Taylor Okata grew up in Oahu and cut his teeth styling all around the fashion industry. “I thought leaving the islands, I had to pursue a very definable career, but I've always been interested in fashion since I can remember,” he explains. His past client list includes giants like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, and Puma. Currently, though, he’s focusing on his role as the creative director of personal care and grooming brand Hawthorne. He still works with the occasional client—fellow Hawaii kid Evan Mock is a notable example—but to make room for the day job, “I've been styling less and taking a step back from it,” he says.
Taylor has always impressed me with his distinct style—hard to describe, but always well-put-together. Below, Okata and I talk about his career in the fashion industry, how he incorporates elements of his Asian origin into his personal style, and a host of other subjects.
How did you make the transition from styling into creative direction for the self-care brand Hawthorne?
I studied photography in high school and studio arts in college, so I come from a background of more knowledge of graphic design and typography and colour theory and two-dimensional design than fashion. Fashion was always just something I enjoyed as a hobby. Even freelancing as a stylist, I'd be on set and I would make certain comments about lighting or about layouts of magazines and things like that. And then they understood, “Oh, this guy actually has a knowledge of design.”
Phil, who is one of the co-founders of Hawthorne, and an amazing designer as well, met me before he even launched the brand. He was designing for brands like Hood By Air. He created their logo. We've always talked design, more than just fashion. And so, when they wanted to do a brand refresh, he reached out and asked, "I don't know if this is something you're interested in." And it was, because to me, creative direction encompasses everything that I love.
Can you share some thoughts about Hawaii and how it's changed since you were a kid growing up there?
My family has been there for so many generations that we couldn't even trace a lot back on my mom's side. We became a state in 1959, so for me, growing up there was this weird push and pull of wanting what you saw on TV and kind of wanting to be Americanised, but the day-to-day culture was very unamerican. I didn't have internet in my house at the time. Growing up before social media, the exposure was very different. I never fully felt the Western idea of what it means to be American, even though technically we are. But it's a very special place. It's very complex because we were illegally occupied by the military, and it gets really dark.
When I moved to the States, I was exposed to a whole new country, and I was pushed to the side in a way that I wasn't used to. Hawaii, for the most part, is a very multicultural place. We're all multiracial and we're all very prideful of our culture. Then to move to the states and hear, “You're not Asian. You don't look Asian. You don't look Latino. You're obviously not Black. You don't really look white.” It was just so interesting that those were really the only four pillars that people could identify you as. That's when I really understood how special of a place Hawaii was. We speak a different dialect back home called Pidgin. At first, I had a really hard time trying to assimilate into American culture. When we greet people, for instance, we kiss on the cheek, and that was seen as weird. People in college said I sounded funny. So, I really tried to morph myself into this idea of what it means to be accepted in America. As I got older, I realised what makes my perspective so special is where I'm from and how I was raised—my culture, the food, the music, and the street culture I grew up with. Then I really started to own it, and once I did, and was prideful of where I was from, everything else just started to fall into place.
How do you tie your identity into your personal style?
I can never leave the house if it doesn't feel like me. I know that sounds like such a generic statement, but I truly have never gotten dressed for anyone else. Even if I know I'm going to be made fun of or people might not understand it, my style is what has gotten me to where I am. It's honestly saved my life. It's opened up doors for me, but it's also made me feel like I belong somewhere even if I don't feel like I belong—when I know inside that I belong because I get to present myself how I want to present myself. That really is tied to my culture, like my Japanese heritage and growing up with my dad's side of the family always being very well put-together. Even the island culture and surf and skate—all the things I grew up doing—influences my style. Sometimes I feel like it's a hodgepodge, but it's just my style. Something has to be thrown off. I can't be fully prepped. That's just not me. I love wearing ties or a dress shirt, but then I need to have my earrings or my Hawaiian jewelry on, or I need to have a baseball cap on—something to offset it that makes it feel like me. I can't just pick a genre and fit in. It'll never happen because again, my culture's such a huge part of my life. It's inescapable at this point, so that obviously translates to what I wear.
How much of that identity is tied into your styling and creative direction? How do you separate your personal style from work?
With styling, specifically celebrity styling, people come to me because of how I personally dress. That's great because they know what they're going to get from me. I never really got as heavy into commercials and TV and film… It's a very specific outline where I don't really get to express my talents and my capabilities. With Hawthorne, for instance, or when a client brings me on to do full image—they want their client to have a new hairstyle and new outfits—that's where I really thrive. I'm like, "You're coming to me exactly for what I can give you, and I can really art direct this image." I think that's why I've been styling less; I just have too many interests and I think of too many other factors. I can't just think about the clothes anymore. I look at the hair or I look at the casting or I look at the lighting or I look at the set design. I can't just worry about the clothes.
What are some brands or designers that are exciting you currently?
It's so funny that you asked the prior question about my culture and my heritage tying into my personal style because I realise that a lot of what I've worn or brands, even if they're mainstream, like Comme des Garçons or Issey Miyake or Yohji—who I owe so much to—they're all Japanese designers. I'm just really drawn to that aesthetic. But currently, of the brands that I'm really drawn to, some are still AAPI, like Commission and Luu Dan. Not only do I see myself in the designers, but I think that the perspective that they're designing from fits how I like to present myself to the world. It just makes sense that way. For instance, with Luu Dan, I'm short and he makes great clothes for short guys. Even though it's so oversized some way, it still looks great on me. Like Peter Do, who just got announced as creative director of Helmet Lang, they're really bringing something that I identify with. There’s also Raul who does Luar. His eye is so special and it speaks to me so much, not only as a queer boy living in New York City—he's a born and raised in New York and I'm not—but just the soul where he's designing from resonates so much in me that I'm so drawn to what he does.
If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it consist of?
That would be where I thrive the most, which is in Hawaii, and I think about what I wear there, and it's obviously hot as hell. A cream V-neck sleeveless vest of some sort, baggy denim shorts, fresh white socks, and a lug-sole, lace-up, derby-loafer situation, because I always like feeling dressed. I can't feel too casual. And all my jewelry. I can't live without my earrings and my Hawaiian jewelry and Oakleys.