If you ask Naoko Okusa how to dress your best, she will tell you to look inside yourself before you stare into a cluttered closet or at an oversized mirror.
Arguably the most influential stylist in Japan, Okusa, who has 136,000 followers on Instagram, offers tried-and-true tips for women who are stuck in a style rut.
She helps them discover — or rediscover — the joy of dressing up by helping them experiment with different stylistic affiliations while staying true to who they are.
“The way you dress and the way you live are two sides of the same coin. They can’t be disconnected,” Okusa says. “It’s not the amount of clothes you own. It’s how well you know yourself that allows you to wear what makes you feel and look like the best version of yourself.”
Okusa, 45, says if you’re relying on designer tags to make your style and people see the brand wearing you and not vice versa, it’s a sign that you have yet to learn the language of fashion.
“I wouldn’t want to be remembered as ‘the lady with the Birkin bag’ because that means the Birkin made a bigger impression than I did. A woman who chooses to splurge on designer handbags and be someone she is not should know that her self-esteem is superficial.”
What seems like a dream job happened by chance. After transitioning from the fashion magazine editor’s desk to the life of a freelancer, Okusa was doing everything herself.
“I was an editor, producer, creative director, stylist,” she says. Although she never called herself one, “people started referring to me as a stylist so I figured that must be my thing.”
Okusa knows fashion. She pursues it, and she breathes it. Not only does she hand-select clothing and accessories worn by models at photo shoots, she has exclusive contracts with retailers as their fashion consultant and is a best-selling author and speaker.
She’s not one to tell you to camouflage your body flaws with draped sleeves or flared pants. Rather, she would remind you that a well-maintained physique is the foundation of dressing well and tell you to hit the gym.
“Fashion is about you, but dressing well equates to good manners. It’s about making others feel good too,” she says. “You can’t deny that it’s also a way to appeal to the other sex, whether you’re a man or a woman. Say you’re going out with a banker, an advertising agent, a tech company president, a freelance artist — wouldn’t your clothes depend on who your date is?”
Okusa says she used to alter the way she dressed to please her boyfriends, but when she met her Venezuelan partner and current husband after a failed first marriage she found a sense of security that soon reflected in her clothing choices.
“I like stronger women more than fragile women, cool over cute, self-reliant over dependent, basics over trendy,” she says. “That’s me, and he has no problem with that. Now I know what I want, in fashion and in life.”
There was a difficult period following the divorce, she says. At that time she needed to wear bright, vivid colors to make herself believe she was happy. She looks back on the few photos she has from those days and sees a lost girl trying hard to conceal her emotions.
Okusa says she has learned that “dressing your age” is not necessarily negative. She wants middle-aged women to know that just because they are now choosing from a small selection of clothes, it doesn’t mean they are less attractive.
On the contrary, Okusa says, it means less stress, less distraction, less expense and more peace.
“Age helped me declutter my wardrobe. Age helped me get rid of the things I don’t need. It made my fashion options narrower and deeper,” she says. “Yes, you get that extra layer of fat and you start noticing gray hair. In my case, my dull complexion taught me to avoid pastel colors and light beige. But hey, a colorful closet doesn’t equal a colorful life.”
Okusa notices women in Japan are experiencing general fashion confusion, and they think their best bet is to emulate the style of Parisians and New Yorkers. One of the most popular questions she gets from fans is “What do I look good in?”
But that’s a question that requires one-on-one counseling, Okusa says. She would need to know your background, your budget, your closet content, how you want to feel and who you want to be.
She suggests finding a brutally honest friend or a critical family member to whom you can turn to for fashion advice, or better yet, she says you can always train yourself to stand back and look at yourself objectively. It takes practice to dress well, and it’s a lifelong learning curve.
One thing the fashionista strongly recommends is getting others to take photos of you.
“Not the ‘say cheese’ kind of photos, but ones that capture unexpected moments,” she says. Knowing your facial features and posture is a start.
“I want people to learn to make objective decisions through fashion,” she says. “It takes discipline. I’m 45 now, but I can say I’m much more fashionable than I was when I was 30. And in 15 years’ time I know I’ll be even more so because I’ll be better trained.”
Okusa has always dared to be different and original, and can’t think of a fashion icon she idolized growing up.
If not from people, where does she get her fashion inspiration?
“There’s not a fashion blogger or Instagrammer I follow. Fashion is such a big part of my life already, I feel like I get enough. So I look elsewhere,” she says. “If I see delicate pink sweets placed on a dark gray slate plate, it teaches me that soft and hard go well together, and mixing light color to dark can add a freshness that gives the combination some kick.”
If she had to name one person that influenced her fashion choices, Okusa says it would have to be her mother. She never wore anything expensive but never seemed to have a style dilemma either.
“As a little girl I used to love her color and fabric choices,” she says. “She also had a sense for home decor. It was chic, and her fashion blended with the interiors. I don’t really remember her wearing flashy colors. It was more brown, beige and navy.”
Okusa says she chooses not to drop serious cash on high-end designer clothes for her three children, but she and her husband do their best to teach them fashion etiquette.
“I want to spend money on myself so I’m not buying expensive clothes for my kids. But fashion can be a communication tool if you shop together or talk about what to wear on what occasion,” says Okusa, who has two daughters and one son.
“They’re free to wear what they want at home, but I tell them it’s not OK when it involves other people. For instance, when my son insisted he wear his soccer jersey to a fine-dining restaurant, I had to explain to him clothes can show respect or disrespect.”
With her latest book — her 13th — published in April, Okusa says she is enjoying a career landed by accident but led by passion, and the longer she works, the more she realizes she is doing a lot more than helping women create the perfect wardrobe.
“The great thing about my job is that I get to relive a person’s life story. I get to learn about their past and get a glimpse of their future. Sometimes I feel more like a therapist than a stylist,” Okusa says.
“I want to free women from deceptive marketing messages that make them feel worthless without a Birkin bag. No one should be measured by the number of brand items they own. Clothes don’t make the woman. The woman makes the clothes.”
You can check out more of Naoko Okusa on Instagram at @naokookusa.