This is an interview article with a handmade artist who expresses the desire to expand handmade creations from Japan to overseas. The NiJi e-commerce site features many talented artists who engage in creative activities with such aspirations. On this page, we delve deeper into the charm of affiliated artists and their works. In this inaugural interview, we speak with Akiko, the designer behind the brand 'MEINFINITY,' which specializes in bags made from traditional Japanese materials such as kimono and obi.
Q: The beautiful traditional-patterned bags are modern and quite impressive. What inspired you to start creating bags from kimono and obi fabrics?
In recent years, even as a Japanese person, direct interaction with kimono in daily life has become quite rare. I was one of those who thought, “I’d like to wear it, but it takes time and money, and it’s high-end, so it seems inaccessible.” My turning point came when I casually stepped into a recycled kimono specialty store. At that moment, I took a kimono into my hands and examined it closely for the first time. Despite having no knowledge about kimonos, I was captivated by the item in my hands, thinking, “The pattern of these flowers is incredibly cute!” Being ignorant, I didn’t approach it from a traditional perspective but saw it as a unique design that instantly caught my eye. Holding a particularly liked obi, standing in front of the mirror, I intuitionally felt, “This could be a clutch bag,” and this newfound discovery brought me joy. Without hesitation, I purchased obis and haoris and started creating bags at home.
Q: Did you have any prior experience in sewing or crafting small items before, or was this your first venture into such creative work?
Actually, I had zero skills. The desire to “give it a try” drove me to start from scratch, from buying a domestic sewing machine. Both the sewing machine and kimonos were entirely new to me, so I worked on my projects while attending a kimono shop once a week. The women gathered at the shop would share tips like, “Since the fabric is thick, it’s better to use denim needles for the sewing machine,” and they provided various insights along with interesting anecdotes. Taking in their advice, I managed to shape things little by little.
Q: Your proactive approach is truly impressive. It began as a hobby, right? Could you share the journey from that hobby to eventually selling your creations?
For the birthday of an American friend living in San Francisco, I decided to make a bag as a gift. That was the very first thing I posted on Instagram. Initially, it was more of a record for myself since I had just made it. Looking back, it was a simple creation without a pattern. However, at that time, I felt it was quite well done, so I took it to the kimono shop I mentioned earlier. To my surprise, the older ladies who were customers there said things like, ‘Anyone who buys this must be pitiable,’ expressing several negative opinions. I was really upset and thought, ‘I will prove them wrong.
Q: It became one of the driving forces, didn't it? At this stage, were you creating them purely as a hobby, without any thoughts of selling?
Yes, I was making them as one of my hobbies. Later on, I happened to participate in a garage sale and sold my creations for the first time. Art students from an art university happened to be there and were delighted to purchase them. It brought me immense joy to see something I made being sold and recognized.
After that, as I gradually created more and shared them on Instagram, I received positive reactions from foreigners. Thinking, “Maybe this could work,” I sent them to friends living in France, New York, Canada, Thailand, and Korea, and asked for their opinions. The responses were vastly different from those of Japanese individuals. While Japanese people tend to view the pieces as “kimono patterns,” foreigners see them purely as “designs.” They appreciated the work without any preconceived notions.
Additionally, individuals with mixed Japanese heritage expressed happiness, saying that by carrying my bags, it became “a part of establishing their identity” and “having something Japanese made them proud.” When I heard this, I became convinced that my creations held value beyond just being bags.
Q:You noticed the value of your creations through the difference in reactions between Japan and overseas?
Yes, from this experience, I launched a brand to turn it into a business.
Therefore, I went to New York, where I had previously researched and found many foreigners selling kimonos.
Every day, carrying my most colorful self-made bag, I walked around New York. I approached people who seemed to like Japan, sent DMs to various individuals, and even participated in Japan festivals where Japan enthusiasts gathered.
Q: How did you feel about the differences between Japan and New York?
In Japan, although it might be different for the younger generation, there are generally strict rules surrounding kimonos. The patterns vary with the seasons, and there are many times when they cannot be worn. Due to the deeply rooted traditions, many people don’t view them as “fashion.”
However, I want to promote these patterns as “designs” and “fashion.” That’s why I had to go to America. In New York, I was able to prove the fact that they are accepted with an entirely different sensibility than in Japan.
Q:A strength is palpable within Akiko. What might be the reason for her deep fascination with the charm of kimonos?
Kimono is akin to wearing a “Japanese painting.” When you cut out a portion of its pattern, it is truly art in itself. I am captivated by kimonos in this way, and to make them more accessible as a fashion, I arrange them in a contemporary style and share them.
Many Japanese individuals often mention, ‘I don’t know how to coordinate it.’ When I talk to people, a lot of them express interest in kimonos, desiring to own one, but the fear of judgment from others acts as a significant barrier.Essentially, it boiled down to the idea that it’s “difficult to use because others aren’t using it.” However, foreigners tend to act based on what they personally desire rather than being concerned about how others perceive them. It’s as simple as “I find it cute, so I’ll use it.
Q:In that case, would the target audience be international customers?
When I share on social media, a significant number of interested individuals are foreigners, especially those from Western countries. Over the past two years, shuttling between New York and Japan, I have keenly felt the differences in reactions.
I want to shine where there is demand. In Japan, I received many negative comments. However, considering the drastic change when I shifted to New York, I believe the initial focus should be on expanding internationally.
Q:You are well-versed in matters abroad, and you have many friends living overseas. I am also impressed by your powerful ability to take immediate action.
Debuting overseas at the age of 8, my parents applied for a program organized by Shizuoka Prefecture. During spring break, we sailed to Saipan and Guam. Subsequently, in my first year of junior high, I participated in a student exchange program to Nepal with our sister school. In my second year, I went on a training trip to Hawaii. Through these experiences, I became aware of the differences between Japan and other countries from a young age.
Therefore, I had many questions about unique Japanese rules, such as “Why can’t you dye your hair?” “Why are piercings not allowed?” and “Is the discipline of seniors and juniors really necessary?”
Later, as a university student and working professional, I continued to travel between Japan and overseas, leveraging my experiences abroad. Whenever I go abroad, there is always a sense of excitement. The more I take action, the more acquaintances I make and connections I establish. When invited by locals, my response is an immediate “Yes!”—I act promptly.
Q: What do you think is the source of the power to take action without hesitation?
When you make decisions and take actions on your own, people around you naturally lend their support. The ability to act is made possible by the assistance of cooperative individuals. From an external perspective, it might seem like I’m doing everything alone, but it’s truly the support of those who agree with me that enables my actions.
Also, I have a rebellious spirit. In response to people who bring negative opinions, I want to show results and prove them wrong.
Q:Lastly, could you share your outlook for the future?
I would like to delve deeper into the world of kimono and materials (fabrics, etc.). While refining my sewing skills with the help of my adept aunt, who is skilled in dressmaking, I am eager to learn more.
Moreover, I aspire to emphasize the sense of uniqueness, such as the use of high-quality fabrics and threads and the creation of precious items through special weaving techniques. In addition to focusing on design for international audiences, I plan to incorporate the cherished traditional culture of the Japanese, ensuring that each pattern carries a meaningful story.
By showcasing aspects that may go unnoticed if confined to Japan, I hope to prove that they can shine when presented to a global audience. It would bring me great happiness to envision a future where the wonderful traditions and cultures I bring abroad contribute to a significant and widespread impact.
Through the interview with Akiko this time, we learned about the importance of taking action and sticking to one’s concept.
For artists currently active as handmade creators in Japan who are considering expanding their activities overseas, I suggest visiting the actual locations, even if it involves combining it with market research or private travel. By going to the local area, you can observe who resides there, what types of designs are popular, and the price range of products being sold.
Although there may be a language barrier, using translation features on your mobile device to communicate with local shopkeepers could lead to new discoveries and valuable advice!
At niji, we have launched an online marketplace for artists who wish to sell their creations overseas.
If you are interested, please feel free to contact us.
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