Interview with Chika Higashi, Head of Coci la Elle
Cool blue designs dancing on white canvas: these parasols not only keep off the worst of the sun's glare, they also unfurl a poetic world right above your head, each one created individually using paints and embroidery. The maker? A company named Coci la elle, which has recently branched out into umbrellas and scarves as well. We called on the head of Coci la elle, Chika Higashi, to talk with her about work choices, design, and craftsmanship.
Parasols as a medium for self-expression
Although the company name "Coci la elle" looks French, it's actually a pun on the Japanese world koshiraeru, meaning "create" or "prepare." In the seven years since founding Coci la elle, Higashi has branched out from just crafting parasols to design book covers and even write books herself. She's the very picture of success today, but the road to finding and achieving her true calling was far from easy.
"I moved to Tokyo from Nagasaki because I wanted to be a fashion designer. After graduating from a fashion college, I was lucky enough to find a job with a favorite designer. But, working with them, I realized that people who make clothes are sort of born on that planet, if you like—they have something that I, at least, don't. I started to wonder what I could do with my life instead. The world's already so full of things, but the fashion industry's always trying to make and sell more—meanwhile, as soon as the season ends, prices drop. I had my doubts about that whole cycle."
Higashi was kept busy with her duties as an assistant, she explains, but soon began to feel the urge to draw, something she had enjoyed since childhood. Finally, she quit her job to focus on drawing, supporting herself with a part-time job and even creating a picture book—although when she showed it to publishers, the reaction was not quite as she had expected. Over the course of this period she learned she was pregnant and gave birth to her oldest daughter. This put her at a crossroads.
"I was a single mother and needed a way for the two of us to survive, so I took a job where I could leave the office on time every day. But it was painful, because I felt that the time taken up by the company was not really my own. I was frustrated doing work that anyone else could do just as well. On the other hand, I didn't know what I really wanted to do. I was there in body, but not really in spirit."
That was when Higashi started to daydream about what sort of life she would enjoy. A home for her small family, where she could say "Welcome home!" when her daughter returned from school. She was tired of polishing her resume and searching for work, and tired of finding jobs only to have to quit them again. So she decided to leave her current position and make a career of what she enjoyed.
"It's strange, thinking back, but I decided to set out on my own even before I knew what I wanted to do. It took me a long time to figure out what that was. I tried making many different things while I waited, but they were all things anyone could make. If I was going to do this, I wanted to make something amazing, something that would captivate people, and something that I could be completely confident would earn enough. As I was searching for something like that, it suddenly came to me: parasols!"
Next page: "The unmistakable touch of an artisan"