Making Dresses from Dollars and Dimes
Words Johanna Wiklund
For Parsons graduate Kota Okuda, money makes the world go round.
When the Japanese government changed the motifs of their coins and banknotes 20 years ago, Kota Okuda, then a child, recognised a shift in what was valued in his surroundings. The monetary value of the old coins and notes had disappeared, and they had suddenly become nothing but pieces of metal or paper. “I became obsessed,” he says, “with collecting coins and notes that no longer held any monetary value, but that I thought possessed cultural meaning and heritage.” It was these stories that the old coins and notes held hat would years later serve as inspiration for his practice.
Traditionally, the Japanese are very ‘safe’ with their money, says Okuda, and, on his arrival in London to begin his studies on Central Saint Martins’ BA in Jewellery Design, he was shocked by the lavish approach to spending money in the UK. This culture around money struck him as rather shallow, but also intriguing. A similar phenomenon to the one that affected Japanese currency 20 years ago appeared here again: there was a disregarding of value. While the pound still possessed monetary value, it was being thrown around as if it didn’t. It was not until later on in New York, during his time on Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design and Society programme, that these observations would appear in his designs. In London, the designer spent weekdays in school studying craft and design, and his weekends in a jewellery workshop learning traditional British crafting techniques. He describes this time as useful but notes that he constantly felt detached from society. He considers jewellery as an object to be solitary and distant from its wearer, and as a jeweller, he began to feel frustratingly detached from his customers and the worlds they inhabit. Jewellery, he concludes, is “like art”: rather than directly engage with a wearer, it simply exists. Kota, however, wanted to seek out a way to create work that was closer to his audience, culture and society.
Having been offered the TOMODACHI-UNIQLO scholarship to develop his vision and skills as a designer, Okuda headed to Parsons and graduated in 2018. His change in practice from jewellery to fashion, however, wasn’t without its challenges: ”I was very quiet and very timid in class. And it was difficult to be pushed to work in a different way at Parsons,” he says, recounting his anxiety when the tutors wanted him to work with fabrics, “I am a jeweller and I don’t have the skills to work in fabric using patterns.” Not only was he asked to work with unfamiliar materials and with new techniques, but he also had to develop a new approach, working with full-body sized designs rather than on jewellery’s smaller scale. Comparing the two mediums he explains that “jewellery is quiet, and fashion is emotional—it’s about the body, the audience, and creating an atmosphere.”
For his graduate collection, Okuda chose to go back to what he knew best, using his skills as a jeweller when designing fashion. Coming back to his early collecting of coins, the designer chose the American currency’s dollars and dimes as his collection’s theme: “Coins have codes and notes have messages. By working with currency, I unfold the forgotten and disregarded stories of culture and heritage that it possesses. I hope to evoke a new awareness of American culture and perhaps show at a sense of gratitude for how coins and notes represent it.” The collection featured, among other designs, a coin-bra, a one-dollar note skirt and around-the-body draping in pennies from shoulder to waist, all made out of paper, metal, leather, banknotes and coins—no ‘normal’ fabrics in sight. The collection turned out to be a hit: ”After the show, several celebrities asked me to make costumes for them, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus are two of them.”
A year on from graduating, Okuda is now gearing up to show his latest work for SS20 during New York Fashion Week, presenting a collection that continues his exploration of currency, primarily on account of the keen celebrity response it has attracted so far. That doesn’t, however, go to say that the designer cares too much about who wears his clothes, and the messages they want to convey through them. Although, he added that wearing the famous American dollar-sign is to directly—even if inadvertently—question the cultural status and value the sign has gained as a symbol for one of the world’s most powerful countries. Though his poking at American society may be limited to the celebrity runway as things stand, his passion for culture, history and heritage still shines through, triggering reflections on the true value of money.