Akemashite Omedeto – Happy New Year, Everyone! Cheers and welcome to the year of 2020. We sincerely hope you all were able to enjoy the recent holidays in some capacity with loved ones both near & far, but also hope you’re all buckled in and ready for that full 2020 vision!
Fresh out of the gates of the new year, we are shining the spotlight on yet another amazing person within our community, who has started her very own unique business. This month, we are proud to present Coco, who was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland. She too had the urge to venture to Japan and fulfill her dreams by starting her own silkscreen business and opening a studio called the ODT Factory. I was able to learn more about her life back home and her awesome decision to skip the imminent drag that is high school for an apprenticeship/art school equivalent to a university setting at the age of fifteen. And it’s pretty cool how that decision eventually bloomed into a one-of-a-kind journey.
Black Creatives Japan: This is actually my first time having a true sit down with you so I only know a little about your background. Can you talk a bit more about your experience in the Graphic Design program back in Geneva?
Coco: Yeah, I really appreciated that art school. It was a professional (training) school, but I think you would just call it an apprenticeship and I think it would be good for most people. There weren’t many apprenticeships for Graphic Designers and you weren’t really paid anything while working there, but you didn’t have to pay for it as well, which was cool. And if you do happen to find a good apprenticeship in a company, you can actually start to get paid there eventually and learn your craft. It would be a low salary, but you still didn’t pay to go there which is really nice. It’s good for the company as well because they have an employee that’s kind of like an intern. You could have the chance to learn a lot in a setting that was not always completely professional or uptight. There were people of all ages there too, so I think it helped the younger people, like myself, to mature a bit quicker. When there are 30 year olds in your class and you’re just a 15 year old kid, if you mess around they may give you the eyes, to chastise you, and no one wants that, haha!
I think it was also a nice experience for me, because I was given real assignments from companies. Once there was a festival poster for example; a company wanted to do it cheap so they asked my art school and then everybody made a poster, which went up for review. We weren’t paid, but it was cool to know that what you’re doing has real importance and meaning in the world for a real company. It’s not just some homework assignment that you forget later on. I definitely wasn’t constantly bored there like my time back in middle school. Just taking boring core classes I had no interest in; I figured it would have been the same in high school, so again, I’m really glad I chose the apprenticeship instead, haha.
BCJ: Yeah I can agree, I think many people would have appreciated a focused apprenticeship rather than high school. Wasn’t so fond of it myself, haha! So moving on, you started with Graphic Design & Illustration, but how did you get from there to silk screening?
Coco: Well, I was first introduced when I had a silkscreen class in my 3rd year. For half a year, there were silkscreen classes available on Mondays, but during 3rd year we also had internships and I was mostly busy with that, but tried it out anyway. In the first class I didn’t really know much since I had just come back from my first internship. I didn’t know the teacher, but I just walked in, said “Hi, I’m in the class and I brought my design & my t-shirt.” They immediately showed me how to do it and it was so much fun! In just one morning, I made a t-shirt and it was really cool. The design I chose had two lesbian nuns together. It was a something I made for my internship, actually. I was working with this guy, who said he wanted to make a brand that was very free. I made that nun design for him and then asked if I could take it to my silkscreen class and he was like “Yeah, of course!”. After the first one, I took that design and printed more of them and it’s interesting because some people actually wanted them, which was cool!
I think when you draw, while you have that drawing, it’s very nice, but it’s even better when your art can be worn and useful. I used to sell drawings and such for money sometimes. I would do portraits and things like that and when you have a drawing you can make a poster or a card, but you’re still just buying a thing that’s not very useful. I have tons of old folders with drawings that I’ve forgotten, but with t-shirts you can wear it and present it to the world. I knew I definitely wanted to have that experience again at some point.
BCJ: Alright so that seed was planted back then and later on you had the idea to start your own silk screening company. And start it in Japan no less! Can you talk about your motivations there; especially what had sparked your initial interest in Japan?
I always had an interest in Japan and the Japanese culture since I was young. One of my best friends in Kindergarten was Japanese and I also loved manga & anime. I knew I wanted to go visit someday eventually and learned a bit of the language, just enough to speak when I visited for the first time on holiday. After my first visit, I really loved the experience, so I never stopped and kept going from there.
Additionally, before silk screening, I wanted to study animation in Japan so that’s what I planned to do after my apprenticeship program at the art school. I had come to Japan at one point on holiday vacation and had visited 5 of 6 schools while I was there. When I chose the one I wanted, I had gone to an open campus event at the school and there were guides there, you know, the people who lead you through the school. I had done some silkscreening with the guides too and we made some crazy t-shirts for them to wear as uniforms. It was really nice. Then I went to that school, a senmongakko (vocational school) for two years.
And right before going to my senmongakko, I worked at a Japanese izakaya (a Japanese bar) in Geneva for a year. I had wanted to practice my Japanese and the chef there couldn’t speak French. Basically I befriended him and became his translator, haha! It was really fun. He was an older man; an expat who lived in Geneva for almost 10 years and he couldn’t speak French and could barely speak English so I helped him out a lot. There isn’t a big community of Japanese expats in Geneva and they’re all sort of integrated into the society, so it’s better on one hand, but it can be hard and lonely for those who have trouble integrating on the other hand. But yes, that man helped me out a lot. He taught me polite Japanese and not so polite Japanese and also Japanese manners in the workplace. Like if I am late he would say don’t try and justify yourself or come up with excuses, just say you’re sorry.
And once I went to Japan and started at my senmongakko, I studied animation. It had kind of been my childhood dream. Whenever I watched anime, I would be like “One day I’ll move to Japan and study animation!” so I did it…and hated it, haha! I don’t know how people do it. I mean it’s gratifying in the end, watching it over and over again, but when you have to redo one, it’s like aggh no! I get bored easily too so it’s just not a good fit for me, personally. Also Japan has the obsession to do everything traditionally. I like that a lot, but it’s not my style. Most of Japanese animation has a lot of clean lines and sharp moving mouths, but I like a lot of artistic and weird stuff to be honest. At one point, I did an animation project for a rapper here in Triangle Park and it’s very strange, haha.
So anyway, because I didn’t like animation, I eventually came back to silk screen. A friend was telling me, “You know, you’ll go to school, graduate and have to find a job and get a visa…” And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do all that with animation. Also in a senmongakko, they’re all about you graduating & finding a job as soon as possible because they want to keep those statistics up, which I was slightly annoyed by because this school wasn’t free. My school back in Geneva was unorganized at times, but they had a solid program and we learned a lot for free. And then here in Japan, we do whatever like gradations with pencils and drawing apples & stuff, but after that 2nd year it’s like boom—go find a job! You don’t have to do your homework if you don’t want, but just find a job and then you’ll learn everything on the job next year. They want you to just focus on that and I felt like “Oh man, what am I doing here?”
For my job hunt, I knew I didn’t want to work in animation, so I started to think of other options I had and what kind of visa I could get. You know, like maybe I could get married and get a spousal visa or something? But then I actually started thinking about a business management visa, which was something that had been on my bucket list. I knew at some point I wanted to start a company someday. It was a thought that was far off, but then I wondered if I could just do it now. I was 22 at the time and I didn’t have much experience, so it seemed like a stretch. I didn’t really know much, I was in Japan and I wasn’t even that good at silkscreen, but I just decided to try it out. So I took a job part time here in a silkscreen factory. And then when I graduated, through a loophole, I technically still had six months before my visa expired so I was still working at the factory and getting everything ready to get started with my business. I went back home to Switzerland for a month, took out a loan, came back and then started up my business! I also freelance and do part time jobs on the side in Graphic Design to keep going. My motivation was mostly just for the visa, but if I didn’t have that ultimatum I probably wouldn’t have been as driven to do it. I mean, it was either go home or do this and stay here where I could do something really meaningful. So here I am now a year later! I mean for me starting was the easy part, all things considered, it’s just like going through the steps, I hate hate hate HATE paperwork!
BCJ: I definitely understand that, the second I see any kind of documentation that needs a signature, I get the heebie jeebies, but you worked it out. You’re a real hustler! All right, so just out of curiosity, I know your business is officially called the ODT Factory, but what inspired the name?
Coco: I actually had a hard time finding a name, haha! Back when I was still getting started and had to meet up with the lawyer to register I was like “Oh no, I still don’t have a name!”, but I worked it out eventually. I’ve always enjoyed silly word play so I decided that because I wanted to start a company that makes many weird things and such, we would be like, you know, an “oddity”; because we do weird things. But I also didn’t want it to be a very obvious name, I wanted something that was clever sounding. When I tried to spell it out that way on paper, I thought it looked very cool. I wanted to have a basic name for the company and then do different brands under that name. There are also a few explanations for the acronyms, but I came up with those a little later and honestly I always say a different answer depending on who asks, so it’s not even that important, haha!
BCJ: Well it’s definitely a very distinctive name on its own, so love it! Also, can you talk more about the silkscreen process & how it works?
Coco: So it’s kind of an old process, you have the frames that have a mesh on them, which used to be silk–that’s why it’s called silk screening. You used to use silk, but now people use nylon instead. And as for the process, it’s like using a stencil. You make the frame & the stencil and it’s all very manual, using your hands. You put a product on your cloth that will dry and it harden with the UV light box. You print your design on transparent paper, put it on the stencil, on the mesh, and put all that in the UV box. Afterwards, all the parts that didn’t have light on them, they don’t harden so you can wash it out and then you have the outline of stencil left. Also when using choosing your ink, you can make your own; you can mix different colors or types and you can combine several stencils to separate the colors as well.
Actually, mixing & experimenting with dye is really fun as well. What I’m testing now is printing with transparent inks on shirts and then dying them in another ink color so that it doesn’t dye where the transparent ink lies and then the design just appears out of nowhere. I have a friend who makes natural dyes using plants and such, so I’m using that. It’s fun! So as I said, the silk screening process is all very manual and getting a bit outdated now, which is unfortunate. Right now there are printers that can print ink on the t-shirts so that can be useful, but it’s totally different than doing with your own two hands, which is really great!
BCJ: I’d definitely like to make a trip & come visit your factory sometime. It looks really satisfying & fulfilling when you’re pushing the ink onto the stencil. Almost like a more sophisticated style of tie-dying t-shirts. What would you say was the most difficult part of this experience for you?
Coco: Honestly, as I said before, it wasn’t actually getting my business started that was hard just because of all the excitement. The hardest thing for me was and still is disciplining myself and staying organized. I know the worst thing that can happen is dealing with consequences that I created for myself. I don’t have a boss that will get angry at me, so sometimes it’s really hard for me to stay motivated. When you don’t do anything, nothing happens! You just use money and then you’re sad and that’s it, but that’s not good either. I had a really weird time after I finally completed the paperwork. That was fine at first because I was on a strict time schedule; my visa was running out and I had lots of things to do, but then afterwards there was nothing! I was just sitting in my office and thinking “Now what? Where do I start?” It was strange because suddenly there was nothing to do and lots to do at the same time. So I just slowly started to try this and that and even though there was no one to direct me, I just did it and got myself going eventually.
BCJ: Yeah, being your own boss can definitely be a double-edged sword for sure, but you’re a real trailblazer. So how does it feel when you see people walking around with your pieces and out of your workshops having learned about a new skill & way to recycle clothing?
Coco: It’s a very good feeling! I’m still trying a lot of things and testing what works, but this year I’m planning to do more classic workshops that run maybe twice a week. That would be ideal; one during the day and then one on a weekday from 6-10pm so it would be after work hours. My goal for this year is running a workspace where people can come and use the space to create. It’s basically what I wanted when I first started getting passionate about silkscreening. I learned how to silkscreen and then had no space to work on it more. The workshops that I run now have a maximum of five people, which is ideal. And you can also print your own original designs if you’d like. So people send me their designs, I check them and then on the day of, we make their frames. So they make their frames themselves, put in the UV bars, then make the inks and learn how to print. The experience is very manual & visceral. It’s really fun–I feel like that moment when you push the ink through, I think everyone has that same reaction. You spend four hours (that’s typically how long workshops are) preparing everything in the frame and when everything is aligned and you get your t-shirt/cloth set, then your ink and finally go in with that stroke to bring it all together. You think about how it will look and then leave the frame to check and their expression will just say “Wow, this is so cool!” And I say “Right? Right?” I love seeing that expression of wonder on people’s faces!
So in addition to more traditional workshops, I’m also planning to do more collaborations with designers and have original designs. Because I get bored very easily, I use my silk screening studio for a brand I started back when I was waiting for my visa back home as well, where we export Japanese traditional clothing in Switzerland. It’s called Kiku Vintage; “kiku” like the Japanese flower. At first, I wasn’t sure how it would go, but it’s actually starting to pick up now. It all came together very nicely because we wanted to find stuff and export and sell them as it is, working with people’s original product and designs. So we have like these Osakan grandmas doing the sewing and everything. For Kiku Vintage, we’ve also started doing some original designs that are inspired by traditional Japanese designs and we print them on second hand clothes. So there’s a lot going on this year!
That’s really great to hear, Coco, and thanks for letting us know of all your future plans as well! I, and others I’m sure, think you seem to be doing just fine in running your business and are looking forward to seeing you continue. Your creativity and tendency to get bored quickly will definitely keep you running on this wonderful path! I especially enjoy the eco-friendly aspect as well. Please be sure to keep us all updated on your progress in the upcoming year!
To learn more about the ODT Factory, KikuVintage brand and Coco’s workshops, please make sure to follow the Factory page on social media (@odtfty/@kikuvintage; www.odtfty.com/www.kikuvintage.com) and inquire or consider reaching out to join a workshop sometime if you happen to be in Osaka! Here in 2020, the vision of the future is looking stylish, eco-friendly and very bright.