“In Japan, we are expected to do things on our own from a very young age, and we start going to school alone from the age of six, with some children travelling for more than an hour on public transport,” says Yuki Oshima, founder of London-based designer childrenswear brand Owa Yurika...
“I never realised this was unusual until I moved to the west. I remember some of my friends going home to an empty household and cooking and cleaning before their parents came back from work. I do think the relative safety of the country partly enables this, but there’s a sense of community – adults who are strangers are always looking out for children if they ever need help. We were also encouraged to always be polite and give seats away to the elderly on buses and tubes. Recently, when we did a pop-up event at the Isetan department store in Tokyo, I was amazed to be reminded of how polite and proper Japanese kids are.”
The ethos behind Owa Yurika – co-founded with her mother Yuriko, a colour consultant and best-selling author on the subject – is to ensure children learn to appreciate quality in all things. It was inspired by the birth of Yuki’s daughter Honor Yurika, and the desire to bridge the gap between overly girly and streetwear-inspired children’s clothes. The result is a collection that is characterful and hard-wearing – with lots of innovative and surprising touches – crafted from beautiful fabrics. In short, clothes to cherish.
Yuki, whose father is a Korean-Japanese entrepreneur, began her career as an analyst at a London investment bank before returning to Japan to become the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar.
Now she divides her time between London, Tokyo and Hawaii, where she has been photographed for The Grace Tales. (“I feel deeply and utterly relaxed and fulfilled whenever I am there,” she says. “It’s literally paradise for me.”). She is also heavily involved in charity and has been the managing director of the Oshima scholarship at New York University since 2005, given to students to enable their further education, as well as chairperson for another family charitable foundation in Tokyo, called Ikeikai since 2007, helping to fund university education for students in Japan.
We wanted to discover everything about Japanese parenting, mealtimes and even an old Japanese breastfeeding method. She is a truly fascinating mother to get to know.
Go to www.owayurika.com
What made you launch Owa Yurika?
After university, I began a career in finance but realised my passion was in fashion. So I started working for Harper’s Bazaar in Tokyo as a fashion editor and then became a worldwide contributor for them. Since then I’ve pretty much always worked in women’s fashion while also assisting the family business. When I got pregnant with my daughter Honor Yurika (the ‘Yurika’ of ‘Owa Yurika’ comes from her middle name) and started looking more closely at clothes from various childrenswear brands, I noticed a gap in the market for something unique, stylish, three-dimensional with proper pattern cutting and also of very high quality. In womenswear, there are so many options from brands like Valentino to Balenciaga, but most of the children’s clothing I encountered either seemed very feminine or casual/streetwear-like. So I thought there must be a demand for modern, interesting and carefully created clothes.
Why did you decide to create it with your mother?
I am extremely close to my mother but we have lived worlds apart since I was 19. We had been discussing starting a business to give us the chance to spend more time together and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. My mother has always been extremely stylish and has written best-selling books on colour theory (Colour Coordinator 123, The Colour Coordinator, Why Not Change Your Life With Colour Theory?), so her input to the business is absolutely crucial. We have completely different sets of strengths so it’s always helpful to run things by her when I feel stuck with a decision or an idea as she can add a fresh perspective. I love being able to share the joy of our achievements.
What is the biggest lesson she has taught you?
To always be polite, respectful and kind with people around us. She says it’s ultimately the people around us who will help a company grow and I agree completely.
And what lessons have you learnt along the way building your own brand?
To manage my time in the most efficient way, i.e. what to prioritise. There never are enough hours in a day!
What do you want to achieve with Owa Yurika?
I would love for Owa Yurika to be able to offer unique options for customers who want to or want their children to embrace individuality through their clothes. I think it’s very important today that children feel confident in what may not be the most conventional items and become familiar with high-quality long-lasting materials and manufacturing rather than just the fast-fashion offerings from high street brands. I’ve noticed that some Japanese parents do dress kids in cool funky clothes and I get inspired by their styles. i.e. @coco_pinkprincess
Is what you create influenced by what you wore growing up?
To be honest, I wasn’t too interested in clothes when I was a child and I hated going shopping with my mother for clothes. My mother selected for me high-quality Japanese-made items from brands like Familiar and Sayegusa when I was very young and when I was a teenager she dressed me in lots of Comme des Garcons clothes which I absolutely loved. I still remember vividly some of the clothes I had and really wish my mother had kept them.
What do you love about having your own business?
I consider my business my other child and I get so much joy out of it daily, especially when we make achievements like winning awards or receiving compliments from customers. Having the flexibility of putting time aside for my daughter is also a privilege.
What does success mean to you?
My father always encouraged me to set very clear detailed goals, write them down, advertise them to people who are close in order to put pressure on myself, and make sure I meet them. So I consider it a success when I meet these goals that I set.
How do you balance work and raising your daughter?
Since my daughter started school, I drop her off in the morning and I pick her up every day and I am in the office in between. From the pick-up to her bedtime, it’s my time with her and I try not to get distracted by work unless it’s absolutely necessary, and I get some more work done after she goes to sleep. But to be honest, I also like to go to bed early as I’m an early riser. Weekends are entirely dedicated to her as well.
Tell us about your childhood?
I grew up in Tokyo and lived there all my life until I was 19, when I moved to New York. I was not a girly girl and played a lot of sports like tennis and track and field. I also liked pretending to be a doctor or a business person writing fake documents rather than playing with dolls!
What could we learn from how the Japanese approach bringing up little ones?
In Japan, we are expected to do things on our own from a very young age, and we start going to school alone from the age of six, with some children travelling for more than an hour on public transport. I never realised this was unusual until I moved to the west. I remember some of my friends going home to an empty household and cooking and cleaning before parents came back from work. I do think the relative safety of the country partly enables this but there’s a sense of community – adults who are strangers are always looking out for children if they ever need help. We were also encouraged to always be polite and give seats away to the elderly on buses and tubes.
We had to finish every single item on our plate at meal times no matter what, and we were not allowed to stop at any stores or anywhere on our way home. These strict rules can be positive in the sense that children become disciplined, though there is a downside that it can sometimes be restrictive. Recently, when we did a pop-up event at the Isetan department store in Tokyo, I was absolutely amazed to be reminded how polite and proper Japanese kids are!
At meal times, there are rituals, and we say little phrases like “Itadakimasu”, “Gochisousama” at the beginning and end, to be grateful to the farmers for growing delicious produce and to not waste even a single piece of rice as farmers pick them one by one. We have to follow certain rules and etiquettes like placing chopsticks horizontally when they are not in use or eating bits from different dishes rather than finishing one item before moving onto another.
Tell us more about your approach to family mealtimes?
We sit down together and eat meals and enjoy conversation. I encourage Honor to try out things a couple of times even though she may not like them at first. She loves Japanese food like rice, fish, Ikura (salmon roe), fermented soybeans (Natto), tofu etc, but also some quintessentially British things like marmite and crumpets. That’s from her father.
Describe those early days of motherhood – what are some vivid memories?
I was in London until around 32 weeks and then flew to Tokyo to give birth there. My pregnancy was pretty straightforward and easy, but my daughter had stayed in the breech position from 21 weeks and would not move. I had this strong desire to give birth naturally, I was taking Hypno birth classes so was absolutely devastated that it was going to be a c-section birth. I remember crying for days but as soon as she was born I realised the method of birth had no weight as long as the baby is healthy. The first few weeks were a struggle, my breastmilk wasn’t flowing abundantly so I had to constantly feed her throughout the night as she refused to have a bottle in her mouth from day one. So in order to assist the milk production, I religiously followed this very old-fashioned Japanese breastfeeding method called “Oketani” where a practitioner does special massages to keep your breast milk at the optimum condition. But it’s also rigorous, as you are never meant to allow more than three hours in between feeds, even during the night. I know only new mothers know what it feels like in those early days – you are tackling all the challenging new tasks while completely sleep deprived and in a haze thinking “Oh my goodness, will I ever sleep properly again?”. But you just get used to it. In Japan, some people breastfeed babies until they are much older like three and four years old. I adored the bond and didn’t want to end such a sweet experience by making her cry for days, so I kept on going until she was ready to “graduate”, and it ended up being three and a half years – I know this can be quite a controversial topic in the UK, but I personally believe it’s a beautiful thing.
Back then, I started writing a column for a Japanese magazine interviewing brilliantly inspiring women juggling motherhood, relationships and careers – it was talking to these women and my dear mother friends and their sharing candid stories that gave me so much strength during difficult times.
Tell us about where you live?
I am based in London, but I also spend quite a bit of time in Tokyo and Hawaii with my family. Hawaii is by far my favourite place on earth. My family have been going there since I was very young and we took Honor at two-months-old and she adores it. To me it just has this magical powerful energy coming from the ground and nature – we grow many kinds of organic fruits and vegetables in our garden. I feel deeply and utterly relaxed and fulfilled whenever I am there. It’s literally paradise for me.
What is your approach to health and wellbeing?
I am lucky as people think what I eat seems very healthy but that’s just what I like. I’m “pesca-vegan” (the term I encountered recently), and I eat loads of fruits and vegetables daily and choose organic options where possible. I try to exercise even for 30 minutes five days a week, which is one of the best stress relief methods for me, though it’s not always possible when my schedule gets so hectic. I treat myself by getting massages and acupuncture quite regularly as I tend to carry tension in my neck, and also do 10 minutes of “headspace” whenever I can.
Do you have a mum uniform?
I just love comfortable clothes like easy dresses, which I can throw on in two seconds. I also love wearing Owa Yurika size 14 clothes now that we started making them.
Do you have any beauty essentials?
I am quite lazy, I must say, when it comes to my daily beauty regime. I just wash my face and then put a toner and moisturiser on quickly from a Japanese 100 per cent natural range my aunt developed called L’Oracle. It’s absolutely amazing. I used to have super-sensitive skin but it’s become much stronger through using these products. One thing I am careful about, coming from Japan, is sun exposure. I wear sunscreen daily even when it’s cloudy.
And finally, what is next for Owa Yurika?
We are developing a small capsule boys collection for late next year, and hopefully adding some baby items for spring 2020. We are also planning some pop-up shops in London and Tokyo in November and December.
Yuki’s ‘Little List of Loves’
My Kindle Paperwhite
BeatsX headphones and AirPods – I carry both in case the battery on one runs out.
An Owa Yurika wooden rice paddle (or shamoji) – great for scrambled eggs and so cute.
My Thermos Hydration bottles – I have about seven of them in different sizes and carry one or two every day.
RMS Beauty concealer.
Rescue Remedy Sleep.
Umeboshi (pickled plums) my all-time favourite Japanese food.
My Dyson hairdryer.