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