An Interview with Hitoko Okada

May 31, 2015 at 4:13 pm
Hitoko Okada

Photo credit: George Qua-Enoo at http://georgequaenoo.com

by David Fujino

Hitoko Okada started out in the fashion industry working for a milliner in her hometown of Vancouver when she was just 17 and has been involved in theatre costume production since she was 19.

She holds a Fashion Design Diploma from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Toronto and an Arts and Sciences Diploma from Langara College in Vancouver B.C. Hitoko’s career began as a props maker and artist with The Public Dreams Society in Vancouver, and she went on to pursue a career as a costumer in theatre production across Southern Ontario, including The Stratford Festival in Stratford, The Grand Theatre in London, and Mirvish Productions in Toronto.

In 2009 in Hamilton, Okada began producing wearable art clothing and accessories under her own label, HITOKOO. Her art clothing is also available in various retail venues in Southern Ontario and on-line. (www.hitokoo.com). Hitoko’s clothing-themed textile installations have been exhibited in solo and group public outdoor exhibitions and in festivals such as Luminato and Nuit Blanche in Toronto, and Illuminares in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, Okada’s art work has been exhibited in various Toronto venues such as the Harbourfront Gallery, The Department Gallery, and The Gladstone Hotel Gallery, as well as The Print Studio in Hamilton. In February of 2010, Hitoko embarked on her first curatorial project, Pattern and Form, at The Print Studio in Hamilton and featured the work of Arounna Khounnoraj and Emma Nishimura. In praising the astute pairing of Khounnoraj and Nishimura, Stephanie Vegh positively reviewed Hitoko’s show that “nimbly dissected the margins of printmaking’s capabilities as a medium.”

Here’s Hitoko, in her own words:

“I am a fashion designer and textile artist based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. HITOKOO is a line of casual women’s fashion integrating textile craft elements. Each collection is created out of concepts and features representational motifs that I explore in my textile art. From concept and design, to final product, each piece is hand crafted by me, every step of the way. I create all of my own patterns, cut and construct each piece. The prints I make are from my own original images generated from hand made stencils through line drawings or paper cut out stencils. I source fine quality, luxurious natural fabrics in limited quantities. In the ethic of slow fashion, and small run production, I create original pieces of contemporary wearable art.”

In her recent 2015 group show, An Exhibit of Works by Nikkei Artists, at the JCCC (Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre) Art Gallery, Hitoko exhibited her paper sculpture dresses which bear her signature honeycomb design. She’s said “the honeycomb is an exploration of the theme of labour and refers to the ‘worker bee’ and the transgressing of personal, social, and institutional barriers — such as race, gender and poverty — also plays a role here and is a theme she visits often in her work. “I employ the motif of the honeycomb cell in a repetitive pattern to represent creation or labour of the worker ‘bee’… A honey splattered constellation moves across the honeycomb seams like a milky way of stars navigating a course towards freedom.”

Elsewhere, Hitoko has said, ‘There is also a message behind each design’, for she’s spent ‘the last two decades searching for ways to marry social activism with art and quality craftsmanship.’

Again, in Hitoko’s own words, her work “explores the internal struggle of the obligated worker as disenchanted proletariat. In the struggle to transgress socialized and internalized barriers in employment beyond poverty, race and gender, one navigates through the unknown, creating a path of self-determined and self-defined meaning-making in work and service towards empowerment, healing and emancipation …”

Here follows my interview with Hitoko Okada.

What is your personal definition of wearable art?
I talk about my clothing line as wearable art because the motif and concepts I use to build my
mini collections come out of my fibre art and installation work. The collections become an
extension of the original art work when people who want to, can engage with my work, and
incorporate it into their lifestyle, thus making the piece their own.

Best life lesson so far?
Life lessons have been most impactful and rich when I have allowed myself the room for
perceived failure, so that I may evolve and grow. Learning what doesn’t work with me — and
why? — gets me closer to what does.

I assume that you see an artist as a ‘cultural worker’ — how do fashion and clothing fit into your definition?
In my artistic practice I use the idea of clothing as a reference to address issues of identity.
Within the context of a social environment that is increasingly corporate and mass productive, I
am a clothier that hand makes clothing for a working, professional and casual lifestyle to
connect people with their core identities, and to drive empowered communications within
themselves and the world around them.

What do you value most in a friendship?
The quality I value in all human relationships is mutual respect. It is in this space that I can
commune with others.

If you wake up tomorrow, and you could have a new ability or quality, what would it be?
I had always wished I could play a musical instrument. Musicality of any kind, really. Forget
singular talent or refined skills — I wish I had the musical ability to connect into whole-ness for
the length of a song and feel something, like a flock of sparrows, or a school of fish moving in a
collective cloud of music making and harmony and oneness.

What is your most cherished memory?
I have so many wonderful memories. Some of my favourite ones involve riding alone on various
forms of public transportation toward unknown places with an unlimited view and beautiful light.

So far, what is your greatest achievement in life?
I suppose the idea of greatness is what some may value as success. Although greatness is
something I have never strived for. But what I value the most in myself so far is: earning my
way to widen understanding, staring into the barriers of my heart to deepen compassion, learning
to negotiate emotional inflammation, and shifting my story towards healing. I choose to
channel my anger in the best way for me that respects and honours this precious emotion which,
in the darkest places, can flare up like light. And I find the courage to say no, to say yes, and
stand up for the love of humanity so that I may contribute to my community in any way that feels
like the best part of me. I am continually growing, evolving, loving and learning. With respect to
what I’ve come through, and where I was at, this is a huge gift to myself.

Inspiration source?
I often turn to colours and textures of the west coast landscape from where I grew up. It was my
first source of inspiration, and still remains so.

What is your most hated memory?
Whenever I have chosen fear over love, or getting over giving, the outcome becomes irrelevant
when the process and experience leave a bitter stain.

Hobbies?
I love the idea of having hobbies. I like to knit or do tedious work while watching Netflix. But
perhaps what may be closer to the truth is that Netflix watching is the hobby, and tedious
handwork is simply a justification.

How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
My mother can be a very intense and powerful person. I suppose she had to be, given her life
choices. She raised two babies in a foreign country as a single parent, without the benefit of a
Canadian education and support. But she put herself through night school, learned English, and
had two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. What an incredible feat. So I have a deep regard
for her.

Role models?
I was so starved for role models in my youth. My mother was solo, and was often working. I was
like a loose kite, flailing about through childhood right through my teens. So I looked into
literature, Buddhism and nature for wisdom and teaching; and I received supportive
encouragement from my friends’ parents; and with drawing, painting and making, I learned
about focus and improvement. I learned that “self-taught” is the cornerstone of how our family
survived and thrived in the hardest times, so in hindsight, I suppose I was raised in line with what
is my family’s style.

Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?
There seem to be some patterns involving death and choking on food in my family. I guess we
can’t get it down fast enough — something that is not unfamiliar to me. But regardless of how I
extinguish, I hope I would meet death with acceptance, and quietly embrace my end of life with
freedom.

Hitoko Okada’s website: www.hitokoo.com

– David Fujino – Toronto – March, 2015 –