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Yumiko Uchishiba (HERG1)

January 25, 2023

Interview with Yumiko Uchishiba, designer of the golf brand HERG1.
Having studied fashion in Italy for 10 years and worked as a designer, we asked her what motivated her to come back to Japan to launch a new brand and the differences of her work and lifestyle between in Japan and Italy.


Please introduce yourself first. 

I am from Hokkaido. I studied English since I was a child. I liked English so much that I wanted to study abroad someday since I was about 11 or 12 years old. At the same time, I also liked clothes under the influence of my parents. However, my parents said they would never allow me to attend a clothing school, so I looked for a chance to study fashion while making use of my English, and I went to San Francisco for a short-term study abroad program when I was 19.
At the time, I wanted to enter a fashion business department, but I became interested in manufacturing along the way and decided to study abroad in Italy at the age of 20.
I applied to the Italy’s national art university, although few foreigners would take its entrance exam right after arrival. They usually do after they study Italian as a second language for a year. However, I decided to skip it and went ahead to take the entrance exam. I was admitted, but it was hell from there. The classes were in Italian, so I couldn't understand what they were saying. But I managed to keep up with them thanks to my practical skills.
I was not allowed to study fashion at the art school, unless I graduated with a degree in product design. So, I went on to graduate school and entered the fashion design department, which I graduated top of my class.
I had done internships since I was a student, but I chose up-and-coming brands rather than large brands. There is the world's largest men's exhibition called PITTIUOMO, and I was allowed to join a young brand that won an award there. I was able to design for a wide range of brands, both men's and women's.
After that, I was offered a men's design position at BOTTEGA VENETA, but I was not selected in the final round. I thought I had done all I could do, so I came back to Japan at the age of 30.
I had always been fascinated with fabrics. Italy is well known for organic fibers such as linen, silk, cotton, and leather, while Japan is famous for synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon. Even world-famous brands use Japanese nylon fabrics, which I learned then. I got to know a nylon company in Kanazawa, Japan and heard that they wanted to start a men's brand as a factory brand, so I worked on its design for them for about five years.
At that time, dress-like suits made of nylon were a bit in fashion. That was about six years ago. So, what used to be a material for sportswear was getting popular for everyday use as well.
Japan's climate is humid and rainy at certain times of the year, and people were under the situation where they stopped wearing suits. So, I thought there was a big demand for the nylon wears. This led to my current golf brand.


I see. So, you started with fabrics? 

That's right. I think golf can be most fashionable among all sports. You spend a long time wearing an outfit. In the sports that make you sweat, you have to keep on changing, so only cheap clothes are economically feasible. But golf is the kind of sport where you can spend money on fashion and wear the same outfit all day long. Moreover, I found golf wears all flashy and didn't like any designs in the market.
So, I started working before the pandemic. I had only done designs but decided to launch a golf brand in which I would be involved not only as a designer but also as a director. I had met a former Japanese national rugby player who ran a company called Tokyo Athletic United in Italy. And when I met him again in Japan, he told me he wanted to start an apparel business, so I decided to start a business within this company. This company also runs a women's rugby team. Shibuya Ward is also a sponsor.


Did you want to start with D2C from the beginning? 

That's exactly what I wanted to do. If you had started out as a startup and did it the same-old Japanese way, you wouldn't stand a chance. I could also make various innovations such as lowering the cost of goods since I knew manufacturing. That's why I thought that D2C would be a better way to deliver good, fully functional products at a price that would never be affordable, but close to the direct trade price.
The brand director's job is to manage the budget and the sales of the business, but the foundation of the business is manufacturing. The cost of each item is gathered, and then you have to figure out where to spend the money next. People who can make things understand this part of the business process, so I thought I should be able to do it myself. It also helped that I was just a startup, and the company scale was small.
Now, it’s time to expand a bit more. Our team is growing, and we are starting to do wholesale. So, I don't think D2C alone will be enough from here on.
I believe that three years is a critical period for a brand. And if we don't make a breakthrough within three years after scaling up each year, we should just stop. So, the next three years are very important.


Could you tell us specifically the differences between Japan, Europe, and Italy in terms of fashion and business? 

The biggest difference is that Europe has art in everyday life. There may be location reasons for this, such as the lack of earthquakes. Also, there are things that have been used for generations by grandfathers and great-grandfathers thanks to no inheritance tax. And people make purchases with the expectation that they will be able to keep the items for a long time to come. Therefore, they have excellent taste in choosing interior design, etc.
Japan focuses on convenience and functionality. People take the train especially in cities, so functionality is preferred in clothing. In Europe, however, people don’t care as much and wear what they want to. It's like wearing a leather jacket even though it's scorching hot. I think they are racially different first. And I think the environment also plays a big part.
Also, there is a clear difference in the education of designers. In Japan, vocational schools have been considered an extension of sewing since the postwar period. Therefore, the first thing you have to do in class is to sew. Even if you are a designer, you have to be able to draw patterns.
In my case, maybe it is because I entered an art college in Italy, but I consider my job as to draw pictures and create worlds. In Italy, you don't touch any sewing machines, and it doesn't matter even if you can't draw a pattern. I’ve always hired a pattern maker and a seamstress to create a piece of work since I was a student. I thought it was a huge difference. In fact, you don't need a sewing machine once you graduate from school and join a company as a designer. Sewing is necessary as knowledge, but I think this is a big difference. In the Italian education, they asked you to prepare your own collection every six months from the beginning.


What about the difference in business? 

I don't know if this is comparable because Italy eight years ago was different from now with Covid-19, but basically, Italy is a showroom business. Buyers from all over the world come to showrooms six months before the launch to take orders. If you could get into a famous showroom, you would get many good customers. Japan is based on exhibitions by each manufacturer. There is not much showroom business. In this business, showroom people have a lot of power. They select the brands and tell the brands that this is not good, that it will not sell, and that they should do this. Showrooms are more powerful than brands. It may be similar to an art gallery.
In Japan, each manufacturer holds an exhibition, invites customers, and takes orders. There is nothing in between the two. Maybe that's why D2C was easier to work with this time.


How do you like working in Japan?

It’s tough to take trains (laugh). This is not about work, though. After all, the reason why everyone is late in Italy is because public transportation runs late (laugh). But in Japan, the trains come exactly on time, so there is no excuse!
Appointments in Japan are very tense. Hierarchical relationships are quite strict. It's more like a vertical society, with invisible rules such as seniority. Over there, people call each other by first name and speak casually as equals. I think the essence of communication is totally different.
The good thing about Japan is that they meet deadlines.
Also, if you push hard and appeal to people's emotions, even at city halls, they will do something for you in Italy. But that kind of thing doesn’t seem to work in Japan. If something can't be done, it can never be done! There is a lack of flexibility in some areas.


Do you think Italians are more capable of working in Japan? 

Many Italians who come to Japan are meticulous. I don't think you can survive unless you are basically a meticulous person! I think there are many Italians who work hard in Japan. After all, they are the ones who even try to speak Japanese!


What is your vision for the future?

I would like to collaborate and produce with other fields where I can use my skills that I have cultivated so far. Golf x businessmen would be good, and I am also interested in space designs.
I think clothes are quite important in corporate branding. I plan to collaborate with a chocolate maker next. They are creating a brand using chocolate. They are very particular about the packaging, and we are preparing a story for each piece of chocolate. It's value creation. I want to convey the value of the company through the production of everything from storefront outfits to factory outfits.
Clothing can also boost recruiting and improve the company image. The people at the company told us that if the clothing does not excite the people working there, they don’t get good results.
We need to create and communicate something that will make many people want to wear HERG1 continually first. This is our immediate goal.

Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Jun Iinuma, who is also a model for HERG1, for giving me this opportunity.


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