Hakobu Brand Designer Miho Suenaga Browne on Japanese Design, Work and More

I discovered Suenaga Browne’s stylish handbags online and I knew I had to talk to her. This was a great opportunity. I’ve always admired the natural simplicity and philosophy of Japanese aesthetics. I find this particular designer’s fusion of traditional Japanese and Western cultures quite interesting.

Here is what she revealed about herself and her work:

Tell me more about the function of your products.

The name “Hakobu” comes from the Japanese word “hakobu” or “to carry.” I chose that name because I wanted to make products that people could easily carry with them whenever they left the house. I want people to look and feel stylish with products that are well-designed and easy to use during their daily routines or when they go somewhere special.

Hakobu designs bring together elements from Tokyo, Japan, where I grew up, as well as elements from the US. Combining these elements, I focus on creating unique designs that have a friendly, familiar feel to them. I create designs that are sophisticated and Japanese in their simplicity. And I think one of the true charms of Hakobu is that all of our products are handmade and unique. Each is made only once. That allows our customers the joy of having a one-of-a-kind item, something truly personal they can add to their look.

Describe your creative process.

My creative process for Hakobu involves several steps.

hakobuFirst, in order to design a sewing pattern for a product, I do research and gather lots of information. Hakobu designs involve adding American and European elements to Japanese elements, as well as adding contemporary elements to traditional elements. I therefore spend time researching Japanese and Western traditions and fashions, both online and on paper, to bring those four areas together.

For example, my Azuma bag is a contemporary approach to a way of carrying goods that was used in the Edo period in Japan. And my Hakobu bag is a contemporary approach to kinchaku drawstring bags that were used for personal items also during the Edo period; this I have made into a true handbag. Both meant designing original patterns. And I have altered both types of bags to make them contemporary and easier to use. I have added magnetic snaps, changed sizes and combined Japanese and Western fabrics.

Most Hakobu products are based on traditional Japanese items, while the fabric patterns combine both Japanese and Western elements.

When I select fabrics, I look for different characteristics. When selecting Japanese fabrics, I look for those that are reminiscent of traditional designs and those that convey a sense of the four seasons and Japanese culture. When selecting Western fabrics, I look for things that inspire me, things that remind me of American television shows I watched as a kid, movies, European art and places I have visited.

Bringing Japanese, Western, traditional and contemporary elements together, ideas tend to come to me when looking at fabrics. With the shapes decided, I go from there and create each Hakobu product. This is something that is intuitive and therefore hard to describe… but in the end, Hakobu products represent my personal experiences.

Have you ever danced in the rain?

I have not, though I have been dancing since I was a student! I used to do cheerleading, and I have also learned hula. 

The question reminds me of the film “Singing in the Rain.” Dancing so smoothly and singing “I am dancing and singing in the rain….” I really like that scene.

What is your perfect breakfast?

I love the breakfasts you get at Japanese hot spring ryokan (hotels). Rice, grilled fish, miso soup, seaweed, and Japanese omelets. This is a traditional breakfast in Japan that is so simple and so good.

But honestly, usually I do not have time, so my breakfast is often just coffee and toast.

What question do you hate to answer?

I tend to be rather straightforward, and rarely am I embarrassed or feel the need to hide anything, so no question really bothers me. I don’t like attacking, negative questions, though.

In general, Japanese people are said to be quiet and shy. But personally, I do not think that’s quite accurate. I think that Japanese people tend to say their opinions when appropriate, but also resist being self-assertive when it is not appropriate.

The film you can watch over and over again…

“Roman Holiday.” I feel really drawn to Audrey Hepburn’s character (Princess Ann), who is so beautiful, yet playful and unpretentious. This character embodies the kind of women I admire.

As this is an old romantic comedy, this movie does not have the sexual elements of contemporary movies. This, together with the beautiful streets of Rome, the fashions and expressions of characters, and how it is filmed makes for a beautiful movie. Watching it puts me in a really good mood. I will never get tired of it.

The best piece of career advice someone has given to you is…

That would be “You should open your own store.” My husband, who did something similar with his own artwork, encouraged me to start.

Starting the Hakobu brand was a big decision and required a lot of energy. I had plenty of questions early on: “what kinds of things do people like?;” “how can I explain my products simply so people understand?” etc. I had doubts, too: “Will people buy this?” When I opened Hakobu, it took time before the first product sold, and I felt quite a lot of frustration. But my husband encouraged me to look at it long-term — “make good products and people will come.” And my family and friends have always been there, supporting and cheering me on. I have made it this far because of them.

Having started this brand, it has connected me with websites like this one, with people on social media and has allowed me to see things and meet people I never knew before. I am really glad I decided to take that first step and start.

I want to thank Lena for this opportunity. Truly, thank you!

Currently, the designer resides in Tokyo and continues to develop her brand. If you’d like to learn more about Hakobu and its creations, visit www.hakobubrand.com 

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Creative Entrepreneurship: Things We Can Learn From Coco Chanel

Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in "Coco Avant Chanel" film.  Photograph: /Sony Pictures Classics

Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in “Coco Avant Chanel” film.
Photograph: /Sony Pictures Classics

Chanel herself, c.1920 Photograph: Pictures Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Chanel herself, c.1920
Photograph: Pictures Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Chanel Store, Venice

Chanel Store in Venice, Italy

Time magazine named French designer Coco Chanel one of the 100 most influential women of the 20th century for a reason. She had exuberance, passion and ambition that changed the industry and the cultural milieu of the modern woman. Her designs created a paradigm shift in the fashion world.  We are all thankful that she liberated women from wearing stifling corsets. She introduced a unique,  androgynous style by wearing trousers in public. High society women began to wear Chanel No. 5, which was considered inappropriate and provocative at the time.

Coco Chanel was so many things. An artist, a rebel, a thinker. But most of all, she was a shrewd businesswoman.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”

Entrepreneurs typically share similar personality traits. They like to get what they want, personally and professionally. They are determined, self-absorbed and persuasive. Does this conjure up images of a selfish monster? Guess what? Without these traits, it’s impossible to succeed. These traits are necessary, even essential,  to move interests forward against societal norms. You have to be selfish and have a courage to stand up for your beliefs.

“I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”

Again, I refer to Chanel.

Industry and cultural leaders criticized her designs, aesthetics and vision. However, she maintained her self-confidence, which served as  the foundation of her extraordinary success.

The journey of entrepreneurship has its pitfalls. You will meet people who will throw stones, and be negative about you and your beliefs.  Ignore this disapproval and surround yourself with mentors and friends who wish you success. Some of your friends will end up obstacles.  You even may lose some friends.  In the end, ask yourself:  Were they true friends, anyway?

“My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.”

You are the creator of your life. If you feel unhappy professionally or personally, change it. Go deep inside yourself and ask questions. “Why are you unhappy in your current relationship?” “What excites me?” “What do I want achieve in life?”  Take a break and travel.  Meet new people. Get inspired by different perspectives. Traveling offers so much.

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be unique”

Don’t beat yourself up by comparing yourself to others. Don’t even be tempted to compete with others by copying ideas. Instead, focus on your unique strengths and develop your strategies, based on your skills, experience and knowledge.

“Those who create are rare; those who cannot are numerous. Therefore, the latter are stronger.”

People may even tell you that your ideas are delusional.  They will say condescendingly, “You’re just SO creative.”

Well, the truth is you are creative. In this era of rapid technological development, innovative thinking is required.   Embrace your creativity, do what you love and experiment with your gift.  Diversify, rather than solely focusing on one thing.  Be creative in the way you connect with people, sell the product, solve the problems and learn new things.

“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

Embrace your hobby, your passion.  Cultivate it.  Make it part of your lifestyle. Experiment.

Chanel, for example, throughout her career, innovated.  Fashion was a part of her lifestyle, not just solely the vehicle for her business. Russian Orientalism and the Ballet Russe.  The clothing from her male lovers. All of these elements became part of her fascinating designs. Designs that will last forever.

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