A cross between drag, performance art, and wrestling, the all-women’s league combines high concept costuming with high-flying stunts
Sukeban is lighting up the ring. A cross between drag, performance art, and wrestling entertainment, the all-women’s league combines high concept costuming with high-flying stunts. Named after the Japanese girl gangs of the ’60s and ’70s, Sukeban seeks to capture this girlish toughness both in and outside the ring: extending its universe of wrestling lore akin to America’s WWE. After a landmark inaugural match in New York this past September, it looks like the only thing next for the league is world domination.
Olympia Le-Tan—creative director and costume designer for Sukeban—is no stranger to mixing the girly and historical; female wrestling, while seemingly a stretch, is a natural fit. The rigorous craftsmanship of her namesake brand—known best for those hand-embroidered clutch bags made to look like books—directly translates to creating high concept costumes for the league’s wrestlers. Le-Tan has helped these intrepid performers craft distinct identities whose appeal reaches past the existing Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling (referred to as Joshi Pro) fanbase. Sukeban is for those who love anime, fashion, and Japanese culture, expanding the audience stateside and beyond.
Ahead of Sukeban’s second show in Miami, Document spoke with Le-Tan about performance persona, the challenges of creating wrestling wear, and what’s next for the league.
Jayne O’Dwyer: Congratulations on Sukeban’s world premiere! What was the build up for the show like?
Olympia Le-Tan: It was a relief! My partner who started Sukeban was talking to wrestlers in Japan for about two years. I started working on the project maybe a year ago. We went to Japan a few times to meet with them and watch them fight, then we started thinking about what their different characters were going to be for [the league]. For some, it was their first time in America, others their first time leaving Japan. Bull Nakano, who’s the commissioner of the league and a superstar wrestler from the ’80s (we worked with her to find all the talent) hadn’t been to the states for 29 years. So you could really feel the excitement from the wrestling fans, to finally see all these people in the same room.
Jayne: Who is Sukeban’s audience?
Olympia: Well, there is quite a big wrestling community in New York and [many] other cities in the states, which we [plan to visit] on tour. A lot of people specifically love Japanese female wrestling—Joshi Pro. In America, female wrestling is historically [treated like] a side thought to male wrestling. In Japan, it’s a huge thing.
The idea with bringing [Sukeban] here was to grow that audience, and bring it to a whole other crowd that normally isn’t even interested in American wrestling. Maybe they like Marc Newson’s work because he designed the championship belt. Makeup is also quite a big thing in wrestling: Isamaya Ffrench is coming to Miami to do their looks. We had Nails by Mei work [with us], and she did some crazy amazing nail art for the fight in New York and for their official portraits.
Jayne: What was it like to collaborate with the wrestlers?
Olympia: I always like the challenge of doing something that’s completely different than what I normally do. Working with [the wrestlers] was fun because they’ve all got their own [unique] characters. We really wanted to turn them into superheroes based on their different skills; watching them fight, and seeing what they’ve worn in the past. Atomic Banshee, the punk, is really into fashion. She loves her Vivienne Westwood, her Hysteric Glamour. Usually, they make their own costumes, or they have them made by a local seamstress, [which] they pay for themselves. So this was sort of me rolling out the red carpet for them.
Jayne: You’ve got The Vandals, Dangerous Liaisons, Cherry Bomb Girls, the Harajuku Stars, and Stray Cat. What was your role in creating these wrestling factions?
Olympia: They kind of developed naturally. The Harajuku Stars, who [wear] little sailor suits, were [designed] a bit like the Sailor Moon gang, and also inspired by Sukeban, the Japanese girl gangs from the ’60s and ’70s that we named the league after. That’s who they are in their daily lives, so it was easy to put them into a group because they fit well together. Then we had The Vandals, so Atomic Banshee, the punk; then Midnight Player, who’s a biker; Bingo, who’s a clown; and Otaku Chan, who’s a nerd. This [faction] felt a bit like outcasts.
With the Dangerous Liaisons, two of the wrestlers are a big deal in Japan, Commander Nakajima and Countess Saori. We knew that they had to be sort of aggressive, villain-like figures, so we added in Queen of Hearts and Lady Antoinette, two mean queen [characters].
With the Cherry Bomb Girls, [we got to work with] Supersonic, historically the fastest wrestler in the world, [who] had been in retirement for eight years. When I met her, she was actually managing some of the other wrestlers. We had a big lunch to celebrate signing all the girls, and she came with a very ’90s hip hop style. We asked her if she’d come out of retirement for [Sukeban], and she was like, “I want to come to New York. I’m obsessed with Home Alone 2,” and she already had her gang. When we were working on their costumes, we were looking at pictures of TLC and Salt-N-Pepa. Then with Stray Cat, well: she’s a stray cat. She’s wandering in every group, and in no group.
Jayne: I’m seeing the detail-oriented from your own brand, as well as the sense of humor and kitsch in Hotel Olympia in your designs for Sukeban. What parts of the Olympia Le-Tan universe did you specifically want to bring to this project?
Olympia: With the Harajuku Stars, the whole look was based on [something] that I’d already done for Olympia Le-Tan, [back] when Kiko Mizuhara opened one of my shows, her first runway ever outside of Japan. I had made a similar look in latex, then [modified] details with embroidery. When Atomic Banshee did her portrait she said ‘I won’t be able to fight with these pins on,’ so I made all the little buttons with hand embroidery. I really like adding these little touches that almost no one knows about.
Jayne: What was the biggest challenge for you with creating performance wear?
Olympia: Usually, [Japanese female wrestlers] wear spandex, or hardly anything. We didn’t want to be sexy in that way, so they’re more covered up than usual. Stretch is another important thing to have [in mind] with [performance wear]. That’s why I thought of latex, because it looks cool, and it’s super stretchy. I had sent them all these pictures of corsets before the fittings, and I was like, Can you bend correctly in this? Can you do all your moves in this? And they were like, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ There were some challenges, like Lady Antoinette obviously had to have the wig with all the pearls in it and everything. [I thought about] a wig cap, and just decided You know what, you’re punk rock, just rip off your wig and start fighting.
Jayne: What were your biggest takeaways from the premiere?
Olympia: I was super impressed after the show because I had seen them fighting in Tokyo, but it’s completely different over there because there’s no music and they’re wearing bikinis. For someone who’s not obsessed with wrestling, you kind of drift away after a bit, whereas in New York, I just wanted to stay on the balcony and watch because it was so fun. Some of the girls who weren’t necessarily my favorite [characters] when I met them did their entrances, and I was like, She’s so cool. That was my main takeaway, how the girls metamorphosize when they enter the ring.
Jayne: With Sukeban’s Instagram, there’s an announcement with a reporter about a live fight breaking out, then the run-in at the bar, creating this whole extended universe. What’s next for Sukeban?
Olympia: Sukeban started with collaborations, like Mark Newsom working on the belt, Mei and Issamaya [with glam], and Steven Jones, who did the hats. There’s also the amazing latex artists I worked with, Donna Matrix and this English girl called Soft Skin Latex. Then the different photographers and video artists. Kunichi Nomura—a very old friend of mine who I met in Japan 25 years ago—will be the announcer in the ring in Tokyo. We asked him if he would make an appearance in one of our videos because we thought it would be cool to have the wrestlers interacting with other people. Then we asked Nobu from Hysteric Glamour to be in it too. We shot it at Casba, which is my friend’s bar that’s been there forever. The news reporter is also a friend in Tokyo. He’s called Okamoto Reggie, and he always does crazy looks for himself. I thought he’d be a cool news reporter, and he showed up in a pink suit with matching glasses. We loved it.
Jayne: What are you most excited about for your Miami show?
Olympia: Having the fight outdoors at a skatepark. This time, the vibe is more like a street fight.
Jayne: What would your wrestling name be if you were in the ring?
Olympia: I have been christened The Iron Lady, after Margaret Thatcher: my pearls, my accent, and maybe my bossiness, too.