Artist Collab: Yoko Kawai

Artist Collab: Yoko Kawai

Dive into our interview with Yoko Kawai of @kawaidesigns, the artist behind our most recent Limited-Edition Collaboration — "Playful Dots."  ⁠⁠

We met Yoko at Head West - an event put on by our friend, Jimmy Brower. Yoko was showcasing her embellished, leather wallets which caught Michael’s eye. Michael thought that this particular painted design would be a great adornment to our Solid Slides. Two years later, the Limited-Edition that Yoko aptly named, “Playful Dots,” was born.

kawaidesign's aesthetic is uncomplicated, focusing on a balance between clean lines and purposeful imperfections, embracing the subtle-yet-elegant design tendencies that are distinguishing characteristics of Japanese minimalism. Yoko is committed to sustainability: crafting hand-made products with as little waste as possible. 

Where do you come from? Where did you grow up? What most influences your personal style? 

I'm from Japan, and I grew up in a small town in Saitama prefecture which is 40 miles northwest of Tokyo. 

Japanese earthenware has always been my inspiration. I think the clay's solid texture, shape and glaze are the way artisans express their relationship to nature. When I touch and feel them, I sense a connection to the craftsperson that shaped and created a piece and their message.


What moves you?

Someone who has their own style without being afraid of showing it.

What sparked your love for leather goods? 

I used to work with graphic software everyday when I was an editor, and there came a point in my life when I wanted to use some other type of media, or something that allowed me to touch things directly, and use my hands. I especially love veg-tanned leather, which is made using one of the oldest tanning methods, and most eco-friendly. It's a leather that responds to fine adjustment by hand, and also works well with water, oil, and dye. It also develops a beautiful patina over time. 

What was the first thing you ever made out of leather? 

I made a brooch, shaped after my dog, Bosco. He was a Boston Terrier, and a true angel.  

How did you start working with and designing on leather? 

My husband, who is a designer, loves to create & craft outside of his work. He bought a large piece of leather and a few tools for a project he was working on years ago. I was fascinated by the beauty and nature of the material and started learning to make leather goods from that point on. 

Which is your favorite Mohinders style: Woven or Solid? Natural leather or colorways?  

Solid, it looks suitable for anyone's style, and I love its effortlessness.

Favorite band / musician of all time? 

Radiohead and Apparat. 

Any big plans for Kawaidesigns? 

I feel like Kawaidesigns is just reaching the starting line, as a brand. Eventually, I want to be recognized as a 100% sustainable company, using leather and fabric. It will be interesting to see how I cultivate my brand in this new age of consumerism.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

I don't remember any particular advice from him, but my middle school PE/Math teacher had such a unique character and a big influence on me. He always wore women's tiny heel sandals and knitted sweaters during exams. While in class, he would cut some boys' hair into trendy styles, and asked students to call him by his first name. He behaved super unconventionally for a teacher in Japan, but never got into any trouble for some reason. I think, because he was likable and had a lot of humor, so people respected and accepted who he was. Students thought of him as someone who is between teacher and student. I really liked him, and looked up to him as a great example of an adult who was a true individual. 

What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a Japanese woman in the U.S. and as a Japanese woman in the arts? 

My personal challenge as a woman from Japan has been finding a career in the US that took advantage of my Japanese degree and experience. In some aspects, I felt like I was passed over by US companies that have less appreciation for my education, experience.  I felt like I had to start my life from scratch again, and felt insignificant for a while. After I did some odd jobs, I eventually figured out what I wanted, which was Kawaidesigns. I think being a Japanese woman in the arts is an advantage, not a challenge. People tend to appreciate it, when I show my heritage in my designs. 

What are your thoughts regarding the AAPI attacks and injustices? (Prior to our interview with Yoko, we asked her if she felt comfortable speaking about this topic.)

I've been thinking about AAPI injustices since the BLM movement had started, and have wanted to express my feelings as a Japanese woman living in the US. When I think about racism, I feel that collective memories and perhaps legacy play a role in the many layers of systemic racism. When a group of people are abused, history and memories as far back as a century ago are passed down from generation to generation. Over time, this can have a detrimental effect on individuals, and a people’s success. Something has resurfaced, and certain people and groups are believing their legacy, or perhaps their imagined supremacy, take priority because of their race/national rule during a certain era. Even though it's not their own personal success or achievement, some people identify themselves from a history that might make them think they are superior. What I see happening, is a new found level of entitlement, with people raising their voices in support of superiority. In response though, people are pushing back, taking a stand, and will not allow this to happen. People that support equal rights do outnumber those that want to suppress it. It's about raising our voice for what matters. As a mother of a 13-year-old daughter, I really want to cut this chain of harmful legacy, and have it come to an end. In order to do it, I have to be true to myself, and enjoy my life fully as a Japanese woman who has a great heritage, a history of learning, and moving forward as a people. I hope my daughter sees this, and learns that she can live her life and become a person who loves her whole self, and lives her life freely with knowledge of the past, but focused on the future, using all of her ability without being pulled backward to the collective memories of racism.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this global issue. Your words are eloquent and inspiring. Is there any example of creative genius that you see in your lineage / heritage that’s still manifesting today?

Ruth Asawa is an inspiring Japanese American artist to me. She spent her teens during the war in an internment camp, and experienced the height of discrimination against Japanese people. Her timeless wire sculptures have simple beauty with soft organic shapes, I feel they have a strong connection to nature. Her creations have transcended time and space, and keep giving me inspiration. 

Are there any acts of resistance and / or joy that inspire you right now?

Ruth Asawa co-founded and organized art workshops within public schools in San Francisco in 1968, and provided art education for many children and parents from average families. She is a true pioneer as an Asian American woman artist, and art activist who influenced many people and communities.

Don’t delay, folks!  There's still time to get a pair of these Limited-Edition Artist Collaboration Slides, "Playful Dots" in two different colors: Yellow + Pink and Indigo + Bronze.  We've worked with Yoko to donate a portion of sales to