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A Special Shop Welcoming Customers by Appointment Only in an Ukishima Dori Condo in Naha, Introducing the HIGA Collection to the World
post : 2019.06.23 21:00
Just one block from Kokusai Street at the heart of Naha is Ukishima Dori, a unique street that’s short in distance but packed with cafes, shops offering various goods and fashion with particular tastes. At one corner on this street is the hidden select shop, THE ROOM BOUTIQUE OKINAWA, offering clothing designed by an Okinawan brand, HIGA, and known through the Tokyo Collection and various other fashion shows. The shop is situated in a condo suite, and they purposely do not have any signs to show where it exactly is. What’s more, to see and shop there, you need an appointment. Their style of business has garnered much attention among the fashionistas in Okinawa.
“In fact, I welcome people to think that it’s a strange shop. I just wanted to do something totally different from other shops,” explains the shop owner and the brand owner of HIGA, a local designer by the name of Issei Higa. When you first visit, you’ll be a little unsure because of the completely residential feel to the building, thinking “Is this really the place?” And as you nervously continue walking toward the “shop”, and you open the door to a seemingly regular condo suite, that feeling of “It really is here!” is a sensation you likely wouldn’t feel when visiting other shops.
“I wanted to open a shop where people could excitedly talk about, saying ‘I heard it’s somewhere around there,’ and ‘I wonder where it is?’ If they happen to find something they like here, they’re more likely to tell somebody about the shop, and to me, that was an ideal way for people to learn about the shop, through word-of-mouth in this style. I hope for my customers to feel special about visiting the place, and enjoy it as their little hideaway.”
The interior of the shop has a sophisticated monotone base and was done by Higa-san himself. The items in the shop are mainly from the HIGA collection and there are other carefully select items like shoes from premio gordo that welcome you as you enter. The shop opened its doors in 2016, at the same time the brand HIGA was founded. HIGA developed from the brand COVER which was established in 2009, so counting the years from the founding of COVER, they have a 10 year history.
“I initially named my brand COVER, taking the English meaning of covering your body with clothes and also connecting it to the Okinawan word for ‘scent’. But over time, I was getting orders from other parts of Japan as well as overseas, and so I thought about where I wanted to go with this in the future. I felt that the name COVER didn’t really express a brand out of Okinawa because it’s an English word, and explanation was needed about the whole Okinawan meaning part. And so I took a chance and decided to use my own last name for the brand and introduced it to the world. I changed the brand name and started fresh in 2015. Higa is the most common last name in Okinawa so I can put my identity out there. And other Higas are probably happy about it too,” he explained with a laugh.
The concept of his brand is “clothing that you can be yourself in, wherever you are.” To be yourself comes with being relaxed and comfortable. “I have my own inferiority complex in my appearance too, like I gain weight easily and am brawny. It should be fun to wear stylish clothes and to enjoy fashion, but sometimes, it’s not fun because you worry about the sizes and things like that. I really didn’t like that, so I decided, ‘I’m not going to design clothes that tire people, but instead, I’ll make clothes that give people energy.’ Clothes that don’t tense you up, but at the same time, clothes that don’t make you look sloppy. I keep in mind to create clothes that looks stylish but something you can wear and relax in.”
For example, the leather racing jacket is a recommended item that you can enjoy for, well, for the rest of your life, really. Despite its heavy appearance, the material is light and soft, and naturally fits your body comfortably. It has the casual convenience that you can just throw it on, but also has the carefully calculated feminine silhouette which gives it a very strong presence. Higa-san said when he first saw the cowhide used to make it, he loved it. The leather is prepared by a craftsman who paints in the color on the uneven surface of the leather. The coloring is special; it’s black but there’s a slightly different black which really comes out, creating a beautiful, two-toned black. “This jacket has a quality like a luxury brand,” he proudly says.
Wishing to let the world know more about Ryukyu Ai or indigo, he creates men’s shirts and women’s one piece dresses with indigo dye. The coloring shows different expressions depending on the angle of viewing, and its natural, comforting beauty is like no other.
“Ryukyu indigo is found only in Okinawa in all of Japan, making them a precious material. They were perfect as I was aiming to introduce a brand made in Okinawa to the world, so around 2014, I started working together with Takuya Oshiro, a Ryukyu indigo dye artist who has a studio in Heabaru, and began making various indigo dye items. I’ve heard that they are presently hard to grow, but I hope that we can continue to produce high quality items using Okinawan materials.”
The designs of clothing by HIGA are not cliché, but uniquely express Okinawa in essence throughout the pieces and have a very stylish finish. These one-piece dresses are symbolic of their designs, using the motifs of Kuba Oji or fan leafs which are closely connected to the lifestyle and culture of Okinawa.
“It began with an idea to use graphic patterns. Initially, in 2017, I made shirts with illustrations of Congo’s Sapeurs (the stylish fashion influencers from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo). When the Sapeurs came to Okinawa, they had a huge impact on me. I decided to continue with the graphics and then I came up with the idea for the Kuba Oji fan leafs. On their own, there’s really no movement, so I added lines inspired from wings of birds.”
The blue dress is dyed with the Yaeyama Ai, a strain of indigo grown at Shima Ai Farms on Ishigaki Island. With the natural energy from the indigo plants grown on an island in Okinawa, and the illustrations of the fluttering Kuba Oji, it’s like wearing the pleasant Okinawan breeze whenever you put the dress on.
“Okinawa has a lot of potential. We can create things that the whole world would surely embrace, and that’s what I want to prove with this brand,” says Higa-san.
When he was in high school, he was really passionate about clothes and went around to various second-hand clothing shops, not just in Naha, but when he went on school trips to Osaka and Tokyo, too. He loved clothes but didn’t decide to go into it for real until he was in his 20s. While attending a technical school in Tokyo, studying clothing and accessory designs, he entered numerous design contests which gave him a chance to meet and talk with great designers like KENZO and TSUMORI CHISATO, and world famous Jean Paul Gaultier. Through amazing experiences like that, he eventually solidified his dreams and worked hard to create his own brand. He reflects, “The road to becoming a designer wasn’t always smooth.”
“After graduating, I remained in mainland Japan for four years, working at an apparel company that ran its own factories. Most of my friends who were also pursuing a path in the world of clothing design started out in retail, but I wanted to stick to ‘producing things’. So what I did was visit various brands and pitch designs, and once I received their orders, I’d create them at the factory and deliver them. I had the opportunity then to learn about the things that designers create, and the methods they use. At a knit factory, I started with winding yarn and even saw through the actual knitting and cutting, too. By learning the movements and the whole flow of creating clothes, I recognized the importance and significance of production, of making and creating things. I’m grateful for that.”
He left that company and returned to Okinawa in May 2009. His energy and ability to take action is surprising, as he established his own brand only two months after that, in July 2009. “I felt the significance in transmitting my work and passion from my hometown, and I wanted to believe in the island where I came from. I didn’t want flattery but I knew that if I created something wholeheartedly, I would surely get the recognition I deserved. There wasn’t a pinch of hesitation in my decision.” In 2016, he presented his work at the Tokyo Collection, a historical moment for an Okinawa-based brand, as it was unprecedented.
“I’m not an elite designer. I worked my way up from the bottom (he laughs). I think that there are things that I would have never learned if I was just a designer from the beginning. My experiences working in sales and in the factories is my foundation and my strength comes from being able to design on top of that. I think that perhaps that’s why I’m able to do what I do here, in Okinawa.”
Higa-san hopes that visitors to Okinawa “who are interested in seeing Okinawan mode, to come take a look” at his shop. “People may think that because the shop is by appointment only, the threshold is high and some may hesitate to come. But basically, I run the shop very casually, so by all means, come visit us! Anyone and everyone is welcome to call and make an appointment to drop by.”
THE ROOM BOUTIQUE OKINAWA
Address: 2-12-14-301 Matsuo, Naha, Okinawa
Hours: 13:00 to 20:00
*By reservation only. Please call in advance to make an appointment. They accept appointments generally up to an hour before your desired time of visit.
Official Website: http://higa.jp/
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Norie Okabe