You’re Not Half, You’re Double
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Susan makes a pilgrimage to an industrial neighborhood in Long Island City, Queens. There, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) established The Noguchi Museum, which opened in 1985. Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese father and an American mother, Isamu Noguchi had a prolific career as a designer and artist who worked in different media and is most famous for his sculptures. The Deputy Director of The Noguchi Museum Jennifer Lorch shares the history and architecture of the museum, and she describes how Noguchi’s international travel, as well as his experience in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, shaped his aesthetic and his career. The museum comprises Noguchi’s basalt and granite sculptures that he created throughout his career and currently features an exhibition called Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan that displays the calligraphy and paintings of Japanese artist Saburo Hasegawa (1906-1957), who was also a friend of Noguchi during his lifetime.
In the sculpture garden of the museum, Susan sits down with Sarah LaFleur, Founder and CEO of the women’s fashion and styling company MM.LaFleur. Launched in 2013, the brand utilizes the “Bento Box” to deliver clothing, accessories, and shoes to the working woman. Sarah attributes the brand’s Japanese sensibility of design to Creative Director Miyako Nakamura and discusses the company’s values, including adopting kizukai (or “empathy in action”) with each other and with customers, espousing the spirit of renegades, and remembering to enjoy the art of dressing all women. Like Isamu Noguchi, Sarah is half-Japanese and half-American and calls both Japan and the US home. Sarah recalls visiting Kodomonokuni, a children’s park in Yokohama that was created by Noguchi, during her childhood and explains how her heritage and particularly her parents have influenced her political awareness and her entrepreneurship. Reminiscing about visiting The Noguchi Museum on a sunny day in June, Susan reflects on her own experiences as a mixed race person.
Noguchi Table (Herman Miller)
Akari Light Sculptures (The Noguchi Museum)
誰がアパレルを殺すのか (Dare ga apareru o korosu no ka) book (Amazon Japan)
An Evening with Sarah LaFleur (Japan Society)
Gabriel Orozco: Rotating Objects (The Noguchi Museum)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Brett Littman and Jennifer Lorch for letting us record this episode at The Noguchi Museum.
Toshiki Nakashige: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Susan McCormac: Welcome to The Big Root. A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. I’m Susan McCormac.
SM: I moved to New York City in January of 2000, and I’ve lived in Manhattan the entire time. I go to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx a few times a week for work, but for the most part, I venture into the other boroughs only for special events, and maybe a Japanese restaurant or two that I love in Brooklyn.
A few weeks ago, on what seemed like the first sunny day in months, I found myself in Queens, walking from the Queensborough-21st Street station F train. Instead of the honking of the stop-and-go traffic of Manhattan, I heard the buzz and machinery in an industrial neighborhood of Long Island City.
Jennifer Lorch: Crossing the river, stepping outside of Manhattan, sort of slowing down, and then you come into the museum.
SM: Jennifer Lorch describes my trip as a pilgrimage.
JL: And it is an oasis, it is a place where you have more reflection and more time to yourself and a little bit of quiet. So I think all of that journey and being at a place that isn’t in the hustle and bustle definitely reflects the museum.
SM: The museum that Jennifer Lorch is describing is the Noguchi Museum, which was established by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Jennifer is the Museum’s Deputy Director.
JL: When you arrive to the museum, it’s a very modest entrance by design by Noguchi. That it’s a small door; there’s a simple granite plaque at the top that says, “Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum,” which was the name of the museum when he founded it, and it’s a small entry. And then it opens up into a large, the cinder block structure that he created, tall gallery space, indoor-outdoor space, that shows his later works that he did in Japan in basalt and granite. And those are really monumental sculptures. He curated the museum in reverse chronological order, so it’s his later works that you see first. So, you’re really struck by these large works and this beautiful, stark industrial space, that they just work so beautifully together. And there’s a lot of the natural and industrial, you get a sense of the Japanese American background that he had.
SM: There’s a sense of calm that permeates throughout the building and the garden, and I love the idea of using an old industrial building to house works of art.
JL: And then you turn the corner, and you open up into this beautiful garden, and it was really his version of a Japanese garden. The plantings are half native to this area in North America and half Japanese, and he placed the sculptures in there, too. And the fountain is one of—called The Well—is one of the centerpieces of the garden that a lot of visitors love.
SM: As Jennifer describes, Isamu Noguchi was one of the leading sculptors and designers of the 20th century. He was mixed race.
JL: He was born in 1904 in Los Angeles to an American mother and Japanese father. His mother moved with him to Japan when he was a little over two, so he spent most of his childhood in Japan, returning to the United States for high school. He then came to New York, where he established himself as an artist, primarily doing portraits early on in his career. Then a pivotal moment in his career was in 1927 he went to Europe and was an apprentice for Brancusi, and that really introduced him to abstraction and broadened his career. He was an artist really that explored—though he was based in New York, he traveled extensively throughout his life, worked in Mexico, Asia, Europe. And in 1962 he established a studio and living quarters here in Long Island City, which brought him to here and the establishment of our museum. And he later in that decade he also had established a part-time studio in Italy as well as in 1969 a studio in Shikoku in Japan, which later became Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum.
SM: In addition to creating portraits and sculptures, Isamu Noguchi designed furniture and lamps. Before I had ever heard of him, I actually owned one of the Akari lights he designed. It was a gift from a friend, but after two cats and a move from Boston to New York, I had to part with it. Jennifer went on to describe how prolific Noguchi was until his death in 1988 at the age of 84.
JL: He was a sculptor in stone, metal, wood, clay. He did drawings. He did models for public projects and gardens, and he executed a lot of those that are throughout our city and throughout the world. He did stage sets, most notably for Martha Graham. Furniture designs—the coffee table is iconic that he designed for Herman Miller, and his Akari light sculptures. This place here shows all of those works and is the repository of the largest collection of Noguchi’s work.
SM: My first time visiting the museum was in late April for a tour of the current exhibition Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan. Saburo Hasegawa was a Japanese calligraphy artist and abstract painter who was influential during the brief time he spent living in the Bay Area in the early 1950s. He was only 50 years old when he died in 1957, and Jennifer says that, because of his relatively early death, he and his work are largely forgotten. I wasn’t familiar with Hasegawa before my visit, but because of his background, The Noguchi Museum seemed like the perfect setting for his art.
The exhibition draws attention to Hasegawa and puts a spotlight on the friendship between the two artists, who explored historic, cultural spots in Japan together and discussed Japanese traditional arts as well as modernity. The exhibition opened on May 1 and closes this Sunday, July 14, so if you haven’t already, make your own pilgrimage to Long Island City this weekend. You’ll see Hasegawa’s calligraphy side-by-side with Noguchi’s sculptures, and it’s a fascinating physical embodiment of the two artists’ conversations about nature and the future of Japanese art.
When I returned to the museum on this sunny day in June, I met with Sarah LaFleur, and we sat on one of the benches in the sculpture garden, where we enjoyed the sounds of birds chirping as well as the occasional construction vehicle. Some of the sculptures at the museum seem so tactile that you just want to see how they feel, but like most other art museums, there’s a sign that says not to touch the sculptures. One exception is that Noguchi designed granite benches in the garden that are meant to be used, but because it was sunny, we opted to sit on one of the wooden benches under the shade of bamboo trees.
SM: So, Sarah LaFleur! Welcome!
SL: Thank you so much!
SM: Thank YOU so much! We’re at the Noguchi Museum, which is dedicated to the art and legacy of Isamu Noguchi, who was perhaps one of the 20th century’s most important sculptors. And he is—he was—Japanese American. So have you ever been here before?
SL: It’s my first time, I’m ashamed to say, but it’s actually, there must be something in the air because my husband and I were just talking about coming here, and then you emailed me to tell me about this opportunity and I was like YES! I also didn’t realize he was half Japanese, half American, and I was reading his biography, and he was someone who was born literally I guess 80 years before I was, but I kind of sensed parallel experiences just in terms of moving back to Japan or moving back to America, and just trying to imagine what that must have been like for someone who was born, you know, a century before us.
SM: Just as Isamu Noguchi created a name for himself as a sculptor in the international art scene, Sarah LaFleur is a pioneer in her own field. She is the founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur.
SL: So for those of you who have never heard of MM.LaFleur, I’ll just briefly tell you what it is. It’s a fashion and styling company for working women. So we dress all sorts of customers, both customers who work in corporate law firms as well as more casual tech environments, but the idea is to create clothing that is comfortable but beautiful and easy to take care of.
SM: Also like Isamu Noguchi, Sarah is half Japanese. And to me, she’s the perfect guest for The Big Root because she really is everywhere Japaneseness.
SL: My father is American, and my mother is Japanese. And actually, so my father worked for the State Department, he’s a diplomat, so we moved around every three to four years. I was born in Paris and then moved to Tokyo when I was three, moved to DC when I was 7, moved back to Tokyo when I was 10. At that point my dad was stationed in Taipei, so we went back and forth to Taipei. Ultimately my father ended up in Malaysia, which became home—I’m putting air quotes around that—but I was also in college at the time, so, you know, when I would go back for the holidays, I went back to Kuala Lumpur. And then I went back to France for another year, and then ultimately moved to New York, which is actually where my dad is originally from, and have made New York—I’ve made New York home. But my parents and my sister and my mom’s side of the family all live in Tokyo, so you know, I still really go back and forth between the two, and you know, think of both countries as home.
SM: As a half-Japanese half-white American person myself, I could relate to a lot of what Sarah described about her life, but at the same time, it was clear that she and I had very different experiences being bicultural. For example, I didn’t speak Japanese growing up, and Sarah is fluent.
SM: But are you fluent in Japanese now, like, with the reading and writing and speaking as well?
SL: Yes, yes, I really have my parents to thank for that because they really pushed me and my sister to learn those two languages as a native speaker. For example, I’m a proud holder—as I like to say—of kanken, which is kanjikentei, it’s the exam that you pass to show that you have a certain qualification in your kanji abilities, and I have sankyu, which is the third level, which is like—it’s not even that great. It’s like the second level is actually where it starts to become pretty impressive. But I think I took a lot of pride in trying to really learn Japanese. I took my Japanese studies and also kanshi, which is actually Chinese studies, in Japanese middle schools, you really actively study Chinese, Chinese literature from the ages of Lao Tzu and whatnot, and I really almost wanted to kind of prove that I was so Japanese that I was good at that portion of Japanese literature, Chinese literature as well. So, I think, yeah, it was a point of pride almost that I would master both languages.
SM: We chose the Noguchi Museum to interview Sarah because we thought that the setting of a museum with design, sculpture, and art was a good parallel to what Sarah does in the fashion industry.
SL: I am so flattered that you say that first of all thank you so much for even drawing that parallel, and I really the person I should be giving credit to at my company is my creative director. Her name is Miyako Nakamura, and she’s born and raised in Kyoto. She came here when she was 18 years old, and she, similar to me, has built her career in the US and specifically in the fashion world in New York. She’s the real creative talent behind the brand. I like to joke that I just count the money. You know I think when I was reading his biography this morning there were parallels that really struck me. I think the most notable one was that he actually attended this kindergarten in Yokohama called Morimura Gakuen, which was the kindergarten that actually my sister went to and I went to the elementary school and middle school. He built I don’t want to call it an amusement park because it’s actually it’s more, it’s more it’s less kind of electric than that. It’s more, I mean he obviously did sculpture, so it’s a lot of climbing and whatnot. But there’s a place that he built called Kodomo no Kuni that was right next to the school that I went to, and I remember I have such great memories of going there being taken there on school trips, and I never knew that he was the architect behind that.
SM: It’s clear that Noguchi’s Japanese heritage was important to him and relevant to his aesthetic as an artist, as evidenced by the wabi sabi found in his work. Wabi sabi is the notion that imperfections and the innate properties of something can be appreciated and celebrated. Many of Noguchi’s sculptures embody a mix of polished and rough surfaces. Rocks, by nature, are rough; therefore, Noguchi celebrates that innate roughness, and his art stays true to the natural state of the materials he used.
I feel that Sarah’s Japanese influence must come into play for her as well. I’m not sure if the Japaneseness of MM.LaFleur is intentional or not, but the company certainly espouses a Japanese sensibility. For example, instead of a traditional off-the-rack shopping experience, customers order a bento box of clothing either online or in person at one of their showrooms. Although MM.LaFleur stands out because it’s not subscription based and you can order just one delivery, other companies have this model of purchasing clothing. Nevertheless, MM.LaFleur specifically calls them bento boxes. I asked Sarah if she could describe how her Japanese heritage has consciously or maybe subliminally wormed its way into her business.
SL: I would say there is so much about our business that is driven by my Japanese and Miyako’s Japanese background. I think the concept itself, it really came out of my growing up in Japan and seeing women’s fashion magazines—names like Oodji or you know, Vivi come to mind—but these magazines often portrayed like on the cover of these magazines you would see models who were kind of just slightly better looking than the average person. In fact a lot of times they were taking the average reader and turning them into a model. That was like one strategy that these magazines really pursued, and they would illustrate how these women were getting ready for work and what they were wearing to work. It was such a central focus of these fashion magazines. And then when I came to America, I realized on the cover of American fashion magazines you were mostly seeing the likes of Kim Kardashian, you know? Celebrities. And this notion of a working woman having fun, getting dressed, really using the power of fashion and costume to both have fun and also be taken seriously, like that notion was completely missing. And so I really saw this gap in the American market, and I think that really was influenced by growing up in Japan.
I would say in the designs itself—I mean I’m actually wearing a dress today that my mom said actually reminded her of chirimen, which is a particular kind of Japanese fabric, but this fabric was actually made in Japan, and so we have a lot of relationships with Japanese fabric mills who make excellent synthetic fibers. You know, people hear ‘polyester,’ and they kind of shudder, but Japan has really been paving the way in creating high-end, technical but beautiful fabric. So we work with a number of Japanese mills, which has been really, really exciting.
And then last but not least, you mentioned the bento. So this is actually how a lot of customers interact with our brand for the very first time. You come to our site, fill out a brief survey, tell us about your fashion needs or your clothing needs, and based on that our stylists send you a box of our best products that we think will work best on you. And this comes in what we call our bento box. And we called it that because literally when we were designing this box it looked like just a ginormous version of a lunch box that my mom used to make for me when I was going to school every day. Japanese bento boxes, they often come in two layers, and you’ve got the rice on the bottom, and the toppings on the top, the vegetables and the meats and whatnot. And when we were designing this box, that’s exactly what it looked like. It was, it had the clothes were on the bottom layer, and we had another compartment to go on the top layer, and that’s where all the accessories went. And I stared at this and I was like, ‘God, this looks like a ginormous bento,’ and we were going to call the box something totally different, like the ‘Style Edit,’ or the ‘Style Box’; we were trying to come up with something, you know, elegant, but the name bento really stuck, and the next thing you know we’re calling it the bento, and I think people found it kind of comical that we were calling it that.
SM: At the risk of sounding like a complete fan girl—which I totally am—on the day of the interview, I was wearing the Annie Dress and the Woolf Jardigan, which Sarah spotted right away. I’ve been to MM.LaFleur’s Bryant Park showroom, and I’ve ordered bento boxes of fabulous clothing. Throughout my experiences as a customer, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, as we described in Episode 3 of The Big Root. I was interested in learning how Sarah’s Japanese heritage has informed the way she runs MM.LaFleur. She told me about the ten company values and the code of conduct that she and MM.LaFleur’s earliest employees established when forming the company. Rather than omotenashi, Sarah says they focused on the Japanese word kizukai, which she translates as “empathy in action.”
SL: I think the difference between empathy and empathy in action is for example if someone walks in the door looking really hot and you say, ‘Hey, are you okay? Like, are you hot? Can I get you a glass of water?’ That’s empathy. And then Kizukai is just getting the glass of water for them. It is being able to kind of read their thoughts and act on their behalf. And so when we were starting our company, the early group of employees came together and wrote these ten company values and that became I would say the golden value, the value that my employees appreciate the most. And in some ways it’s very counter-capitalism. It is counter-cultural even in this American world of kind of dog-eat-dog you know, you look out for yourself and you rise to the top. It’s very anti-individualism because this idea is that you are looking out for the goodness and the well being of someone else. But its a very important value for me and the company, and I actually I find that I most succeed when I know that other people are looking out for me, and vice versa I’m looking out for them. We’ve got each other’s backs. And so I think this is first the way we want to treat each other, but then also the way we want to treat our suppliers, and ultimately, I hope it translates into the way we treat our customers.
SM: And the word kizukai is in a lot of your most recent email campaigns, I’ve noticed.
SL: Yes, yes. Yes, and I can’t tell you, of all of the company values for some reason this one is really striking a chord right now. I think we live in really anxious times where you know there’s a huge trend toward wellness I think people are feeling very scared about the future that lies ahead. Whether it’s in you know whether it has anything to do with the government situation or global warming. There’s so much uncertainty, and I think our customers are really resonating with this concept of taking care of each other and looking out for each other and finding ways to create pockets of, pockets of calm in what is right now very chaotic times.
SM: Another one of the ten company values centers around being Renegades.
SL: We are, we kind of succeeded I would say, in spite of what everyone told us. You know. When we were initially pitching our company, people would say, ‘Oh good for you; you’ve started a really niche business for yourself. I hope you can turn this into a lifestyle business,’ as though the idea of working women was somehow niche. Most venture capitalists were men, and they would kind of laugh or say, ‘I’ll have my wife try it on,’ but their wives are stay-at-home moms. Nothing against stay-at-home moms, but that’s not our demographic. Or they said they would have their, you know, 17-year-old daughter try our products. I mean it was really disrespectful, and for the first four years we could barely get any funding. We had some friends and family and family offices that supported us, and I’m so, I’m forever grateful those people who took a chance on us when we were really nobody. But this idea of dressing a professional woman was really not cool, not trendy. This is, again, before the era of MeToo, and so professional women really weren’t in the zeitgeist. And I like to think of us as the Little Engine That Could, and I think renegades really speaks to that spirit. If someone else is doing it, then do exactly the opposite thing. Don’t follow the recipe of everyone else; surprise everybody. I think even launching bento that actually was a total antithesis to how you’re supposed to grow a fashion brand. We said that we were both a fashion brand and a channel, a channel meaning a retail play. Usually fashion brands sell into other retailers like into a Nordstrom or a Bergdorfs, but we said, no, we’re a direct-to-consumer company; we’re going to own both the branding, so the development of the clothing, and we’re going to manage the selling of it. And so I think always just thinking differently from what else is out there, that’s been one of the keys to our success and something we’re really proud of.
TN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
It’s summer, which means it’s film festival time! Don’t miss the opportunity to catch several Japanese films that are screening throughout the city. The New York Asian Film Festival wraps up this Sunday, July 14, JAPAN CUTS at Japan Society begins July 19 and runs through July 28, and the Asian American International Film Festival runs from July 24 through August 5. If you know Japanese or just like to read English subtitles, get your tickets for a screening or two, or five like my co-host Susan. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
SM: At this point, I’m loving all of the Japaneseness. Omotenashi, kizukai. And I’m also loving Sarah’s strong American side and her political awareness as she had to be a renegade to get MM.LaFleur off the ground. But being a renegade in Japan is frowned upon, so I wondered how Sarah reconciled that with starting her business.
SL: It’s interesting. There’s a Japanese saying that immediately comes to mind: Deru kugi wa utareru, which means ‘The nail that sticks out will be slammed down by the hammer.’ And you know I do think- there are two thoughts that immediately come to mind: I think Japan is actually a very creative country, and there are a lot of very creative people. The way express that might be a bit different. But I think this notion that somehow creativity doesn’t really come out of Japan, we all know that’s not true because there have been so many great inventions, and great designers, and you know sculptors such as Isamu Noguchi that have come out of Japan. But I do understand what you mean. I do think it is a place where if there’s a certain expectation about how things are done. And those are two things are often at conflict.
For me personally, I definitely felt that conflict, and I think part of the reason I ended up coming to New York, and I find New York a place that suits my personality best is because I am someone who is quite outspoken, and I did not fit your kind of ideal notion of a Japanese woman. I always had strong opinions, and I always wanted to talk about things that were philosophical or deep. I remember having my senior thesis was on sexual exploitation in refugee camps, and I remember my hair stylist in Japan I was getting my hair cut in Tokyo and he asked me what I did for the summer so I said, “I was working in a refugee camp in Zambia, and this is what I’m writing my thesis on,” and I could just feel the entire salon go quiet because I suddenly talked about something that was so controversial and I could tell like I really turned people off. So culturally it was like I found that aspect to be difficult and kind of not perfectly fitting with my personality and I find in that way New York to be such a breath of fresh air where anything goes and you can be whoever you want to be. My sister and I joke about this a lot because my sister has built her career in Tokyo. She’s very good she has strong options, too, but she’s very good at balancing those moments as well as the more kind of conventional Japanese moments. And I feel like I just never quite had that filter.
SM: Filter or no, I can definitely tell that what Sarah is doing now is what she’s meant to be doing.
SL: Yeah, sure, I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely stressful moments of running a startup. Every day we joke like every day we make ten mistakes, and we just have to, they don’t even register as mistakes anymore because we make so many of them! But always trying to learn from them. And one of actually our—going back to company values one of our company values is joie de vivre, which is a French word it just means finding the joy in life, finding the joy in the small things. We always say, like, we’re not curing brain cancer here, no one’s going to die from the clothes we make, so enjoy it. Enjoy this great journey that we get to be on, which is the art of dressing women.
SM: I’m glad that Sarah refers to her business of dressing the working woman as “art,” which brings our parallel of conducting this interview at the Noguchi Museum into sharper focus. Also “dressing women” means dressing ALL women, and as a woman who isn’t exactly tiny and who has curves, I appreciate that MM.LaFleur creates fashionable clothing for women of all shapes and sizes.
SL: That’s something we take enormous pride in, because fit, especially when it comes to dressing for the workplace, is everything. I would never claim that our 100% of our clothes fits 100% of women, but we have something for every body, and we’ve been able to develop that because Miyako fits to women who are of all body shapes. So, usually, the typical way a design process works is you have a fit model, and that could be anyone between usually fashion houses will use a size 2, contemporary brands or kind of more affordable brands might use a size 8—you have kind of one model that you work with, and the development process is very quick. Maybe you do one fitting, and then you go straight into production. So there isn’t a lot of time and energy spent on perfecting the fit, whereas Miyako and her team probably do wow, at least five fittings.
I mean, I know for our pants we did 20 fittings before we went into production because we wanted it to make sure it would look good on many different body types. And so what we ultimately do is we take that same piece of clothing that we, we have we think we’ve perfected on this fit model and we start fitting them on all of our employees, who have different body types, and we check to make sure it looks good on if not everyone, at least 90% of them. And if not, why bother?
You know, there are so many other brands out there who design for 6-foot tall, size 2 women, and they’re going to look good in anything. But I think the point of our brand is to make all working women look great in the clothes that we make. That’s something I care so much about because there’s that magical feeling you have when you put on a dress and you look yourself in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Damn, I look good!’ And I think our brand exists to really deliver that feeling.
SM: And MM.LaFleur delivers that feeling to women all over the States. Because it’s a brand created by Japanese women, I was curious whether MM.LaFleur attracted Japanese or Japanese American customers. Sarah explained that her company currently doesn’t ship to Japan, but she told a story about an early customer named Akiko.
SL: I only know that one of our best early customers was this Japanese woman who grew up in Japan and has actually been working in New York for, I think, over a decade. And she was so lovely—her name was Akiko, and we actually named one of our early dresses the Akiko Dress. And I know for a fact that, you know, word about our company is spreading to Japan because we’ve had people Tweet about us or Instagram us in Japanese, and there was also a book that came out a couple of years ago called Dare ga apareru wo korosu no ka?, which means like, Who’s Killing Apparel?, and we were cited in that as one of the disrupters in the retail industry. And it was written by a journalist who works at Nikkei, which is the equivalent of The Wall Street Journal in Japan.
SM: MM.LaFleur names all of their clothing items, and it’s so cool that they named a dress after a customer! I saw that they have a “Susan Dress” already but maybe a “McCormac Blazer” is in the future?
SL: Customers are everything, and maybe that’s actually the biggest differentiator between us and a fashion brand. Miyako isn’t designing with some muse in mind, which is the way most fashion brands work. They imagine some sort of fictional or existing woman, and the collection is designed around that woman, whereas I think Miyako is really thinking about our customer when she designs.
SM: Sarah went on to say that MM.LaFleur takes customer feedback seriously and often incorporates customers’ suggestions into tweaking Miyako’s designs. Sarah’s namesake dress, for example, has gone through six different versions based on what customers have told them. In addition to the aforementioned Bryant Park showroom, MM.LaFleur has physical stores in Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Philly, Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco. Sarah mentioned that they will be opening a second New York location in Brookfield Place in the Financial District.
So what’s next for MM.LaFleur? Will Sarah expand into maternity or baby clothing?
SL: No interest in doing kids right now. We had one thing we had the Baby Morandi. One of our best selling cardigans is this Morandi sweater, and so we made a Baby Morandi, which has actually been a runaway hit. That’s the one baby product that we have. Actually aside from that I think, what we’ve been doing right now, we expanded into shoes late last year, and so that’s actually been a big initiative for us. We’re working with an amazing factory out in Tuscany using really the most beautiful leather, and the idea with the shoe is that we wanted it to be as comfortable as a sneaker but a beautiful heel. So we worked directly with the technicians there to develop these heels, which I’m so proud of. We’re then entering more heavily into the causal space. Before I really only used to wear my clothes Monday through Friday, but now we’ve developed things that you can wear on the weekend. Now as we’re entering into the hot summer months, one of the actual fabric developments that we did with this mill is a cross between linen and polyester, very specially made for us. So it’s actually linen that doesn't’ I wouldn’t say doesn’t wrinkle entirely, but it’s highly wrinkle resistant. But that’s the kind of invention and technology that we’re able to bring to our products. And these linen pants, I’ve lived in them all summer; they’re called the Chester pants. It’s pushing her so that we’re not just dressing her Monday through Friday, but also Saturday and Sunday. And then also we’re reaching out and bringing in more customers who work in casual environments and tech environments. It’s actually been so interesting speaking to these women. You’d think they could wear whatever they want, but actually there’s a dress code and there’s a uniform there, too.
SM: As a consumer who’s conscientious about being environmentally sustainable, I also wondered about the overall future of the fashion industry. I understand that fashion produces a lot of waste, from the production of clothing to customers throwing out clothes, especially in the era of fast fashion, so I asked Sarah to address the problem of pollution and waste.
SL: It is absolutely true, fashion—I should say retail—is the second most polluting industry after oil and gas, apparently, which is scary to think about. We’re combating this is several different ways. I think one of the most important things that we can do is actually make good product. I know that sounds silly, but what we’re doing is counter to the fast fashion movement, so we don’t believe in making products quickly and selling them thinking that people will only wear them for three months. We hope that people wear them for years. And that is the ethos behind each product that we make, and so we take our time with them, we perfect our fit, and when we release it, we do it in the hopes that she will keep it forever so that we don’t have to discount it, liquidate it, you know, much less throw it away ultimately, or burn it, which is what some fashion, high-end fashion brands do. So that’s point number one. Point number two, we’re actively making efforts to use recycled fabrics, and so one of our most popular, actually several of our most popular dresses use this particular fabric, and starting this fall that fabric will be made out of 100% recycled plastic bottles, which is a really big innovation that we pushed for. So that’s just another way in which we can contribute.
SM: I didn’t think about this before, but Sarah also explained that there is waste associated with purchases that require multiple shipments to the same customer.
SL: We are also trying to become a zero-plastic company. And so we used to send our—actually, we currently will still do send our dresses in this plastic seal which we’ve done to protect the clothing, but we’ve come up with a canvas-cotton bag that will actually achieve the same effect, and so we’re moving into that. So you know I think in our small way, we are really trying to make a mark, and it’s actually something that our customers really care about right now. We get a lot of questions about it, so it’s great that consumers are really paying attention and actually are driving the conversation there.
SM: I had the chance to talk to Sarah about her company, but when she agreed to the interview, I was actually more excited to ask her about her sense of identity. In Japan, people who are mixed race are referred to as hafu, or “half” in Japanese. While we may have shared Japanese and American heritage, I often find that fellow hafus have different experiences and approach their Japanese American identities in different ways, and I was wondering how Sarah fit herself into the Japanese American community.
I first heard Sarah speak at the U.S.-Japan Council’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., in 2017 and again at Japan Society in the fall of 2018.
SL: It’s embarrassing because I think aside from those two I’ve probably done only one other Japan-America related event, not because I didn’t want to, but truthfully, I didn’t even know this community existed. And when I got invited to speak to that audience in Washington, D.C., it was the first time I had been in front of an audience like that, and it was kind of crazy for me to see this sea of people both Japanese, Japanese American—I think of myself as half Japanese, half American, biracial—but just to see kind of every combination imaginable.
I think my experience in America has been so different, for better for worse, I think most of what I’d seen in America was this kind of New England-driven white America, I think, and I just didn’t even know there was such a community like this, and ever since discovering that it’s been so fun, getting to know other members of this community.
SM: You said that you identify as half Japanese and half American. Do you kind of go back and forth between the Japanese side and the American side as situations present themselves?
SL: Yes, you know, I think whenever I’m in America, I feel that there are parts of me that are strongly Japanese, and whenever I’m in Japan, I identify the parts of me that are strongly American.
SM: So kind of the opposite.
SL: Yeah, actually kind of the opposite, I would say. There are so many aspects of Japanese society that I find compelling. You know, Japan for all intents and purposes, is essentially a Socialist country. You go to the doctor, and you’re never paying really more that $5 or $6 for any doctors visits. Even the most expensive private school education is usually $5,000 to $6,000 dollars a year.
SM: She went on to compare healthcare and education in Japan to those in the US. She commented on how expensive these social services can be and finds that it can be troubling.
SL: And so there are parts of me that think the Japanese system is superior and better, and then when I go to Japan—this goes back to being outspoken and sharing your opinion—I think I do feel a little bit like a sore thumb in certain situations in Japan, and so when I encounter situations like that, I yearn to be back in New York. I think New York is also just a special place and very different from the rest of America, but I do feel a constant tension between the two.
SM: Because of the tension Sarah feels when balancing her two cultures, she empathizes with Noguchi for spending some time in an internment camp. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Noguchi made the decision to self-intern at the Poston camp in Arizona. The Noguchi Museum had an exhibition about this in 2017 to mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Sarah refers to Noguchi’s decision as
SL: “tension pronounced to the nth degree.”
SM: Unlike Isamu Noguchi, who has a name that is obviously Japanese, Sarah LaFleur and I, Susan McCormac, have names that aren’t Japanese. And my name has influenced my identity as a half-Japanese person.
SM: Do you feel like with a name like Sarah LaFleur, when you’re in Japan, do you feel like you’re constantly saying, like, ‘Hey, I can speak Japanese, I’m communicating to you in Japanese. This is my culture, too, and my spirit, too.’ Do you have to kind of battle with Japanese people to prove that you are . . .
SL: That I am? So, it’s funny you say that. In Japan, my name is not Sarah LaFleur; it’s Miyazawa Sarah, which is like, Miyazawa is my mom’s last name, and so in Japan I’m registered in my koseki, which is like, gosh, I don’t even know what you would call that.
SM: A family registry.
SL: Exactly, exactly. With city hall as Miyazawa Sarah, that’s my name there. I show up in nowhere, in no place as LaFleur. And I think that was a very intentional decision on my parents’ part, so when I went to a Japanese school, my name was Sarah Miyazawa.
SM: Like Sa-Ra?
SL: Yeah, Sara. And I have a kanji for it. And I think in Japan, your last name actually means a lot.
SM: Sarah has a Japanese name! And a kanji! I use my mother’s maiden name, which is Miyagi, on my business cards because people look at my face and can’t understand why I’m interested in Japanese culture. After they see “Miyagi,” they can sometimes, sort of see that I’m half. But I did this purely on my own; my parents never encouraged me to embrace my Japanese heritage the way in which Sarah’s parents did. Of course, other than spending 18 months in Okinawa when I was a toddler, I didn’t grow up in Japan, so perhaps my parents felt I didn’t *need* to be Japanese.
Sarah’s mom happened to be in town from Japan on the day of our interview. She worked in the fashion industry, and I could see that Sarah was accurate in her description of her mom as being good at accessorizing. She’s also a humble and kind woman. After Jennifer Lorch gave Sarah’s mom a tour of the museum, she realized she didn’t pay admission, and I saw that she subtly put a contribution in the donation box, which I thought was sweet.
Especially in the context of being a renegade, Sarah has a lot of self-motivation, which has led her to become a successful entrepreneur creating MM.LaFleur, but what was obvious to me was that her parents, and especially her mom, were huge influences in her life.
SL: I think my parents were really hell-bent on my being both Japanese and American. So my mom always liked to say, ‘You’re not half, you’re double.’ And so she wanted me to learn how to speak, write, and read Japanese as a native Japanese speaker, and so hence when my dad, for example, got transferred to Taipei—my parents had a perfectly healthy, happy marriage—but my mom and my sister and I moved in with my grandparents in Tokyo so that we could attend a normal Japanese school. Coming back, so I was coming back from Washington, DC, at the time. You know, I’m in 4th grade, I’ve forgotten a good portion of my Japanese, I’m writing very little kanji at that time, and I’m suddenly thrown back into a Japanese school system where I’m having to, you know, kind of compete with these kids who had been in the Japanese school system the entire time. It was incredibly difficult. I mean, I was at the bottom of my class, you know this even as a ten-year-old, and I remember my scores were so bad, my teacher would actually write the scores on the top of my test! It was kind of embarrassing. I experienced kind of the reverse when we moved to DC when I was seven years old. At that point the only thing I knew how to spell was my name in English. So I was in ESL, English as a Second Language for—I guess I was in only ultimately there a few months I caught it pretty quickly, that’s kind of the magic of being seven years old. But it was, you know, those are experiences that are still definitely burned in my head, this kind of embarrassment at not being able to keep up with the other kids and finding language a real barrier.
SM: I can’t tell you how jealous I am of Sarah—and other half Japanese people, for that matter—when I hear stories of how their parents nurtured their Japaneseness. My mother taught my sister and me how to count to ten and how to say good morning and thank you. That’s about it. As I mentioned in our first episode I grew up in North Carolina in the 1970s and ‘80s, where there was no Japanese culture whatsoever. My mom had become an American citizen, so she felt compelled to speak English.
When I was seven or eight years old, I remember filling out a form for school—probably the first time I’d done something like that on my own. One question, however, stumped me. It was a question about my race, and I didn’t know how to answer it. So, back in 1977, the choices weren’t as varied as they are now on those kinds of surveys. The form simply asked if I were Caucasian, Black (not African American), Indian (not Native American), or Pacific Islander (which I had no idea what that was). Well, what was I? So I asked my Dad. “Check the Caucasian box,” he said. “I’m white? But what about Mom?” I asked incredulously. His response: “A person’s race is determined by the father.”
My own father had erased my mother’s heritage. Sarah’s mother told her she was double, and my dad wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was half. So I grew up white. From that moment, I checked the Caucasian box for about the next 20 years, until I applied for a job at a TV station in Boston when I was 28. I checked the Asian box.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my dad. Worshipped him. Shortcomings, warts and all, he was my hero. He died of cancer when I was only 24 years old, so he wasn’t around when I’d finally made the decision to ignore the Caucasian box and to embrace the other half of me. I often wonder what he would think of me, all these years later, visiting Japan on a regular basis, blogging about Japanese culture, actively serving on the boards of Japanese American organizations in New York, and interviewing Japanese and Japanese Americans for a podcast. Finding the community that Sarah didn’t realize existed had made me whole.
Thank you to Brett Littman, Jennifer Lorch, the staff of the Noguchi Museum, Stephanie Markovic, Sarah LaFleur, and Sarah’s assistants for making this episode possible.
I encourage everyone to make the pilgrimage to Long Island City to see the Hasegawa exhibition before it closes on July 14 and to check out Gabriel Orozco: Rotating Objects, on display through August 11. As Deputy Director Jennifer Lorch encouraged earlier, spend a little quiet time exploring the various works from Noguchi’s 60-year career, contemplating the mammoth basalt and granite sculptures.
When you’re finished with your pilgrimage, there are plenty of ways to experience Noguchi in the city. A sculpture stands outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he has works inside the Met as well. His relief called News is above the entrance of 50 Rockefeller Center. And two of his works are adjacent to each other downtown: Red Cube, which is at 140 Broadway, and Noguchi’s Sunken Garden at Chase Manhattan Plaza on Liberty Street.
My pilgrimage to visit Noguchi’s work ends today in Long Island City, but I’ll have to visit more of his art in Manhattan and also in Yokohama and Shikoku.
Please subscribe to The Big Root mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe. As always, we love to hear from listeners of The Big Root, so reach out to us at our website thebigrootpodcast.com. Next episode Toshiki will be back to talk about the Okinawan community in Los Angeles.
After our interview sitting under the bamboo trees, Sarah and I took a brief stroll around the garden, happy to be in a serene space created by another fellow hafu—I mean, double—Isamu Noguchi.
SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast. The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com. I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.