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508: The science of fashion
504: Work of art
496: Slow motion
492: Best foot forward
488: In her prime
484: Force majeure
480: Mixed bag
475: Fashioning the future
471: Unfinished business
464: Mint condition
454: Kurai kawaii
450: Family style
446: Cover story
442: Funky fit
438: Space man
436: Head dress
434: Brave new world
432: Winning streak
430: A cut above
428: Lighten up
426: Piece keeper
424: Gypsy things
422: Soft Touch
419: On Garde
417: Shock Treatment
415: Design of the times
413: Café society
411: Out of hiding
409: Lasting leggings
407: Chain gang
404: Clan of the cave wear
398: Victor/Victoriana
396: Vamp it up
394: Licence to thrill
392: Even cowgirls get the blues
390: Soldiers of fortune
388: In gear

Independent spirit

Kyoko Higa designs for the confident, stylish and hard-working woman-someone a lot like herself, Tama Miyake Lung learns.

Sixteen years after founding her first label, Rose is a Rose, Kyoko Higa still spends part of every day working on new designs. The Aoyama-based fashion veteran sketches ideas for her popular line of women's clothing in addition to prints, textiles, accessories, leather goods, tableware and more. As well as showing in the biannual Tokyo collections, Higa has in the past year held trunk shows in New York and Madison, Wisconsin, attended an Asian economic forum in Hainan, China, and participated in Peking Fashion Week. If it wasn't for the ongoing conflict in Iraq, she would have also held trunk shows in Paris and other parts of Europe.

Such a dizzying pace would be difficult for most working mothers to maintain, but only seems natural when considering Higa's fashion philosophy. "I want to design for those who have their own work, and people in situations where they are constantly attracting attention," she says, relaxing in her Aoyama atelier just a few weeks after showing her Spring/Summer 2004 collection in Tokyo. "My ideal image of a woman is not one that works so she can be equal to men in terms of productivity, but someone who is always cute, elegant and pretty, and who works and is independent."


It came from the Sears catalog
Newly 50, a milestone she marked by lopping off her trademark ponytail in favor of a chin-length bob, Higa looks years younger. She wears a slim, self-designed cardigan in a bold pattern of orange, red and black paired with flared cargo jeans and stop sign-red lips. Even her voice is soft and childlike.

"Since I was 5 or 6, I knew I wanted to become a fashion designer. Even now, that hasn't changed, so to be living that dream is something I am very happy about," says the mother of a 9-year-old girl. Unlike many designers who take their inspiration from traditional Japanese styles and fabrics, Higa absorbed the overwhelming American-style optimism that marked her childhood in Okinawa.

"The '50s were a time when the US had a huge influence. Cars were very showy, and blonde Americans wearing hoop skirts and high heels were all around me," she recalls. "Okinawa had these Sears catalogs and when I would look at them, I would see sofas, curtains, lingerie…all these things. So, as a child, instead of looking at picture books, I looked at the Sears catalog and I think that influenced me as well. If I had grown up on the mainland, which at the time was much less open to different cultures, I may not have dreamt of becoming a designer."

When Higa did move to the mainland, it was to attend the prestigious Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. After four years studying everything from sewing to pattern creation, she joined World Co., Ltd. in 1975. But designing knits for one of Japan's largest clothing wholesalers turned out to be more corporate than creative.

"It wasn't creation, but working inside an organization. Rather than based on design, it was based on relationships [within the company]," she says, comparing her life then to that of a salaryman. "I was a fashion designer, but it was not the sort of fashion design I wanted to do. So having done it for ten years…I quit."

Higa then packed up and headed for London, where she spent a year away from fashion. She studied English in the morning, took advantage of the city's free museums in the afternoon, and traveled to Europe and Africa during school holidays.

By the time she returned to Tokyo in 1987, Higa was ready to fulfill her dream of becoming a "real designer" in the likes of her idols Yohji Yamamoto, Hiroko Koshino and Takada Kenzo.


On her own
Rose is a Rose, named for the famous phrase coined by philosopher Gertrude Stein, set the standard for Higa's now eponymous label. "When I established Rose is a Rose, it was the '80s, and Japan was in the middle of the bubble," she recalls. "It was a time when there were many people who were able to buy very expensive things. But I think it's nonsense that something's value is measured by branding; I think it's important to know that something is good even if it doesn't have a brand name like Chanel."

Winner of the Mainichi Fashion Grand Prix for new designers in 1991, Higa has since traveled the world attracting customers from Miami to the Middle East, published two books, and launched kimono, uniform, housewares and children's clothing lines. But when asked where she finds her inspiration for so many projects, Higa is hard-pressed to answer. The designer's everyday life, especially her constant search for beautiful things, is what fuels her creativity. Her most recent collection for Spring/Summer 2004 was a reflection of that sunny outlook.

"These days, Japan's markets aren't very good. Even I catch myself lacking in punch, so it's not really a street punk, but some punkish energy is included," Higa says of the boldly colored yet feminine collection of Capri pants, sheer ruffled dresses and sporty details. "Being summer, I thought of making something that was fresh and energetic with pretty colors."

Good economy or bad, Higa shows no signs of slowing down. With plans to sell next in China and return to her hectic schedule of trunk shows, runway shows and travel, the veteran designer admits that her childhood dream remains elusive.

"In fashion work, there's no end. If you can, you're always striving to keep moving forward and forward because it's always a battle to create something new, show something new that nobody has seen before," she says. "So there's no set point you want to reach, since that end point is always moving forward."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Kyoko Higa