Nicole Bargwanna, fashion consultant and CEO of CPR Tokyo, actually never intended to live in Japan. In high school, when offered the opportunity of becoming part of an exchange student program, she had her heart set on France — her dream destination. She had even put all her efforts into learning French.
“I grew up on a farm in New South Wales,” says the Australian native, “and for as long as I can remember, I had a longing to see the world. So I studied French and dreamed of a life in Paris.”
Bargwanna’s parents, however, sat her down and talked her out of these European plans.
“I think my parents were afraid that if I went to France I might be too free,” she says, laughing. “They also said that Montreal or Belgium (my next choices) would be a similar Western culture, so it wouldn’t be much of an adventure.
“They advised me to go someplace that was completely different, somewhere that would be difficult to go on my own without speaking the language.”
Bargwanna says that, at the time, her mother was teaching English to a group of Japanese women who had moved to their neighborhood.
“Their husbands were transferred from a wool company in Osaka and my mother was impressed by how lovely and polite they were,” she explains. “Also, Australia was having a bit of a Japan boom — there was a huge influx of Japanese tourists and businesses, leading to career opportunities for Japanese speakers, who were few and far between at the time.”
So at 17, Bargwanna embarked on her Rotary Youth Exchange program, living with six different host families over the course of a year in Tokyo and attending Gakushuin Girls’ Senior High School in Mejiro, Tokyo — the storied learning institution of the imperial family. Then in 1995, she was awarded a one-year monbukagakusho (Japanese government) scholarship to study at Chiba University, while further improving her Japanese.
“But I wanted to go back (again after university), in order to experience Tokyo as an independent adult, gain work experience and live in my own apartment,” she says.
A year after completing her scholarship, she returned to Japan, first living in Okayama and working for a graphic/industrial design company “as an English and Japanese in-house translator,” and then back to Tokyo, which, she says, “shaped who I am.”
In Tokyo, Bargwanna swiftly moved into the fashion industry, taking on directive roles in public relations, consulting and buying for various major companies, including the luxury retailer Restir.
Then in 2009, with the years of experience under her belt, she founded CPR Tokyo, a fashion consulting and public relations company.
Living in the friendly Yoyogi neighborhood with her partner and two girls, both of whom were attending regular Japanese schools, Bargwanna was settled in Tokyo. Yet in 2017, after several years of deliberation and planning, she decided to leave Japan and move to Kent in the U.K.
“I had been in Japan for my entire adult life. While that was wonderful, I knew there were new business opportunities in the U.K. and I wanted to bring my family closer together, which is really important when raising children” she explains. “My sister lives nearby and has children a similar age, so it’s great to be able to support each other more.”
Business-wise, Bargwanna says being closer to her CPR Tokyo clients, many of which are based in Europe, allows her to “become more involved with strategy, planning and product localization.” For her family, the future of her children’s education also influenced the decision to move.
“One of my children didn’t make the shift from nursery to grade school very well. Grade school in Japan is very strict, with emphasis on learning facts and memorization,” she says. ” School was less welcoming and fun than nursery, and that took some getting used to.”
In the U.K., her children attend a Rights Respecting School — an accreditation awarded by UNICEF to schools that include the principles of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child into their curriculums.
“The school has dedicated forests for ‘forest education’ and all learning is experience-based, so all subjects are incorporated into a chosen experience. For example, the children might learn about homelessness in relation to the ‘Three Little Pigs,'” she says. “It’s a creative approach to education that would be difficult to find in a Japanese school.”
Living a country lifestyle just outside London, she adds, “is the biggest luxury.”
“I love that here in the U.K., we are lucky enough to live in a proper house (we lived in an apartment in Tokyo) and have a garden,” she says. “The children are also surrounded by nature (in Kent), yet I can be in central London for business meetings in about 30 minutes.”
Though Bargwanna lived in Japan for more than 20 years, she says, “I never thought Japan would be my permanent home.” Leaving, however, took careful planning and the timing had to be right.
“I had a business, my staff were depending on me. My children had their own lives and friendships in Tokyo,” she explains. “There were many things that had to be considered.”
Part of the reason for moving was to expand business by establishing a U.K. branch of CPR, which was made easier by advances in internet technology.
“When I was 17 and first went to Japan, I could only call home on my birthday and Christmas because international calls were so expensive,” she recalls. “But in the space of just two decades, everything changed. I realized I could have the best of both worlds — a life in England with my family and a business in Tokyo.”
Bargwanna now holds daily, 6 a.m. (U.K. time) meetings with her Japan staff, who still run an office in Tokyo, and she flies back regularly for meetings and to touch base with her team and clients.
Though she still puts in full days for CPR Tokyo, flexible working culture and new opportunities in the U.K., she explains, have allowed her to pursue new projects, including expanding beyond fashion.
“Work-life balance is valued more here, and personal family time is valued,” she says. “So many people, from executive level down, have more flexible working hours to accommodate family life, and take proper holidays and time away from the office.”
Japanese culture still plays an important role in Bargwanna’s life, and she explains that she’s also started a new business introducing Japanese interior brands to the U.K.
“I love that even though I’m now based in the U.K., Japan never seems so far away and that I’m able to stay close to a country that has shaped who I am and a large part of my life,” she says. “I still have such a strong connection yet can build on that from another perspective. I feel so very lucky that I never had an either/or situation where I had to move away and completely cut ties.”
Name: Nicole Bargwanna
Profession: Founder and CEO of CPR Tokyo
Hometown in Japan: Tokyo
Key moments in life and career:
1992 — First trip to Japan on the Rotary Youth Exchange program as a high school student for one year
1995 — One year exchange on a monbukagakusho (Japanese government) scholarship to Chiba University
1997 — Moves back to Japan and works at a graphic/ industrial design firm in Okayama
1999 — Joins an IT company in Tokyo as head of PR and marketing
2001 — Moves into fashion, in the role of PR and buying director at a chain of 10 multibrand stores around Japan
2004 — Takes on role of communications director at luxury retailer, Restir
2009 — Founds CPR Tokyo
2017 — Moves to Kent, England.
Things I miss most about Japan: “Onsen (hot springs) in autumn! Of course the food — such sophisticated flavors and beautiful presentation. And Tokyo, a city where something interesting is always happening.”
Things I love about England: “The schools, the greenery and the country lifestyle. I love it that I’m more relaxed here and have my own garden.”
Words to live by: “‘Always try something new’ was drummed into us exchange students and it has always stuck with me. ‘Always try something new, you’ll never know who you’ll meet or where it will lead to.’ Sometimes, you have to push yourself to get there, but I find that it’s always worth the effort.”