In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Hanako Maeda brings a whole new meaning to bicoastal living. As designer and founder of ready-to-wear label Adeam, Maeda scores major jealousy points splitting time between New York and Tokyo. But the lifestyle is about more than just jet-setting. The duality of place has been fundamental in shaping Maeda’s approach to design: mixing east and west, traditional with modern and avant-garde with wearable. It’s precisely that innovative take that’s placed Maeda as an up-and-comer of note, and looking at the 25-year-old’s run of accomplishments, it’s well-earned: showing at New York Fashion Week, dressing Lady Gaga, getting her pieces in Saks, Elyse Walker and Satine and even opening her own flagship boutiques in Japan. But even with fashion design in her blood -- Maeda’s parents design Foxey, which meant childhood trips to factories in Italy -- Maeda didn’t exactly fall into the trade. “I actually wasn’t super interested in fashion growing up,” she says. First pursuing a fine arts background, Maeda came to fashion later in life. “It was through thinking about art and how fashion is actually the only creative outlet that you can put on your body that fashion became this amazing outlet.” Even with the family connection, Maeda’s career started at square one with internships (notably, at Vogue and Phillip Lim). We caught up with the designer to talk the importance of competition, separating the personal from the professional and whether NYFW is really worth it.
How did you get your start in fashion? My family is in the business, so I was exposed to it early on. I have a fine arts background [Maeda studied art history at Columbia University], but my first experience working in fashion was interning at Vogue. It opened my eyes to the intellectual process to fashion editorial, seeing how much research goes into one story. After that, I interned with Phillip Lim at his studio, and that was my first true design experience. I saw this whole team of people working together to bring his vision to life, which really prepped me for my job now.
So fashion wasn’t what you originally wanted to do? I actually wasn’t super interested in fashion growing up, especially because my mother was a fashion designer. I started in art, but as I went on, I began to look at fashion as a creative outlet that’s more accessible to people. I feel like art sometimes has a very limited audience, but fashion doesn’t. So I came to fashion very organically, and it became this amazing outlet to express creativity.
It was announced that Condé Nast, and therefore Vogue, is ending its internship program. How do you feel about the internships you did? It was great because I met a lot of people that I have very close relationships with now. My immediate boss was Veronica Gledhill, who was André Leon Talley’s assistant at the time. Now she’s at New York magazine, and I still keep in touch with her. So the experience itself was great, because I got to go to photoshoots, and help out with CFDA events and the like, but beyond that, the relationships I built through my internships are so valuable now.
What was behind your decision to start your own line? As I thought about the clothes that were out there, I felt like there weren’t options that combined art and wearability. That’s definitely more of a Japanese idea of fashion. They are avant-garde, but they really think about the woman’s body and what the customer wants to wear. I really wanted to make clothes that are creative and intellectual but also make a woman feel beautiful.
So you decided you wanted to start you own line. What happened next? It started by sketching and building out ideas of what I wanted to do. I took them to this wonderful patternmaker in New York, Nicolas Caito, and he helped me create a 15-piece capsule collection. I then presented that capsule collection to my parents along with my concept, and pitched them on starting my own line. Everything started from there.
So no special treatment then, you pitched your parents like they were traditional investors? I learned early on that your private life and professional life should be separate. And having that kind of professional relationship with them helped me learn that financing is really important when you want to do fashion. It also helped me understand that you need to have a vision, but at the same time the clothes need to be marketable and sellable.
You split time between Tokyo and New York. How has that influenced you? As an individual, it’s given me a true global perspective -- an American education with traditional Japanese values. In terms of fashion, Tokyo’s style is really spontaneous and avant-garde, and that pushes me to be more original and interesting. With New York fashion, there is a close proximity between runway and street style. By combining those two perspectives, I’ve found a modern, relevant aesthetic.
Adeam is sold in both Japan and the U.S. What kinds of challenges come from straddling multiple markets? The cut and style of things is pretty much the same across the board. I’ve found that if a dress is cut really well, it looks is great in a size 2 or a size 10. I am always really mindful about making something that looks good on a woman’s body, so perfecting the fit is really important to me.
You’ve shown twice at New York Fashion Week. What has that experience been like for you as a designer? It’s amazing because New York Fashion Week has such a global presence. You’re exposed to editors and buyers from all over the world. You're also alongside so many talented designers, and that really pushes you to be more creative and original. Being in that kind of a competitive environment is really important, especially when you are starting out.
There has been a lot of discussion on whether the cost of doing a show is worth it to designers. Has it been worth it for you? Yes, definitely. It’s good to have a goal to work towards. With more and more seasons and deliveries you can feel lost. So having a concrete goal to work towards has helped me to focus my energy. As far as being worth it, we’ve also had a lot of support from IMG with securing sponsors for my shows. That is one of the great things about NYFW, and wouldn’t happen in Tokyo.
How involved are you in the technical aspects of garment making, like the sampling and manufacturing? I’m involved in all aspects of the brand. One of the great things about working in New York is that it all happens right here, so every day you can visit the factories, meet with the patternmakers, go to the work room.... It’s enabled me to have a real hands-on approach. One of the things I quickly learned after starting my own label is that being a designer is much more than just making clothes, and it’s really important for me to have a role in every aspect of the brand.
Is leading your own line what you expected it to be? In the beginning, I thought being a designer was mainly about sketching and fittings and things like that. But you have a lot of other things you have to think about: PR, marketing, production, sales.... I’m in meetings pretty much all morning, and then afternoons are reserved for fittings. The only time I sketch is on the weekends or at night because that's when I get to blast music without bothering people.
What advice would you give to a young designer starting out? It’s really important to believe in your vision. Designers are relevant and then not. Trends are in and then out. I really respect someone like Azzedine Alaia, who has been doing his own thing for 30 years. I think that if you stick to what you love as a designer, then all the press and sales and stuff like that will follow.
Where do you want to be in five or 10 years? We’re launching e-commerce in 2014, which I’m really excited about. Beyond that, I would love to extend Adeam to Europe and other parts of Asia. I would also love to get involved in the CFDA and collaborate with other young designers.
Assuming you’ve been a good girl, what’s on your wish list for the holidays? I haven't been able to take a vacation in a long time, so I’ve been dreaming of a weekend getaway to Hotel Le Toiny in St. Barths. They have an amazing infinity pool that makes you feel like you're in the middle of the ocean, and their freshly baked croissants served with coconut jam for breakfast are absolutely divine.