We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."
As her star power grew (and went global), Naomi Watanabe's love of fashion became intertwined with her career. Over the years, the Japanese comedian has modeled for brands like Beyoncé's Ivy Park and Kate Spade New York, and gone to fashion week with Gucci, Fendi, Moschino, Anna Sui and Thom Browne. Even before these big names came calling, though, she'd been advocating for size inclusivity and representation within the industry, even launching her own plus-size brand, Punyus, in 2013.
"Once I started getting on TV and people started knowing me, I wanted to show everybody that even if you're plus-sized, you can wear whatever you want," she tells Fashionista, through a translator. "There was this mindset that, unless you were skinny, you weren't allowed to enjoy fashion. Skinnier people had more options. I really wanted to change that."
Watanabe — who's currently chronicling her move to New York on a podcast called "Naomi Takes America" — spoke to Fashionista about the early influences that shaped her approach to fashion today, her love of platforms and why she commemorates important milestones with a new watch. Read on for the highlights.
"I started getting into fashion when I was in middle school. My family wasn't very wealthy, so I couldn't buy clothes that I liked. It was also the age of flip phones — not smart phones like now — so it was all based on fashion magazines.
"In Japan, there's this thing called 'kogals.' They're these high school students that have blonde hair, eyelash extensions and long nails. There's a magazine called Egg, and all these models would be in these really outrageous looks, wearing uniforms so short you could almost see their butts. Interestingly, that's what I looked up to. I grew up wanting to be that. Everyone would go to tanning salons and bleach their hair and wear bright makeup. There's this thing called 'loose socks,' that are very long socks that bunch up. The socks themselves would be [my] height; you'd bunch them up around the ankles or calves. This was the Japanese 'gal' culture, and where it all started for me. That's how I got interested in fashion.
"The 'gals' are a rare breed now. Back then, you were either a 'gal' or you went 'harajuku' style or a sexy mature style. I've evolved into wearing whatever I want and whatever I feel comfortable in. Being a 'gal' and having long nails or wearing these outrageous 'harajuku'-style outfits, they weren't really popular among the opposite sex. But [to me], the 'gal' mindset is to wear whatever you like. They didn't care about being popular — they just wore whatever they wanted. That mindset's still definitely there. I still wear long lashes and long nails; if there's something I want to do, whether that be a 'gal' thing or not, I'll do it. There was this stereotype that you should wear dark colors because they make you look skinnier. But now I like wearing skirts and styles that show my body outline.
"I love accessories. I wear colorful hair buns. Actually, long nails in Japan are rare now — it's not a popular thing, but I wear them because I like them. On my nails, I'll add a whole bunch of jewelry. The 'gals' back then also used to wear a lot of platform shoes, and I still wear those. I love colorful fashion, but I try not to be all over the place in terms of color. I just wear what I like.
"When I first came to Tokyo, I was 18 and a comedian. In Tokyo, I couldn't find plus-size clothes everywhere. Back then, I would have to choose what fit me — not because I liked the design, but just because it was a big, baggy size. After being on TV, I heard that the stylists had a really tough time finding stuff for me as well.
"I didn't have an image of a lot of plus-size people being around in Japan and social media wasn't big back then, but there was a plus-size magazine that launched for just one issue, and I was on the cover. We got so much reaction and so much demand, it didn't end up being just a one-issue magazine. It continued. That's when I realized that there are a lot of people like me waiting for something like this and that within the plus-size market there are people who like the rock style, the conservative style, the cutesy stuff, so we shouldn't be categorized into one, 'plus size.' So I decided I wanted to make a brand of all genres — including street, cute, cool — and have people choose based on design, not because it's plus-sized. Back then, there were two plus-sized brands, but one was limited to the cute style, so I wanted to do a brand that included all genres.
"[I could never find] jeans, skirts and pants. You could always get T-shirts, but the bottom sizing is always hard because the tummy and thighs are too tight and denim doesn't stretch. If it's got something to do with the waist, it's a wrap for us. So with my brand Punyus, I created a lot of denim and skinny pants; even now, these are the items that do really well. When I'm able to wear those, it makes me really happy.
"I'm really grateful that I've been able to work with such big brands. I launched Punyus in 2013, and in 2014 I came to New York to study for three months. Back then, plus sizes weren't put into focus yet. But recently, these big brands started to create plus-sized items, and it's great to be chosen as a model for them. But there's one mystery that I have to discuss: Sometimes, these fashion shows have plus-size models on the runways and they show [body] diversity, and I get excited to buy it, but I'll go to the store and they don't sell plus sizes. I do have some questions for these brands. A lot of them do carry plus sizes, but some just use it for the runway and don't sell them.
"I first came to New York in 2014, then a few times after that. I would wear what I was wearing in Japan. But then a friend in New York told me, 'You've got to be more stylish. You have to fit in. Buy clothes in New York.' So I just started to dress how I thought a New Yorker would dress because I thought I had to fit in. Earth colors were in, so I had a green tank top with denim and sneakers in earthy colors to match the city, with a tiny Chanel bag across my body. So casual, but one point of a high-end brand on me. But it didn't feel right. I'm not saying it's a bad look — some people look great in that — I just didn't look good in it and I didn't feel comfortable in it. So I gave up on that and started wearing clothes that reflected the culture I grew up in — clothes from Japan with clothes I bought in the States or wherever — and mix it up. And that's when people started complimenting me and talking to me on the street. It's interesting because no one would talk to me when I wore what I thought I should wear. No one gave a shit. New York is a place that allows me to be who I want to be, and that's really the best way. There's no need to match anyone or any place.
"The fashion that they sell in New York can be very unique. Sometimes it looks like it's too much, and if it was the old me, I would've just assumed that it's not for me. But sometimes I'll try things on and they'll fit perfectly. That moment gets me so excited. What's most exciting is discovering a new me when I try on something new in New York.
"Thom Browne is a brand that I liked, but I enjoy even more now [after living in New York]. I wear both men's and women's clothes from Thom Browne. Vaquera is another brand that I really like. Until I came to the States, I had never heard of 'pinup girl' style, but when I came to New York I got into that.
"I'm so grateful that I've been given these opportunities [to go to fashion shows and be dressed by brands]. If I had to choose one [favorite look], I have to say I really enjoyed my Thom Browne outfit for the September show, because I never thought I would look good in a jacket because of my figure, but it looked so cool. It had stick figures stitched on it, and the skirt was really cute as well. I enjoyed it in the sense also that it opened up a new possibility for me, that I never thought I would look good in.
"[Buying watches] is a big thing for me. People lose track of time. I want to wake up at 8, make breakfast, feel the sun, do yoga, stop and chat with neighbors — but in reality, I wake up and it's 2:00 p.m. Time is very important to me, so when I achieve big things, I buy myself a watch. My favorite is by Patek Philippe; I have watches from a whole lot of different brands, but this is the most recent one that I purchased in Japan to motivate myself in New York. I'm starting to build a collection of watches. I'll wear them to important dinners, just to remember that time is precious. That's the meaning it holds. But I still do wake up at 2.
"There are these Prada platform sandals that I recently bought that I'm super into. I wear them every day. There are platforms in the Gucci x Adidas collaboration that I really want. I bought platform Uggs last year and they're super cute and comfortable; lots of people talk to me when I'm wearing them. I want to collect a bunch of platforms this year.
"Platforms are trending right now, and that works for me because I'm short. I always wear platforms, but there are times when they're really popular and times when they're not. Everyone's releasing platforms right now, so I'm assuming they're in. Unfortunately because platforms are popular, everyone's wearing platforms, therefore I don't feel any taller than anyone else."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.