In her own words, Hanako K puts her successes down to luck. But Hanako.K is more than just lucky. Because luck implies her successes are devoid of effort or responsibility. Hanako.K is a hard worker, a self-made (wo)man, who has an almost unbelievable string of work and life experiences have lead her current mix of occupations; founder of her own accessories label, shop girl extraordinaire, small business enthusiast, community radio stalwart and all-round style icon. And you know the best bit? In Hanako’s own words, ‘I sleep in most days’.
Small Talk & Co. sat down with Hanako recently to chat craft, community and what it means to be a ‘designer’. This post runs a little longer than Small Talk & Co.’s usual, but believe me it’s worth it!
What do you do/how did you get there?
I started crafting when I was 14, really young – from memory my grandma’s were really crafty, so that influenced me and I started knitting, sewing and learning from them what was possible. I taught myself how to crochet in primary school, I think I was just bored!
I was born in Japan and came here to Melbourne when I was about nine, so language was an obvious barrier at first – I didn’t get out too much, stayed home and kept myself busy with craft projects. That’s how I taught myself how to crochet, I started doing Nuigurumi, the Japanese soft toys, which was really good practice and actually ended up being my label’s first product.
Is this what you planned to do ‘when you grew up’?
When it came to the point where I had finished school and faced going to university, I didn’t want to. I’m one of those people, I never dreamt of becoming like a designer or anything like that. I’m in fashion now, but I never dreamt of being the ‘designer’.
So then, I had to think about it − I wasn’t very good at school. I found it hard to study and at the same time I was so self-conscious, I it took me a long time to even choose art as a subject when I was in high school, because I didn’t want anyone to see my artwork. I also knew I couldn’t live off doing craft, so I thought, what something is close, that I could do, that I could possibly turn into money, to support myself.
Conscious that her self-taught techniques would limit her capacity to make an income from craft, Hanako looked for an alternative to university. After a short gap year she found a three year course in fashion at Box Hill TAFE more suitable to her way of thinking and creating.
I asked Hanako what other skills she had that lead to her role today…
I’ve done a lot of really random jobs! I’ve had a lot of different work experiences; hospitality, warehousing, corporate fashion, fashion retailing, buying, couture hand sewing, millinery, and of course crafting through Hanako.K.
My course at TAFE, wasn’t so much about teaching design, but had a more technical basis,
I never thought I was a designer, I was more about the technical things, how to make something, was something that I was always interested in. design is, like aesthetically, it needs to look good, but I don’t have like a huge concept or story behind my creations.
One of my biggest intentions in going to TAFE was to make connections, to make portfolio and ultimately get a job, simply because of not going to university, it made me think I can’t work in a corporate (fashion) situation, I had this image in my mind, and to a degree I still think that way. Whatever industry you’re in, I still feel quite conscious of not having a university degree, especially with an Asian family! Cultural pressures!
When I started selling under my label, Lenko Boutique was still around in Melbourne Central. A friend of mine stocked there and she suggested I leave a few things for them one day, and they called me not long after to say that someone wanted to buy the Nuigurumi now, and was it ok if they sold them?! And at the end of that phone call they said, “so I guess you can sell things here now!” And that was it! I had to get an ABN, and all those business things pretty quickly! I was still at TAFE, so I didn’t have a lot of time to put into it, but I just kept crocheting, I took my time and earnt a little cash on the side.
Not long after, I finished TAFE, but I knew that my brand still wasn’t going to be enough to support me, and I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, you are exposed to lots of things through education, but not enough to know anything real.
So I chose to continue my studies, I did a short course at CAE in illustration, something I wasn’t very good at naturally. I knew I could make things, but drawing wasn’t really my forte, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I’m still really shy, and it was terrifying, being with people I don’t know, being criticised for your work, even in a constructive way. Having the courage to just, put the pen to paper was really hard for me, I had to work a lot on that. At the same time I started to pick up casual work helping dressmakers prepare for bridal expo’s. I took some time out to travel, and when I returned to Melbourne I had a plan to get into retail.
I applied for a lot of retail jobs, but didn’t get any interviews, and ended up taking a warehouse job, because at least that paid better than interning!
By chance I walked past Gwendolynne, and I remembered her showing at a bridal expo I had been to, her name was so unique, I had to write it down to remember it! She was looking for a hand sewer. If that had happened to be a machinist job, I wouldn’t have gone, but I thought, with my skills, maybe I can. So I put in my resume, got a call back and went in for what was my first proper interview. I did a trial and got in. That was basically my dream come true, working for a special occasion ware designer, very exclusive, hand-sewing. It was everything I wanted to do. I still didn’t really have any great ambition, but I thought, I’m kind of just doing it. I thought it was really cool that it was something I had worked towards, and made it happen.
It was the first time I could take my parents to see their show, at L’Oreal fashion week, so I was like, this is what I’m doing! It was the first time mum ever really saw or understood what I do, I think that made her happy.
At this point Hanako also picked up an internship which lead to a permanent position at Factory X. She negotiated Factory X to three days a week, with three days at Gwendolynne, Sunday nights at Richard Nylon, with Sunday afternoons working the panel for Japanese community radio.
Me, in a corporate job! And at that point I was working 7 days a week, and I thought, you know what, I want to do everything.
I felt really lucky, with the people around me, and when the opportunity came I was ready, which I never really knew until I was in it. That made it for me, I felt like my time at TAFE and all the experiences since, they had just fallen into place for me at that time.
I did that crazy seven days a week routine for about three months, and I was getting really tired, and around then I also entered the Tessuti award, I wasn’t in the top three or anything, but I got a medallion, which means I think I was in the top 10. It gave me drive to continue in fashion.
I think my whole life I have just been really lucky with people, very blessed.
Factory X then offered me a full time position, design assisting/buying for Princess Highway. On my third day fulltime, I was in China, on a buying trip! It was a very hands-on experience from the get-go. I was there for two years, I felt like I couldn’t get any further there, and decided I wanted to move on.
So I asked myself the same old question, so what do I want to do?
I still had my brand, which had been on the shelf during my time at Factory X. But I had kept the Facebook active, so had a group of followers, which had grown over time.
I had kept updating quite often and realised I needed to be my own marketing tool, which I’m still not completely comfortable with. But I thought if no one knows what you do, they aren’t going to care what you make.
What is the process of creating an item for Hanako.K?
There’s a lot of thought, a lot of love in each new thing I create. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea of different ways of designing within one person or brand.
My sister did interior design at university for a while, and we work backwards from each other in terms of design; she starts with a concept and works on making it into a shape, or artwork.
I start with a material, or colour way I want to work with, then I come up with the best possible way to translate that into something, and make money out of it. I think that’s perhaps a more business minded way of looking at it! (laughs)
It’s just how my thoughts work. In approaching each creation in a less structured way, having a profit goal helps to define when the work is complete.
I think I am more of a crafter, just the way I process ideas that ground up material inspiration way of thinking. I’m fascinated by designers, and the process of design.
I’ve watched documentaries on say Chanel, where the head designer scribbles something, then gives it the pattern maker, and they have to work it out. They’re the true crafts person. The pattern maker goes “well what is this?” and when the designer comes back and says “It’s not like my picture” I’m always screaming at the TV going ‘what the hell!’
She has to be him, the designer. She has to be as skilled as the designer, as well as being the maker. I find that really fascinating.
What lead to your work with Lady Petrova?
I realised at this point, that in order to grow my own brand, I needed to learn how my favourite independent designers sustained their business in Melbourne.
It took me about five visits to get up the courage to approach Lady Petrova in her boutique. I felt like it was a bold question to ask outright, I prefaced it by saying though I wasn’t a customer at that time, I really admired her work. I just wanted to know how she ran her business. And she was just so nice about it, and let me ask many questions that day. I got to know her a little bit, and I started shopping there, half to keep the connection and half because I admire the designs. I figured that this was the kind of small business I wanted to be supportive of.
She encouraged me to start making again, to show her my designs and to start stocking in the boutique. She gave me a little homework, a week to come up with some new designs that fit Lady Petrova.
Lenko was really supportive when I stocked there, they were always available to talk though a new design idea. Gwendolynne as well, an inspiration and mentor, turning a highly creative and specialised art into a business.
They are have all been great mentors and inspiration for me.
Is Hanako.K full time?
I’m still not in a place where I feel like I am ready to ‘launch launch’ my brand as my sole occupation. I’ve been thinking about doing a big photo-shoot and merging the craft and fashion techniques in a new range, more hands on, one-off items. And I know that is perhaps the hardest kind of fashion business to launch, so I am happy working with Lady Petrova, learning more and more from her, and once I can build something for her, something that someone else could come in and run, that’s when I can really move on.
That’s my plan, a kind of vague plan. I really thought as a kid I was going to be housewife, I just thought that was what you did. So I didn’t see the point in going to university, I thought, maybe if I can sew clothes that would be handy, and its lead me in 1000 different experiences I never expected.
Tell us about your passion for community radio?
Networking and community is a huge thing for me, I’m not going to be a broadcaster, but my commitment to community radio is to support people who want the chance to talk on radio. It’s a hard job, I don’t think I’m so great at it either, but I can teach people to appreciate the complexity of things like that, and it can be a fun thing. It’s a lot about trust and not making mistakes. It teaches responsibility. Radio is my outlet to give back to my community.
Social networks really help these days. There are the ones you see online, and there are all the ones in you physical reality, people you chose to interact with every day.
We need to work together. I love to support small business. I’ll make do with less to achieve that.
What is the one tool of your trade that you can’t live without?
The materials – lead by materials and willingness to learn new techniques, curiosity to test new ideas, wanting to know things.
When I see something’s inspiring, the first thing I think is what did they use, how did they do it? Can I do it? It makes me want to make. Going to markets, window shopping inspires me. If I can’t already make it, I want to know how to make it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I was more known for my crochet work before, and I’ve moved onto more polymer clay. I would like to experiment with resin, and things like that, I just haven’t had the chance yet. It’s just a lot of risk involved and it may not even look good. The cost is prohibitive; I’m not ready for that risk yet.
I import my polymer clay from Japan, its air dry, and probably the best stuff you can get from this purpose.
Building my brand – I’m working with a photographer friend of mine at the moment, and hope that the end outcome of that will be a portrait that I can use as the public face of my brand. I’m still not totally comfortable with being visible, but because I’m interested in fashion, beauty, art, everything, I feel like I want to promote that as well.
I’m also learning business management, I think if I did go to university, that’s what I’d study. I’m learning about multi-level marketing. My books now are all marketing or business. Now that I can apply my knowledge a bit, though Lady Petrova and my own label, I can test what I have learnt from reading. I look at costs and planning within the creative process.
I want to make change, rather than be a designer. I feel like there’s not much room in Melbourne for designers, just with the population. I want to create a space for others. So that’s why I’m always learning, business management, stock, graphics. Clothing is a high risk business for a small designer.
I think in the near future, we will probably lose more boutiques. Even when non retail businesses move into an area, businesses which are more profitable than ours, ultimately that will push rents up and we won’t be able to compete. With the opening of the new international stores in Melbourne, yeah, they’re not direct competitors, but they are competition, everyone who spends money in the city is spending some of their money there instead of elsewhere, so it has an effect. I think there is a rising awareness, a subculture that thinks before they spend, about the effect of their dollar. Population is a huge influence, for all businesses, we just don’t have enough people!
What influence does social media have on the way you operate Hanako.K?
People can’t just judge you on face value. Looking at my Instagram, it’s unlikely anyone would imagine I care about business or money, or anything really (laughs). People are always more complex than they look.
I’ve recently figured you can’t please everybody; you have to just accept me for what I am. Japanese people freak out that I look at them when they talk. They go ‘wow you’re really passionate!’ its huge cultural difference. That, and the work culture are two reasons I prefer it here, I feel like you can work to live here, but in Japan you are living to work. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but I think 90% true.
I don’t mind mentioning everywhere I’ve worked, because that’s what made me, it’s how I got to here. I was just lucky really, seriously, I mean what if I couldn’t just do hand sewing jobs a couple of days a week because I lived out of home, or mum didn’t support it, just small things like that, what if a Factory X said no, you can’t work three days a week, I would have lost that chance. Even with Lady Petrova, I just went to talk to her one day and she was happy to talk to me! I mean what if she was in a mood that day. I actually spoke to her about this one day, she was like yeah, I was quite happy that day, there was no one in the shop, she could have just been grumpy, it happens to everyone!
Communication is key!
- Tea or coffee: One strong coffee in the morning and several tea breaks throughout the day when I’m working in the office
- Savvy, Sass or Study? I think a bit of everything but probably study. I definitely need to work on the savvy and sass!
- Want – learning or opportunity? Learning. I feel like opportunity will come naturally when I’m ready
- Need – apprentice or expert? Expert. Always better to have a strong management to build others.
- Superpower: Duplication -it would really help!
Friends of Hanako.K
Lady Petrova: My biggest inspiration and drive ladypetrova.com
Clara H Nails: THE best nail artist I know *Interview with Clara coming soon*
Yumi Conaghty My go to hair and makeup artist
Maison Tsumiki Hair salon that works all the magic on my hair
Nowhere & Co I was able to be a part of a pop up shop with the amazing Nowhere Creek, Unempire , Alchemy Produx and Jimmy Gatsby last December! Check out STC’s chat with the enigmatic Zoe Lea of Unempire *Interview with Nowhere Creek coming soon*
Sucre Noir Sweetly subversive accessories
How can I contact you?