We recently met with our dear friend and collaborator, Yuka Okada, owner of the Japanese sustainable fashion brand INHEELS, and also co-founder of a creative residency in Tokyo that is called Almost Perfect. We asked her questions about her life, her work with sustainable fashion, and her new creative residency. Enjoy.
Photography Yen Yap
Tell us a bit yourself? Who is Yuka Okada?
I was born and raised in Chiba, Japan and have always been a big fan of music and other creative people/things. I grew up playing the piano, playing the saxophone in bands and sewing simple things and cooking.
But when I went to university I chose to be a business major because it felt more natural. After graduation I worked for an accounting firm as a business consultant.
I guess “Yuka Okada” lies where business and creative worlds overlap, which is strange because sometimes these worlds look very far apart.
Which subject did you love the most in school?
I loved English classes. Just imagining what I can do using the English language, what I can learn, who I can meet, who I can talk to, made me excited.
When you were growing up what were you hoping to become?
Back then I did not know any grown-ups working in a creative or art field. All my family members are business owners, working for companies, full-time mothers etc. So, I thought I would be either starting a small business or working for a company. But for sure doing something international.
What inner qualities aided your development?
I started playing the saxophone at the age of 12 in a school band. I didn’t know much about it when I started. Somehow I was thrown into a jazz big band and I was semi-forced to improvise. In Japanese education (at least back then) you are not taught how to improvise, the focus is more on how well you need to follow the rules. So when I tried to play something without music sheets in front of me I remember that I panicked. After a while, I gradually got comfortable in improvising and exposing my ideas to the world, I think this spontaneous and improvisational attitude helped me a lot till now.
What is the source of your inspiration?
I tend to think too much. I realize my ideas often come as a result of thoughts I have about objectives, audiences and resources I come across. So I am not sure if I can call them “inspirations”. Recently with the Almost Perfect creative residency, I am always surrounded by creative professionals and they draw inspirations very differently than me. I am now challenging myself not to think too much about the external world and focus more on my internal curiosities and sensibilities.
When or why did you start doing fashion design?
It was in 2010 when I left my consulting job and moved to London to prepare for the launch of a sustainable fashion brand. I studied the basic of fashion design as I wanted to be able to brief real fashion designers properly.
How did INHEELS came into your life?
When my business partner and I were deciding the brand name, we did some practice answering phone calls saying “hello this is Yuka from INHEELS, ...” and since then and there is INHEELS in my life.
What is the best thing about Inheels?
I think the best thing about it is the tagline we used in Japan: “who said ETHICAL is not SEXY?”. This was such a great guideline for us in taking both big and small daily decisions. This lead our choices for design, material, photo-shoot locations, model posing and pretty much everything. This worked very well in publicity too, it made our lives a lot easier.
How do you think people perceive Inheels?
It was perceived very well especially for younger women who wanted real clothes, something they can wear for office and dates. From day one we decided not to self-brand ourselves too much and to create the image of “clean social entrepreneurs” and to be honest about what we do and feel. We will show our not-so-great-but-working-on-it sides as well. That worked well I think.
Can you describe how you felt when you wore Elementum for the first time?
I think it changed the relationship with me and clothes. I loved how easily I can be involved. Clothes became from something static to something dynamic. From something that was “given” to something “to make”. I felt like a chef who is about to cook good ingredients, rather than someone just waiting to be fed. Empowered.
How did Inheels meet Elementum?
In a sustainable-themed fashion event in Tokyo. We were showing our collections in next to each other in the event, I remember. Since then we became good friends personally and professionally.
In 2016 we collaborated on an Inheels x Elementum capsule collection. How do you think people perceive it?
I think this collaboration delivered the ethical concept and functionality of Elementum to people who really appreciate them, who are looking for real clothes, something they can wear for office and dates, but also to travel. It just makes so much sense to pack Elementum’s multifunctional clothes to travel where you want to minimize the baggage.
Later on we did an item, like the SEIS OPEN vest, for an airline company, so this multifunctionality was amazing. You don’t need to fill you trunk with dress and cardi and scarf, this item covers everything! It sold well in in-flight magazine and online shop for travelers.
What have been the best moments/greatest milestones in your career so far?
When a customer comes out of the fitting room looking sexy and happy in INHEELS clothes.
What have been the best lessons you have learnt in your career so far?
Have fun, money will not follow all the time but you need failures too.
Where do you prefer to design/work?
At home or a cafe. I haven’t have proper “office” for years.
Now, tell us about Almost Perfect?
Almost Perfect is a creative residency in Tokyo where creatives and artists from around the world can stay, create and show their works. The building is a renovated 100-year-old rice shop in downtown Tokyo. We have a room to stay, a desk to work on and a gallery to use for exhibitions and events. My husband, Illustrator Luis Mendo, and I live in the same building so we all become good friends in the end. We try to help creatives from overseas to connect with Japanese peers and be in the creative hub of Tokyo.
What is the best thing about it?
The best thing about it is that we have amazingly talented people from all over the world all the time, and we can meet them without stepping out of my house!
What does Almost perfect offer to you or to your work?
Interacting with artists constantly is really changing the way I think and work. I usually think more in business ways so it is like a stretch of brain.
Why did you choose to launch Almost Perfect?
It was a natural development, we were constantly hosting Luis’s friends in Tokyo when they visit, most of them are creative professionals. they were usually staying in a airbnb or hotel and did sightseeing and went back home. We were fantasizing about making a place for people like them, to make their stay in Tokyo more creative and meaningful. Then we found this lovely building so it all went quickly from there.
Also, though I am very proud of what I make with INHEELS I was a bit tired of making more stuff, so this kind of service-based business interested me a lot.
How could you describe your relationship with clothing?
Clothing is such an easy way to change my appearance, hence my mood and self-image. The good thing is you can choose what to wear to control your life. I once was interested in becoming a minimalist who has only a couple of styles but I enjoy changing clothes every day.