designer Akinori Isobe (礒部昭徳) worked as a designer for ATSUKI ONISHI in the mid 1980s, prior to founding Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. Looking just at the motifs and shapes in the knitting book, it’s easy to see parallels between this and Akinori Isobe’s later work for Baby.
When the knitting book came out in 1985, the brand was still pretty young, and it actually lists the 1984 and 1985 collections in the timeline of the designer’s career.
I feel like if it had been a later book, it probably wouldn’t have given them so much weight!
Above is the poster advertising the 1985 A/W collection, which does mention Quatre Saisons as being the corporation behind the brand. Interestingly, a company named Quatre Saisons still very much exists and pre-dates ATSUKI ONISHI, but that Quatre Saisons seems to sell furniture and home goods, and, it seems like they have for years. I am currently assuming that they aren’t the same company. BIGI Group, the parent company, of ATSUKI ONISHI still exists as well, and they don’t indicate that they currently manage the existing Quatre Saisons on their brand page.
It’s also interesting that at some point, ATSUKI ONISHI was listing “since 1978” on their brands tags, which also would indicate it not being the same Quatre Saisons, as the existing Quatre Saisons lists their founding date as 1973.
The Spring/Summer ’86 collection was titled “Treasure Island” and In April of 1986 the ’86 Fall / Winter Collection “Teddy Bear” was announced (fun fact, there exists a CD of this!) and ATSUKI ONISHI created the uniforms for the Spring ’86 International Sports Fair.
In June of 1987, ATSUKI ONISHI entered into a licencing agreement with Nishikawa Sangyo Co., Ltd. to make Handkerchiefs (which may have been more like what we would call washcloths or small towels, or may have been proper British style handkerchiefs, it’s unclear). Towel sets like the one above were sold at least as early/late as 1998 though.
They also apparently sold an actual teddy bear around the late 80s / early 90s which would have been during the time period where teddy bears were really trendy in Japan.
In 1989, the designer shifted his residence so that he was spending 2/3rds of the year living in England, and 1/3rd of the time living in Japan. This fact is cited in almost every source, so, from what I can gather, it was probably widely publicized, perhaps as a way to give the brand more authenticity as the brand was becoming known for it’s “British style”. It also may have signified a break in production of new items in Japan.
In November of 1989, the designer launched ‘A.O. by ATUSUKI ONISHI’ as part of the 1990 S/S collection.
The brand would go on to primarily stylize their name as A.O., with that mark appearing in fabric textiles. Note the difference between the 1988 and 1992 collection posters below.
In June of 1990 the designer returned to Japan and restarted operations. A sub-brand for men called “Rupert“, after the bear, was then launched in 1994. There was a collection of items with a picture of the actual cartoon bear on them under A.O. at that time. The brand still exists today, and is handled by Adonis Green.
ATSUKI ONISHI Thick Sweater Book 1995 is described as “Sweater book designed by popular designer, Atsuki Onishi. Scandinavian style, 50’s style French style, classical again … 19 points of traditional designs and patterns freshly finished. With detailed instructions for making all points.“
ATSUKI ONISHI Thick Sweater Book 1996 is described as “A handmade knit work collection that can be woven by the brand of Atsugi Onishi, which is very popular among young people. AO-style style with a nostalgic British arrangement in a modern style. Finished with cute French and basic American finish. “
A third volume, also published in 1996, shows distinctly pink-house-esque styling inside mixed with a more french look.
In April of 1996, the brand launched “ALICE BY ATSUKI ONISHI”, which, I would assume to be a romantic sort of brand, if not a lolita one, but it’s actually surprisingly hard to find surviving items from that label and what I could find, looks more like generic formalwear.
They would also sell housewares, to some degree. There is a 2001 bedding (and pajama) collection catalog posted on this blog. A lot of the blog posts talk nostalgically about owning A.O. Pajamas. It seems like the brand might have been selling pajamas and bedding and towels under the sub-label A.O. sleep? But you don’t really sell your old bedding and pajamas online, or blog about them much, so there isn’t as much info about this arm of the brand.
At some point, the brand was selling luggage/bags under Senzo Co., ltd, but their website is date stamped as being last updated in 2004.
I haven’t been able to find an obituary or an official statement, only the above blog post from a former brand staff member.
I’m not sure when the formal wear line ATSUKI ONISHI Noir started, though a former staff member suggested it was the last arm of the brand that existed in 2012. I can’t find any indication that they are still producing items, and this 2016 blog post suggests there are no longer an A.O. items in production at all, not even collaboration products.
In the end, it seems that ATSUKI ONISHI closed with the passing of the designer who gave the brand it’s name. But the ripples of the brand’s influence can still be seen in modern romantic Jfashion styles like lolita today.
It’s hard to find much about this brand online, there is a neat blog post in Japanese on the Sofia and Freya blog (former brand staff member), and another later one talking about the status of the brand in 2012, and this blog has a photo of the 1985 collection poster. There are a few blurry photos from Olive here. A reflection about the brand after learning the designer passed here… This blog post also talks nostalgically about the brand. This blogger wrote a bunch of posts about the brand ~10-15 years ago. I would also recommend Olive magazine, for photos of older items from the brand.