Okano bids adieu to Chanel
It's a sad day for those who know her to see Joyce Okano retire from her position as regional vice president of Chanel, but a happy one for Joyce, who emailed me after reading my story about Harold Koda, the local-born curator in charge of the Costume Institute (now the Anna Wintour Costume Center) at New York's Metropolitan Museum, who's retiring at the end of the year.
Echoing his sentiments, she said, retirement is "an odd bad word!" But she chose to make an early exit to maximize time with her 92-year-old mother and 95-year-old dad, which might include travel to Japan next spring.
"It was a real dilemma," she said. "I had to ask myself if I could help more people with Chanel, or leaving Chanel, because the Chanel name has power."
But few people in Hawaii has been able to parlay the power of a brand to do so much to advance the arts and retail in Hawaii, though you'd never know any of this by talking to Joyce, who has never been one to seek the limelight for herself, in favor of advancing her causes.
For me, she was an amazing mentor who went out of her way to patiently introduce me to the world of haute couture and Chanel's ateliers at a time when luxury retail and to see couture work was unheard of in Hawaii.
I had a natural affinity to couture strangely enough because I grew up poor in Waipahu before the era of fast fashion, and that meant sewing all my own clothes—including prom dresses—from intermediate school through my high school years. So I appreciated the expert craftsmanship and complexity of construction at a level few attain. At least not me. I couldn't be bothered with perfect finishing that takes time and patience I never possessed. So I understood the beauty of originality, the difficulties of rolling fine silk chiffon hems and the comfort afforded by a French seam, not to mention the exquisite handmade fabric and embellishments created by Chanel's ateliers.
Perhaps reflective of her warmth and kindness, Chanel Hawaii is also one of the few retailers where employees stay. I have seen the same faces there for 20 years, unusual given the constant turnover of the retail world.
Okano is a trail blazer who brought Paris runway collections to Hawaii. A 1990 show that featured models flown in from Paris, New York and Los Angeles, stands as the best show I've ever seen in Hawaii.
In 1996, she initiated the French Festival, bringing in other luxury retailers and designers for a unified showcase of French artistry. Among my favorite shows from this time were Sonia Rykiel's playful 1998 collection, Christian Lacroix's ornate 2001 collection, and John Galliano's Haute Couture Wedding Party for Dior in 2000. Alas, the shows preceded the blog era, so they are held in memory only, though you can take a look at my stories from that time here:
With the festival came the idea of exclusive, collectible products created by the design houses to commemorate the occasion, paving the way for today's spate of exclusive gift offerings and collaborations.
An avid supporter of the arts and emerging artists, Okano is no snob. She was just excited in pitching a story about a homeless person shaping concentric trees on a west side beach, as supporting local artists through an annual "Modern Masters" showcase at Luxury Row, and bringing in photographer Douglas Kirkland for a 2009 exhibition of 36 of his portraits of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel.
Chanel hosted a party for Joyce on Dec. 8, and flying in for the occasion were Jei Moon from the Beverly Hills store, and Jessica Fon, executive director of operations for Chanel USA.
Fon said that Joyce became Chanel's first United States boutique director when the boutique opened on Sept. 1 1984, when there were no other Chanel boutiques in this country. "She's been very important to retail in Honolulu, not just for Chanel but for everyone," said Fon, noting that the start of the French Festival, followed by the World Festival and Red Party at Ala Moana Center, "marked the start of many events for Ala Moana."
Because Joyce is still reticent in talking about herself, I got Fendi's Cameron "Cammy" Coble Maheras to fill me in on the time there were so few fashion retailers in Hawaii that she, Joyce and Balenciaga's Sharleen Perreira all shared the same trajectory, starting with Joseph Magnin Co., before moving on to Gucci, the first of the luxury retailers to open in Hawaii, the first of the European brands to recognize the potential of the combined Japanese and local market. She said Nancy Lueck, who recently came back to Hawaii with Bloomingdale's, also started at Joseph Magnin as a designer buyer.
Funny, I don't remember the Joseph Magnin store at all. Maybe I was just confused because on the west side, I was shopping at I. Magnin at Pearlridge, which was also much more stylish than LH. I. Magnin was started by Joseph's mom and he left the company to build his own retail empire after she gave more prominent company positions to his brothers John, Samuel and Grover.
"Joseph Magnin was the perfect place to work because they believed in us and they gave everyone a long leash for creativity. I've never seen anything like it. They believed in everyone's talent," Maheras said. "With the sportswear, designer, display and accessories experience they gave me, I was ready for the world."
"We were all little seeds waiting to be watered," Perreira said.
"We were all so lucky. There was not a lot going on in retail, so some of our friends had to leave Hawaii. None of us knew what to expect but we knew we didn't want to be stuck at Liberty House or Carol & Mary," Maheras said. "All of us real excited, we were going to Paris to make buys at a time they were using adding machines and hand-writing orders."
They also entertained visiting young designers, and Maheras remembers taking Michael Kors to Gussie L'Amours, a dive bar near the airport, for drinks and to hear Richie Walker perform.
Bouyed by the visitor market, the luxury retailers keep coming, although funding that helped to bring events like the French Festival to this state have shifted to China over the past decade.
Joyce's retirement seems to mark the passing of a wonderful era. She will be missed at Chanel, but I look forward to seeing her next projects! Merci for some wonderful memories!
Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage is in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.