Pajamas may sound like an unlikely creative catalyst for a business. For Sonya Park, however, it made perfect sense: She was determined to create a pair of comfortable, luxurious pajamas that she would want to wear herself.
It was in 2003 that former fashion stylist Park — who was born in Seoul, raised in Hawaii and now lives in Japan — opened her first Arts & Science store in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district.
Initially selling vintage wear and antiques, she soon found herself working with a seamstress and fabric maker to create clothing that she yearned to wear herself — the first item being pajamas.
Fast-forward over a decade and her clothing and lifestyle products have become renowned for their mix of high-quality textiles and Japanese craftsmanship with vintage-inspired design.
Today, there are nine Arts & Science boutiques and one cafe in Japan — among them, two atmospheric new stores called HIN and &SHOP, which opened in October in centuries-old machiya townhouses on a quiet Kyoto lane.
Here, speaking over coffee in her Aoyama office, Park — dressed top-to-toe in clean-lined navy Arts & Science clothes — succinctly explains the evolution of her company.
What early influences led you to where you are today?
Two days before my 13th birthday, I moved from Seoul to Hawaii with my family. My parents were born in 1930s Korea so were very conservative. Their idea of happiness was to get married into a proper family. I always had this idea that I would never get married and have kids — I wanted to be independent. But it took a while to work out what to do.
How did you end up in Japan?
I remember the first time I saw someone wearing Comme des Garcons. It was a dress made up of gray and black jersey elastic bands you could pull over your body to make your own shape. It was so interesting — it made me want to go to Japan. I studied Japanese — and then, I met someone. I went to visit him in Tokyo.
I was young, in love, only 23. I told my parents I was moving there for two years and would marry him. But I never left Japan and I didn’t marry him.
I fell in love with the country — but not the man (laughs). That was 28 years ago.
You were a successful fashion stylist for many years. Why the switch to Arts & Science?
The idea was always there, I just didn’t realize it. From childhood, my mother loved shopping and fashion. There’s no Disneyland in Korea, so for me as a child, walking into these stores was like a fantasy world I could escape to. I wanted to re-create that for myself.
What was the concept?
The idea was to open the perfect store where I would want to shop, selling intimate household items — pajamas, underwear, candles — plus vintage clothing and antique accessories.
When we opened our first space in 2003, I said everything you could see was on sale. But I soon had to stop that — people came and took everything, the lamps, the mirrors, the cabinets.
How did it evolve?
I noticed people always bought the vintage clothing right away. These were shapes that I would never see again, so I went to a seamstress and said can you make a pattern for me, not exactly the same, but just to remember the shape. The first item we made were pajamas.
How was the transition from styling to making clothes?
I never thought I’d make clothes. I hadn’t studied it and had such respect for fashion designers. But there was less and less clothing that I wanted to wear. I was buying a lot of vintage clothing and the fabric was so beautiful, but there was nothing similar available to buy.
Someone recommended a Japanese fabric maker and we started working together. It’s difficult just making one or two pieces, so it soon became a collection.
How do you see your role?
I am not a designer. I’m editing. I make anonymous items of clothing that fit well. It’s not flashy, size is important and in terms of quality, it must be long lasting.
It is kind of like cooking: When you have really good ingredients, you don’t need to do much to them. I know this from kimono, too — the shapes are always the same, it’s the quality of the fabric and how you wear it that makes a difference.
Is there a founding principle that has guided you?
I’ve always had a thing about women’s independence and wearing things that make you feel comfortable. I would never eat for other people, so why should I dress for other people? I’ve never understood the idea of dressing for the opposite sex.
Also, I like the idea that a little of both arts and science are needed for perfect balance in any product — from clothing to soap. It’s a principle of life.
You recently opened your second and third stores in Kyoto — why there?
I really like Kyoto. Everything is low rise and I always thought it would be great to renovate an old machiya townhouse. But it took a while — it’s difficult finding people happy to rent to a foreign woman.
We opened our first Kyoto store last year (February 2015) but it was too small. A few months later, two more spaces next door to each other opened.
Your aesthetic is very distinct — what do you think shaped this?
I’m a product of living in different places — Korea, Hawaii, Japan. But it’s a borderless, genderless aesthetic. I have this theory that because my environment changed at 13 and then I later moved to Japan, my observation skills might be a little sharper than average. I had to do a lot of guessing, always lacking in language. I wonder if this affected my perspective — I see things other people don’t see.
For more information about the new Kyoto stores — HIN and &SHOP — plus other Arts & Science outlets, visit www.arts-science.com.