The Shappos interview: Misa Harada taking over the world.

October 09 2012

Misa Harada has lived in London for 25 years, more than half her life, in Japan she’s considered an English designer and in London she is a Japanese designer. And those just two of the many roles she has as a milliner, designer and businesswoman.

Whilst she was was a fashion student the Royal College of Art, just a few years after Philip Treacy, she realised that a career in hats was possible. The balance between the two cultures was not always easy, but Misa liked the challenge. Her understanding of fashion and style was very pronounced, and in London she had the freedom to be herself, build her own business and to become an international brand in the world of hats, which at that time was almost impossible for a woman in Japan. She now sells her collections all over the world, to everyone from celebrities to rock and roll bands. 

Shappos sat down with her and she told us her amazing story…

What was the reason you came to England to study hat design?

A lot of people ask me this question, but actually it had nothing to do with hats. It was to study within the Department of Oriental and African Arts at the University of London. This was in 1987 when there was so much going on in London, there was Stephen Jones and a club called Taboo, and I just went straight into that – the gigs and nightclubs were all so exciting and inspiring! I realised that my mind was now set on “doing fashion”. So I went to Goldsmiths, presented my paintings, took a foundation course and then went to Surrey University to do fashion. When I was there, Shirley Hex (Philip Treacy’s teacher at the time) came in for two weeks to teach Intro to Hatmaking, and that’s how it all started.

And what happened after that- what was a really big step for you in terms of forwarding your career?

Fast forward a bit, I was working in Japan, and I contacted all the top Japanese designers and was eventually offered a position at Issey Miyake. They wanted to create a role for me, even though headwear wasn’t a major part of their collections. At the same time Frederick Fox called, offering me a position in his workroom. I had two completely different job offers! The position at Issey Miyake would mean a five-year contract with a large salary. The position at Frederick Fox was in the workroom, as a trainee designer. This was a huge decision that would determine my future. My parents always said to me to follow what I think is best for my career, so I took the position at Frederick Fox and stayed there for four years, eventually designing shapes, making patterns and sketching for both the couture and the ready-to-wear collections. It was an incredible experience.

How did you develop your own collections and who were your customers?

I sometimes served clients while working with Mr Fox. That’s when I realised there were much older ladies who knew exactly how to wear hats and what suited them, whilst their daughters didn’t even know the back from the front! And I thought wow, in ten years time we are going to have a generation that know nothing about hats, for them there was only Kangol and baseball caps. So I thought how could I educate the young people, to make them enjoy wearing hats at a slightly lower price, could I make something special for them at a £100-£200 price range? It was then that my career moved on very quickly, I left Frederick Fox in June 1998, set up my company in July, applied for Première Classe with the first samples I’d made under my own label, and was accepted in Paris for October. At that first exhibition I sold my collection to stores around the world, including Barney’s in New York who bought funky denim hats in a cowboy style. In 2005 we launched a men’s collection that continues to be really successful.

How difficult is it for Japanese women to set up their own companies?

Nowadays starting a business in Japan is much easier, but launching a brand, especially a hat brand, in the mid 90s would’ve been very difficult for a woman. You would’ve had to come from an established company, be a recognised name, and have a comprehensive collection to sell to the clients. I was lucky that I started here, and then took the brand back to Japan. The financial side of setting up was difficult here. During the first two years I took on part-time work, teaching hat making in five colleges and at the same time working in the design department at The Whitely Hat Company. Plus, for the first year, I made the entire collection myself.

Do you think there is an element within your design that reflects your Japanese heritage?

I don’t really know, as I am Japanese, but other people have said that there are touches of ‘cutesiness’ in it, or quirkiness that can be translated from Japanese culture. The same collection sells in both countries so there must be a crossover appeal in the style. Japan was not my initial target at Première Classe, in fact America took off first. At one stage I was selling to every department store in Manhattan, not really a good idea, but I was young and just starting my career. Barney’s also had a store in Tokyo, and so it was through this connection that my name suddenly became popular there. TV and press appearances followed and by 2003/4 the business took off in a big way in Japan. Most Japanese young people have spending power in their twenties, so both the girls and guys are very aware of fashion in their own stylish way and love small details and dressing up. They spend hours perfecting a look!

What ambitions do you have now for your business?

We opened a shop in west London in December, something that I’d always dreamed of doing, and moved the workroom, office and wholesale collections there. By opening in retail we can offer a special service to accommodate customer’s needs, giving that special care that you normally don’t find from the high street. It is also easier for our big clients, most of whom are in the music business and include: The Scissor Sisters, The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears. Successful retailing is great press! On the wholesale side I feel that Europe will remain steady during the coming years and more growth will be in the far east, selling to Japan and even to China, all very exciting!

-This interview was facilitated by and originally published by The Hat Magazine and is reproduced with permission
-Photo courtesy of Huffington Post