Stitching stories into the seams Hitoko Okada explores her narrative and history through clothing

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Hitoko Okada has always been a maker and creative. Craft-making is reminiscent of her childhood; she spent her youth and early adult years designing costumes and props and later started creating fibre sculptures.

A mix of fate and years of perfecting her craft drove the Japanese-Canadian artist to pursue her passion for art, making clothes and storytelling as a fibre artist and clothing designer.

“I come from a craft lineage. My ancestors were all craft makers and some of them were in craft making in woodwork, textiles and metal. That has certainly informed a lot of my approach to my work and just ideas of work and what is available to me” explained Okada.

Okada’s entry point to designing and making clothes was through her work in theatre and experience in fashion school. Through a very technical and specific process, she built and constructed costumes and props with materials given to her.

C / O George Qua-Enoo

Yearning for more, she started picking her own materials and working with different fabrics to create fibre-based sculptures that would go on to inspire Hitokoo, her line of casual clothing for women.

“It’s a completely different approach, it’s more playful. I can explore my own narratives and I’m feeling impacted by the world that I live in, or issues that I’m interested in or concerned about,” explained Okada.

Okada explored different issues and was inspired by the world around her to create several fibre-sculptures and installations that have exhibited through series at galleries in Hamilton and Toronto.

Honeycomb cells were used as a motif to represent social barriers in her Hive exhibition and gemstones represented issues in consumption and the drive for status, wealth and power in her Bling! exhibition.

These motifs made a reoccurring appearance throughout her fibre-based sculptures, and naturally became incorporated through screen-printing by the clothing collections Okada was designing at the same time.

“I often felt that one was the extension of the other. The art pieces are not something you can take home, I don’t make the kind of art that’s in a frame and you can put on your wall. But having a shirt that is accessible, [makes my art] wearable and very practical,” explained Okada.

In her most recent collection, PatchWork, Okada explores her artesian lineage through knitting patches from fine linen yarns and Japanese textiles. Okada’s pieces are evocative of the feudal era and tell a story of personal resilience and healing through cultural narratives.

“Stitching, quilting and patching would be a way to preserve fabric and materials especially for the common peasant class. There were certain classes that were only allowed to wear certain colours. I was using those motifs as a way to connect into my craft lineage but also to think about intergenerational healing,” explained Okada.

C / O Hitoko Okada

“My mother and I have been [knitting] with the same fibres, and through our exchange of knitting, we’re having conversation about our family history and the impact of war. She’s sharing stories [about what it’s like to come] from a craft family and how that informs our world view and approach to challenges like poverty and famine.”

Through this process, Okada has not only been able to connect with her history, but also with the women purchasing and wearing her pieces. Okada has had interactions with clients who are originally drawn in by the quality of the material but stay to ask questions about the motifs and stories behind her work.

“[A client] made a connection with the piece, with herself, with the world and we had a really lovely exchange and conversation. It’s about building relationships with women, supporting them, listening to their stories. Having a human connection and exchange through this medium —  it’s wonderful,” said Okada.

Many of the women who have been supportive of the Hitokoo collection are either artists, supporters of art, or change makers that are curious about issues and narratives reflected in Okada’s designs.

“That’s always been the common thread through all of the women that are drawn into my work. I think that’s the bell that I’m ringing,” said Okada.

Okada’s collections are not part of the clothing and fast fashion industry. Her small production pieces are high quality and long-lasting wearable art that is meant to be experienced.

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Author: Razan Samara

Razan Samara is in her third year of life science studies (probably for life). You can find her hitting the books and working at the hospital to complete her mental health minor, but most of the time she’s in the Sil’s dungeon office managing the Arts & Culture section as editor. She’s fond of Hamilton’s many galleries, enjoys meaningful talks with chefs at the Farmer’s Market and uses writing to connect with the world around her.