Yuka Hasegawa was born in Kyoto, Japan, studied fine art at the School of Visual Arts, and received a scholarship to study at Aborigine Cultural History and Art Works in Australia. She then studied graphic arts via a scholarship from the Salzburg Fine Art Academy in Austria. In 1997, she returned to New York and finished a BFA degree in Fashion Design in 2002. Yuka specializes in hats and was discovered by Barneys at an FIT painting show. Her work is featured in Barneys New York, Takashimaya, Isetan and select retail boutiques in New York, Beverly Hills, and Japan. She has also been exhibited in over 100 national museums, galleries, and institutions worldwide. Yuka’s designs have been worn by Britney Spears, Scarlett Johansson, and photographed by Annie Liebowitz, amongst many others. Here she sits down to tell us her fascinating journey of passion and coincidences.
1. How did you start at FIT and what was your journey like?
One day, when I visited New York, I walked on 7th Avenue and saw a building with the word “Fashion” on it, which I was curious about it. I just walked in and met a woman that I didn’t know, who turned out to be a Professor of Fashion and Design (Josephine Di Iorio). She was intrigued by how I was dressed, came up to me and asked if I needed any help. I asked her, “What is this building for?” She said, “This is a school.” I said “Wow, I’ve always wanted to learn to sew.” Then she asked me if I could draw, I said yes. She asked me to sketch a design as if I was designing for the First-Lady Hilary Clinton, and I did. She was pleased with my work and took me straight to the Assistant Chairperson (Jimmy Newcomer) at the time. He took a look at my design and said it was exceptional and to go start a class right away. I said, “I don’t understand.” He then squeezed me into the sewing class right then and there. I started sewing and they enrolled me into FIT all in the same day. I didn’t expect it. I was thinking, “I already have two degrees. Why do I need another one?” But I knew that I really wanted to sew. Although, I had to return to Japan, they ended up holding a spot in the program for me. I was so excited to learn everything and continued at FIT by enrolling in an accessories and jewelry class, majoring in fashion design. That’s where I learned how to make hats. It just opened up my world.
2. How did your hat design company begin?
In 2003, I had a painting show downtown and a Barneys New York buyer came by to see my work. They saw my outfit and hat and asked where I shopped. I said, “I made it – it’s my FIT homework.” I had no space where I could keep my designs, so I had to wear them. They seemed impressed and wanted to work with me. I was unaware at the time of the opportunity in front of me (since I was so busy with other projects), however they were very persistent and kept calling me, so in return, I just brought them a large garbage bag with full of hats that were designed as part of my FIT homework assignments. From that, I was surprised to receive my first order from Barneys. I was nervous since I didn’t have any production resources, plus I was still a student at the time (taking a couple of extra classes).
Later, I met a man in the elevator that expressed his interest in my hat that I was wearing. He soon became my manager (Lawrence Adler Grossberg). He is still my manager and continues to support and encourage my growing business.
3. Where do you find your inspiration?
The reason I started making hats is because I couldn’t find my size and hats didn’t fit me correctly. I always loved fashion but I couldn’t sew. So instead, I would buy a hat, squeeze it, scrape it, tear it, paint it, and change it to make it fit me by recreating it to my style. I already had a background in printing and coloring from graphic arts, which honed-in on my individual technique and skills. As such, everything I created was for myself, custom made. I made what I wanted to and not really for the industry. I don’t look at many magazines or watch much television. I just created something that I would wear myself.
When I was in class at FIT, I had to make an illustration board. It was a struggle for me because I had to use what was already designed by someone else. That didn’t inspire me. I create from within myself.
What is my goal, everybody asks? I don’t have one because I wasn’t expecting to be a fashion designer. All of it happened suddenly and coincidentally. I’m just being me right now – that’s Yuka – that’s it.
4. What obstacles have you overcome? You had a health scare at one point – would you mind telling us about this?
In 2009, I was at a trade show and a cancer foundation asked if I could support them by donating my hats. I did, and they ended up auctioning my designs for a program that offered free mammography exams in mobile units for women over 40. Shortly after, they offered to come to my neighborhood to setup free screenings. I went, and they discovered I had breast cancer. I said, “Are you sure!?” They said, “You need surgery next week.” I was shocked and said I was very busy and could not cancel anything in my schedule.
Later in the day, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was in a nearby restaurant with my manager who came with me. I was crying and all of a sudden two nurses (who were from the hospital) found me and told me they had a cancellation and I could have the surgery on Monday. I was super lucky. It made me more relaxed because I did not need to cancel my exhibition in NY and Tokyo, the following week. I had a mastectomy and plastic surgery all in one day. One surgeon took it off, and one put it back on so well, that you could hardly notice a difference! In one week I was done with the diagnosis and surgery! I had to show up for the opening party of my exhibition, and I secretly made two pockets in my dress for my drain bag. Then, I showed up at my show in downtown New York. No one knew what was going on under my dress. Thankfully, I’m cancer free for 5 years now, and I will be running a 5K for cancer. I will also be joining Fashion Fights Cancer to support survivors like me. I attend all follow up events and seminars as I learn new things all the time.
5. Do you believe in luck – it seems like you have so many coincidences?
It seems like everything was set-up for me, but the luck comes after – first there needs to be passion and focus, then the luck and support follow.
6. What advice would you like to share with peers and current students?
I think the two most important things are first; embrace the FIT curriculum. It’s thoughtfully designed to open your eyes to a new world and provide the basics for a foundation to build on. The second is; try new classes. Explore the various historical materials and mediums in the pursuit of your passion.
7. What would you consider most valuable about your FIT experience?
I really appreciated the professors’ support when I was a student. They gave me a lot of opportunities. My most exciting memory was when they chose me to represent the USA in an international competition in Beijing, China. They gave me a room to work in at the school and assistants to create my own collection. I traveled with the Chairperson to Beijing, which was an unforgettable experience from my school days.
8. Thank you for sitting down with me Yuka and sharing your amazing life journey. You have and will continue to inspire current FIT students and alumni.
I just wanted to thank Professor Jospehine Di Iorio, Assistant Chairperson Jimmy Newcomer, Professor Francesca Sterlacci, and Dr. Valerie Steele for giving me support and opportunities after graduating FIT.
Visit Yuka’s website: http://www.yukany.com/home-J.htm