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By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
(The Internationalist Fall 2014 Vol. 53)
Ohko Ishida ('79), a soft-voiced pixie-like 50-year-old, keeps most of her power and creativity under her hat. Of course, that makes perfect sense, since her father, Akio Hirata, was one of the world's most famous names in hat design, and she is his successor. When not in Paris or setting up an exhibition at a gallery, Ishida can be found at Boutique Salon Coco in Nishi Azabu, creating bespoke and handmade chapeaux for fashionistas, famous brand designers (Issey Miyake, Yoshie Inaba, etc.), and even the Japanese Imperial family.
I've passed by Boutique Salon Coco numerous times, and peeked in at the sleek, innovative toppers, but I've never ventured inside. Apparently, it's an age thing.
"Lots of young people wear hats, and they can't get enough of them" Ishida says, "And of course the elderly wear them, too. It's people in their 40s or 50s who somehow just never got accustomed to hats."
No wishing to tumble into a generational abyss, I wander over to the shop's displays of this season's felt hats. The felt swirls and colors are undeniably seductive. Classical music tinkles in the background as I pick up a broad-brimmed black dramatic number—half-Hollywood, half-flying saucer—and try it on. Sure enough, despite Ishida's kind protestations, I feel ridiculous. I solicit Ishida's help, and without hesitation, she hands me a lilac and tan hat with a flexible brim. It fits so perfectly that I hardly notice it's on, and—to my amazement—it's looks pretty chic. I gingerly place it back on its display prong, now eager to know how Ishida got into the world of milliners.
The story begins with Ishida's father, Akio Hirata (1925-2014), raised in the countryside of Nagano Prefecture, one of eight children. When a hat-maker from Tokyo came in search of workers, Hirata's high school teacher recommended him as being both dexterous and artistic. At the tender age of 14, Akio left his family to work. "You have to remember, it was 1939," Ishida says, implying that her father was lucky to secure work and that it probably helped ease the burden of the large family on the eve of war.
"Of course, then the war came, and a lot of things couldn't be done during that time, but there were chances to make hats for the GHQ wives," Ishida says. "My father studied milliner's work and US hat patterns, but soon he was coming up with his own unique designs."
By 1955, Ishida's father had opened Atelier Hirata, and was devoted to the business. "In those days, there weren't many people who actually designed hats, but fashion was taking off, and all the designers came to my dad to order hats to match their clothing," Ishida explains. "This was harder than it sounds for him, because when each person needs a specific design, it must have been hard for him, because he had to come up with distinctive styles for each designer.
Thinking to expand his design concepts and learn more about hat-making, Hirata travelled in 1962 to the Paris atelier of Jean Barthet. "He only planned to observe for three to six months," Ishida says, "but ended up entering Barthet's atelier and staying for three years. The experience opened up numerous design ideas and possibilities to him."
I sigh audibly at the notion of spending three years in Paris. Ishida's eyebrows arch. "France right now is a lovely place," she remarks, "but imagine it 50 years ago. There was a lot of discrimination, and the exchange rate was something like ￥72 yen to the French franc. It was terribly hard," she says, "but he couldn't have learned what he did anywhere else."
At the Drop of a Hat
Ishida warms to my next question. How are her company's hats made? "First of all, every step of the process is handmade," she says with unreserved pride. "There are perhaps a few individuals who make their hats by hand, but it's our overall company policy, and for companies, that's very unusual." As she talks, Ishida strokes one of her hats as though it were a family pet, revealing an intimate connection to her products.
The first, and perhaps most crucial step of hat creation is the conception of a form, and about this, Ishida has little to say; she shrugs, as if to tell me inspiration has no formula. What happens after one has a shape in mind, though, Ishida is happy to illustrate. A shop assistant hefts a huge box in front of us. Ishida gently unpacks from their tissue nests demonstrator hats illustrating her atelier's work stages. "I'll show you how we make the forms for hats," she says, "because our technique is unique and important."
An initial form is constructed of what appears to be stiff open-weave fabric. "It's actually thinly planed wood, split into threads and then woven into a wooden cloth," she elucidates. "This is made in Japan, but we have a problem because no one produces it any longer. We can use substitutes, but there is really no replacement for this material."
In an aside, Ishida amuses me with the story of how her father learned to use this material in Paris. Once back in Japan, he fretted about how to import it. Later, of course, he discovered that it was only made in Japan. Ishida and I discuss the numerous extraordinary innovations Japanese culture has achieved, and how the loss of even one artisan's profession can send ripples throughout various industries. I ask her if the craft couldn't be taught and revived. "It's hard work, and it doesn't pay well," she demures, her fingers on a hat form that well might be destined for a museum exhibit. "Once the desired shape is made, it is secured with long pins," she says, "then carefully sewn to hold its shape, with small layers added for bulk and strength." I have to admit the sewn form in and of itself is like an avant-garde sculpture.
Pulling a Rabbit from the Hat
Next, Ishida explains how the form is coated in a lacquer-like white waterproof plaster, and hardened. Finally, a felt cone, which resembles a hollow, fuzzy gumdrop, will be steamed and blocked onto the form's shape. Ishida hands me a cone blank. It is velvety, not at all what I was expecting. "Felt hats have no sewn parts," she says, "because we manipulate this cone shape. And our cones are made of rabbit fur felt; the more we massage them, the softer they get."
The blocking process takes anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours, depending on the complexity of the form, and is done carefully by hand, to prevents the hats from deforming. I wonder aloud if a hat so supple will survive rain? "If you stand in a downpour for a long time," Ishida laughs, "it will lose its shape, but a short while in light rain? That's no problem. In fact I don't always use umbrellas when it's raining. I sometimes don't feel the rain, because my face is guarded by my hat." She compares her hats to those usually found in department stores: "They're scratchy and hard, right? That's because they use wool felt and add glue to set the shape. They're really not comfortable to wear." I nod, thinking this may be why my generation lost interest in hats.
As we talk, I note that Ishida switches effortlessly between English and Japanese, and throws in a French word or two as well. "My parents enrolled me in Nishimachi International School for eight years (1971-78). They struggled with language while in Paris, so they wanted me to not have that kind of trouble," she says.
Nishimachi International School was an easy fit for the Hiratas, being close to their workplace, and Ishida turned out to be a serious and model student. She remembers loving math, and fondly recalls Ms. Hirooka, her first grade teacher. "I went to her house one or twice a week, to catch up on lessons in English."
It's no surprise that Ishida edited the school's yearbook, Ayumi. "I loved taking photos and doing the layout," she recalls, no doubt exercising early her penchant for refining "the look" of things. I ask if there were other ways in which Nishimachi International School influenced her life. "It gave me a sense of freedom," she says. "In sixth grade, Mr. and Mrs. Clark held classes where you had to think of your plot for a skit, and then give a presentation, with your own dramatic flair. That isn't something that happens at the average school here, so I learned confidence and a way of thinking about things for myself."
Throwing in the Hat
Ishida joined her father's workshop at age 25. Though it was not always an easy post, she persevered. "My dad was master of everybody in the company," she recalls, "so he was always called 'sensei.' I called him 'sensei,' too, in front of everyone else." Just learning the basic workflow, according to Ishida, takes three years of hard work, "but you could spend your whole life studying this art, because there's no a limit to what you can know."
Courage to then establish your own creative entity is a whole separate hatbox. "When I started my own brand, H.at, in the year 2000," Ishida recalls, "I did my first presentations, and my father would come over and critique them—'You should make this a little bigger' or whatever. He would tell me what I should do. But I didn't want to mix the two styles—or we'd have the same brand. So I had to not listen to him, finally. In fact, we set up our workshops on different floors.
Now married with two children, Ishida seems set to keep her father's business in the family. Not only did her husband ditch his career in real estate to come on board, but both Ishida's daughter and son have expressed interest in the atelier. It is my guess that Ishida will prove a demanding boss. " I was raised in this environment, with the work happening always right below where I lived," she says, "so I've spent my entire life watching the process. My children live in a different place, so they don't know the business as I do."
As we wander over to admire the shop's various vintage tools—a French die cutter and a whole wall of iron casting shapes for pressing artificial flowers—Ishida explains that her company, Haute Mode Hirata, consists of two distinct brands at the moment: Akio Hirata (to which Ishida has succeeded), and Ishida's own brand, H.at, which produces prêt-a-porter, or ready-to-wear, hats. An Akio Hirata chapeau might be an onyx-black, rolled brim pillbox with a black veil and an equator of white ostrich feathers swaying on the slightest breeze. An iconic Ishida's H.at design is a felt cloche, which rolls up and can be snapped secure with its own decorative bow.
Hang onto your Hat!
Prices in shop range from ￥17,000 for knit hats, to the ￥30,000 yen average price point for H.at works, on up ￥300,000 for some of the shop's masterpieces. Of course, the prices are reasonable considering the masterful workmanship and careful attention to detailing in each hat. No wonder then that many of Akio Hirata's originals now reside in museums in Paris, and that Ishida is also the milliner to whom the Imperial family turns.
Pass the Hat
Throughout the interview, the lilac and tan hat I tried on earlier has floated on the periphery of my view and thoughts. I end up purchasing it, and only then do I realize the quiet clerk behind the register is Akio Hirata's wife. Her understatement, charm, and quiet confidence make me wish to tip my brand new hat to this amazing family.