Tokyo calling

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Photos by DANELLE JANE TRANE and MICHELLE LLADOC

Jihan Victoria is a Filipino-Canadian designer obsessed with Japanese artisanship.

by BEATRICE S. PAEZ

It was an unusually warm day in November when I met Jihan Victoria, the maverick artisan who artfully mixes and stitches fabrics to construct backpacks that sit comfortably on the shoulders of young urbanites.

Victoria, the boss of Hedj—a made-in-Canada collection of bags, wallets and accessories—was a walking ad that day for her designs, sporting a wool grey two-tone roll-top rucksack and her stainless steel necklace ring looped in black leather string.

Back from her post-graduation trip to Asia, Victoria has a lot to say about her adventures wandering through artisan shops and fabric stores in Japan.

Her look for the day—a washed out but dark, oversized denim jacket from the mills of Kojima, Okayama—emphasizes her obsession with Japan.

“It’s a whole other world,” she says. “The Japanese take anything and everything to new heights.” Everyone, including fruit vendors and old men, she informs me, are unafraid to be bold and unusual in their style.

The glossy images of Japan as a cocoon for individualists and non-conformists that stream on her mind are filtered through her experience of often feeling like the odd one out. In Manila, where she attended an all-girls school, dressing up like a “tomboy” would provoke stares.

“If you dress differently,” she tells me, “you’re immediately marginalized as a weirdo.”

Toronto, though not quite as hasty in its judgment, still doesn’t come close to embracing different slants of fashion, says Victoria.

After all, where else but in Tokyo is it not unusual to spot a man going overboard with plastic necklaces made from a toy set, sharing the sidewalks with another man who makes a statement with just his burgundy Oxford shoes?

She doesn’t hesitate to draw sharp distinctions between Toronto and Tokyo, where artisans are permanent fixtures on the block, and are not reliant on a handful of occasional pop-up shops and annual fairs, like Canada’s One of Kind Show or Canzine’s marketplace. In Japan, shops owned by artisans aren’t novelties, since everyone wants customized designs that expresses every nuance in their personality.

In her own work, Victoria gives her customers the option to personalize her minimalist rucksacks. Favouring earthy tones of blue, grey, black, burgundy and tan and the mixed use of leather, wool and canvas, her designs carry an understated elegance, with an urban edge. Taking a full day’s labour or more to complete, her bags fetch between $180 to $350 each, depending on the combination of materials and details.

Artisans in Toronto have the option of consigning their handmade goods but not without giving up half of their earnings. Once carried by high-end stores like Lavish & Squalor and Kensington’s Pretty Freedom, Victoria decided Etsy was a more practical fit for Hedj, given its wider reach as a global marketplace for vintage, artisanal finds. Her unisex rucksacks have travelled as far Zurich, Paris, Berlin, Japan, Shanghai, Denmark and Sweden.

These days, the main market Victoria is plotting to crossover to is Japan. Still jetlagged and reeling from her visit to the Philippines, Korea and Japan, she says it has become her mission to find a way back to Japan—even if that means living in the countryside, teaching English on the side and spending her free time taking workshops on textile making.

Inevitably, though, it seems that all roads to Victoria’s evolution as a designer may be traced to the East Asian archipelago. Her fixation with Japan surfaces as an undercurrent in her designs, which strongly reflect the influence of Japanese fashion designers.

Largely self-taught in sewing (Google was her guide), her first ambitious attempt at sewing was an imitation of Comme des Garçons’s coveted drop-crotch pants.

“I started sewing mainly because most of the clothes I wanted were too expensive,” she recalls.

She wanted a pair from the Japanese label so badly, but she wasn’t ready to pay a hefty price of $600. So, she thought, why not try to make her own?

It wasn’t bad, she says of her experiment. But she admits that learning to design clothes to fit the contours of the human body is difficult.

“I didn’t really transition from making clothes to making bags. They both started from a similar desire,” she explains. “I wanted a bag, but I couldn’t afford it. So I tried making it, and making bags was a lot easier than making clothes.”

Her first bag—a patchwork that curiously resembles a palette of eye shadow—was heavily influenced by Junya Watanabe of Comme des Garçons, known for incorporating Fair Isle patterns into blazers and varsity jackets.

More than just a creative outlet, sewing was a big stress reliever—a break from her obligations. For several years, Victoria found herself hemmed in by her parents’ expectations to finish a degree in computer science.

“I was calculating in my head, how much money I was spending,” she says ruefully. “But you know how Filipino parents are. They wouldn’t let me drop out.”

Now that she has finished her degree, she feels free to venture to new places with Hedj. “All I need is my sewing machine,” she says.

She plans to expand her line to carry dress shirts made and designed in Japan, using shibori textiles she picked out while in Japan. Shibori, which produces a kaleidoscope of combinations, is a special dyeing technique to create patterns made by folding, tying, binding and twisting the fabric.

For now, Victoria is waiting to be reunited with a box filled with rolls of fabric imported from Japan.

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