—— Can you explain to us what a costume designer does?
A costume designer's job is to make costumes for stage plays or concerts. First, I take my client's requests and draw a rough sketch of the design that I picture. If the client likes the original sketch, I go ahead to design the details, choose fabrics, and make an estimate. That means a costume designer also calculates the costs (laughter). So, while costume designers have a "glamorous" image, our jobs may actually be less glamorous. Depending on the costume, I may sew it by myself.
To design a costume for a stage play, I meet the director and other staff members when the script is ready. Taking account of the time setting of the play, its scenes and situations, and the features of the roles, I draw my image of the costume. I repeat this process about five times. That means I draw five rough sketches of the design. After deciding the design of the costume, I choose colors and fabrics, and then give the client an estimate. Upon receiving the green light from the client, I make a sample, using the fabric for a fitting. Then, I have the actor try on the sample, and if it doesn't have any problems, I start sewing the costume, using the fabrics that I chose. To make a costume for a concert, I go through the same process as for a stage play. I design the costume based on its image photo given by the stylist or my rough sketch, and then make an estimate. For a concert costume, I skip most of the fitting processes and start sewing right away according to the original design drawing.
The entire process is teamwork into which the staff's abilities and skills are incorporated. So, every time a stage or a concert becomes a success, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment. I have an endless number of moments when I feel I'm glad that I have this job.
—— What made you decide to become a costume designer?
When I was in my late teens, I wanted to become a graphic designer in advertising. So I attended an art school at night while going to high school during the day. I wanted to enter the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Unfortunately, I was not accepted two years in a row, so I gave up. In those days, I drew sketches or formed something with clay almost every day. While doing so, I realized that what I liked best was to draw people. Hoping to create the "outer side of people," I got into the apparel design program at Bunka Fashion College. I was more interested in costume design than general apparel design because I thought the former had more potential. Being a costume designer allows you to design something bold. I was attracted by that aspect of costume design.
I had a friend whose sister was a dancer. I made a dance costume for her, which was my first piece of work as a designer. It was well received in the dance team, including the stage director. The next thing I knew was that I got more and more requests for making costumes. That's how I started designing costumes for ballet companies and dancers while going to Bunka Fashion College.
Meanwhile, I started wondering, "Iﾕm not a professional. Is it okay for me to make costumes for others? What is an ideal design for dance movements?" So, I sought advice from a teacher at a ballet company. "Why don't you work for a company that specializes in dance costumes and polish up your skills?" she said. Taking her advice, I applied for a position at Chacott Co. Ltd., a leading manufacturer of dancewear and related products, and received a job offer. After a 1-year internship, I officially became a costume designer in my second year at the company.
—— When did you become interested in the arts?
My maternal grandfather was a dyeing artist and my mother also taught classes in kimono dyeing. They had an influence on me. One day, when I was about three years old, I was playing with a coloring book. My grandfather looked at it, saying, "Black is not the only color for human hair. Look more closely," and had me rework the coloring book. Around that time, I became interested in the arts, including paintings. When my mother quit dyeing to run a restaurant with my father, however, my environment changed. I felt that it became a different world and I couldn't get used to it for a while.
I've liked drawing pictures and making objects. When I was a student, I loved activities in which all classmates would get together to prepare for a presentation at a cultural or athletic festival. Such an experience formed my personality; a kind of person who finds happiness in creating something in a group.
—— What made you to come to the US?
When I worked as a costume designer for Chacott, it was part of my job to be at the rehearsals for a stage play or a concert for which I designed costumes. Depending on the rehearsal schedule, I might have to stay there until five oﾕclock next morning. If another client had a rehearsal on the same morning, that meant I would have to work for 24 hours without sleep or breaks. For four years, I had only three hours' sleep a day on average. It was hard, but I was fortunate enough to spend fulfilling days with people I could trust. Still, I was always exhausted (laughter).
Meanwhile, I had opportunities to meet some foreign designers who visited Japan, which gradually changed my living creed as a designer as well as my view toward design. When I had an assignment to design parade costumes for a major amusement park, many designers visited Japan from the US. On that occasion, I got to see a lot of design drawings that I'd never seen before. These original drawings and samples were extremely creative. In addition, all the staff members seemed to enjoy their work. To be honest with you, because of the lifestyle I'd had; I'd been forced to live and work without much sleep, with no chance to feel joy in my work; they looked refreshing to me. For example, their attitude was encouraging. If I said to a Japanese client, "This is a bit difficult," he would respond, "So, you can't do it," and our communication would die. But, American staff would respond in a more positive way, with a smile, saying, "Let's forget about this because it's too hard, but we can do it another way."
Perhaps, an exceptional piece of work is likely to born in this kind of environment I thought. I became more and more interested in coming to the US. Embracing the ambition to see more of life in the world, I made every effort to save money for two yeas before coming to the US. I tried to be very thrifty, skipping lunch and eating only rice balls or ramen. But, that made me almost fainted because of hunger, so I couldnﾕt do it for so long (laughter).
—— When did you come to the US?
I came here in February 2003. When I was deciding where to live in the US, I thought I'd go to a safe place first, that is a country side, such as Ohio.... But I was still young, only twenty-nine, so I realized that I shouldn't just take it easy in an uneventful place. I finally chose New York (laughter). I came to desire to experience NY, an information hub that influenced the world and an epicenter of today's trends. But, at first, it was scary. I wasn't able to speak English well. Also, the area where I lived with my host family was not very safe. Anyway, I went to an English school for three months. My host mother was a Greek and my roommate was a Turk. My classmates at the English school were Taiwanese, Koreans, Brazilians, etc. The environment was multicultural, which made me realize that I'd had only Japanese friends before.
—— Did you concentrate on learning English in New York?
Because I had some spare time while learning English, I entered a competition, the Montana World of WearableArt Awards held in Nelson, New Zealand. I didn't win, but was one of the finalists. So my work is now exhibited at the World of WearableArt and Collectable Cars Museum in New Zealand. It's a dress with the theme "Mermaid." I created it because I wanted to realize a friend's wish to become a mermaid. I made it before coming to the US to prove myself. I didn't make it to enter this competition, but....
To make the scales of the mermaid, I used polyurethane foam that is used for kickboards. I made the scales by hand, one by one, by softening them using a heat gun that looked like a hair dryer. Then I stitched all these scales to a stretching fabric resembling velvet. It was time-consuming, but the result was like a real mermaid. I attached organdy to the tail so that it had a translucent look. Also, I used a variety of other materials, including horsehair, which is often used for piano wires or hats, and glittering powders. I made a solution of glittering powders and glues and applied it to the scales, instead of using paints. All of these made the dress gorgeous. When I finished the dress, I was extremely happy because I created my first work of wearable art.
I also entered the same competition this year and was nominated. I'd like to win this time. The theme for this year is "Angel." I can't talk about my work until the competition ends, but I've again used unique fabrics and sophisticated techniques to create this dress.
—— Can you tell us about your current projects?
While in New York, I went to see a Broadway play and by change spotted a dancer from Hawaii with whom I'd worked in Japan. At the moment I saw him on stage, I felt a strong desire to settle in the US and pursue my career. So I wrote a letter, including a request for job referral, to a Japanese costume designer living in Orange County whom I knew. That gave me the opportunity to come to the US. I've lived in Orange County since October 2003.
In Orange County, the designer kindly helped me find a host family that I could stay with and a job for "Cyrano de Bergerac" played at the South Coast Repertory. Thanks to that work, my network expanded. Later, I was involved in "Much Ado about Nothing" and "Macbeth" at a Shakespeare festival that took place in the county. Also, I had the opportunity to design costumes for dancers for a concert of Ayumi Hamasaki who visited from Japan. I've been so lucky that I got a lot of work for such a short period of time. "Cyrano de Bergerac" was the first major stage play that I worked for in the US. Its setting is Paris in 1640 and I designed a 17-century man's jacket. When I was in Japan, I'd often designed women's costumes, so designing the man's jacket was a refreshing experience for me. With help from my colleagues, a wonderful costume was born. I am very thankful every day that I can experience the joy of creating costumes here in America as well.
—— Have you experienced any hardships after coming to the US?
I've experienced the language barrier. Early on, I had difficulty in listening to and understanding English, even simple requests. I often wondered, like, "What does she want to do with this dress?" or "Where does she want me to open the seam?" I felt bad for the person who gave me the job. Currently, I learn English at school and on my own by watching my favorite movies on DVD, again and again. I've watched "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Spirited Away" so many times, more than 50 times each. In both stories, the main characters go to unfamiliar places and struggle, so I identify with them and am moved by the stories. I watch these same movies again and again, which amazes my host mother (laughter). But, thanks to that, my English has improved. I remember almost all the lines in the movies.
—— What have you learned in the US?
Perhaps, I've learned that what my parents have taught me is right: "If you work hard, people respond to you." I've learned that if I speak out, many Americans respond. The harder I work, the better the result turns out to be. I sense that. In this country, if you continue working hard, you can produce something big in the end. Another thing is the communication style. When I was in Japan, I sometimes didn't have a chance to talk to anyone for all day long. That's not the case here. Even strangers say "hi" or talk to each other with a smile. Americans are relaxed in that sense. I also like their custom of sending thank-you notes to each other. It's nice and heartwarming, so I do it, too.
—— What is your motto?
When I just started going to the English school in Orange County, I felt a generation gap between the students there and myself. Betty, my host mother and a friend, gave me the following words to comfort me: "It's never too late to start over." Betty has three daughters and one of them entered medical school at age 38 after she divorced. Moreover, she did very well in school and was selected to give a speech on behalf of the graduates at the commencement. In her speech, she said, "My mother told me, 'It's never too late. Just work hard.' These words have sustained me and motivated me to work hard." Betty gave me the same words that sheﾕd given to her daughter. "It's never too late for a person to start over. Work as hard as your young classmates." That was her advice to me. These words have become my motto. I'd like to treasure them for the rest of my life.
—— What aspect of your job as a costume designer makes you happy?
It's that while immersing myself in what I love, I've got colleagues sharing the same world with me. Every time I tell people what kind of costumes I make, I expand my network. If I hadn't chosen to become a costume designer, I wouldn't have lived in the US, or couldn't have built a network of people beyond races. In many ways, it was good that I chose this career.
When the actors for whom I made costumes are receiving applause from the audience, tears of joy come down from my eyes. The audience's applause is also for the costumes, which makes me happy. When I participated in the New Zealand competition, I saw the audience cheered my costume on stage. I didn't win, but I realized that there were many people who found my work beautiful. That was priceless and I was moved from the bottom of my heart. There, I heard waves of cheers, literally (laughter).
—— What is your dream for the future?
It would be most wonderful if I could create a stage with all the people I've worked with, a kind of stage that would make the audience happy, sending a powerful message to inspire them.
In Japan, unfortunately, there is a trend towards gloomy stages, although it's an idea of creating stage effects. Examples include handing something rotten on stage and using a lot of dark colors, such as brown. Of course, sometimes such a gloomy stage is an excellent work. Still, I think there are too many pieces of art work that emphasize negative messages in Japan.
I often design costumes for villains. When a costume turns out to be a powerful one, I often wonder that it may be easier to make a villainﾕs costume than a beautiful one. It takes more effort to make a beautiful costume that implies a positive message. It is difficult to create a costume that can move audiences. So, if I succeed in making such a costume, I can enhance my skills. In that sense, I'd like to continue making "something beautiful." The concept of my works is "something that makes people happy." With this concept, I'll keep creating costumes.
Participating in the New Zealand competition is the starting point of my activities outside Japan, so I'll continue entering it every year. It would be nice if I could publish a book on the collection of my exhibits after 50 years. That's my dream.