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Easy Street

After introducing hip-hop to Japan, Riko Sakurai has come to New York to work at the intersection of music and fashion.

As the self-proclaimed mother of hip-hop music in Japan, Riko Sakurai is expected to dress the part. Sakurai, however, is

anything but predictable. On this day, as she sits sipping tea on the roof deck of New York’s Soho house, she’s wearing a white ruffle-collared shirt, white striped overalls and white Marc Jacobs shoes.

“I don’t really dress like what you think of as hip-hop style. I may occasionally wear Triple 5 Soul, but that’s it. I don’t want to be labeled.”

Sakurai, 35, came under the influence of hip-hop in 1989 as a freshman at Tokyo’s International Christian University, where she majored in sociology and minored in rap. While her classmates were studying, Sakurai was writing music reviews for Japanese fashion and music magazines.

When she saw Run-DMC and Public Enemy in action, “it was like, ‘Wow,'” she says. “Public Enemy really changed my life.”

Public Enemy spoke to Sakurai’s longing for individualism, both intellectual and sartorial. “It matched me,” she says. “It’s rebellion music.”

Despite spending her school years in uniform, Sakurai began to assert her style early. When she was 15, that was her Neneh Cherry period, she says, noting that she wore Azzedine Alaïa miniskirts and big hoop earrings in deference to the British recording star.

“I hated all the clothes my mother bought and refused to wear hand-me-downs from my older sister,” she says. “I like street fashion because it’s always evolving, always changing.”

After college, Sakurai did a stint as a program director at NHK, the Nippon Broadcasting Corp.-owned giant, and interviewed artists for “Da Cypher, a hip-hop show on J Wave radio. When MTV came to Tokyo, Sakurai was hired as a VJ, chatting up rap luminaries in front of the camera and working behind the scenes on “Yo MTV Raps” and “MTV Jams.”

“I had to wear a different outfit every day,” she says. “I had to be my own stylist.”

Then, in 2000, Sakurai was hired to head up Island/Def Jam’s Japan office. She soon was signing rappers and singers, including Hikaru Utada, now one of Japan’s biggest recording artists. It was Utada’s desire to break into the U.S. market that brought Sakurai to New York. “Hikaru released ‘Exodus’ last year,” says Sakurai. “I got my first platinum plaque.”

Sakurai recently has shifted her focus to the intersection of fashion and music. She helped Nigo, the Japanese fashion and music impresario, open a store in SoHo in April 2004 for his A Bathing Ape streetwear brand. And she is the U.S. consultant to Celux, a private club in Tokyo created by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, where members pay a yearly fee of $2,000 for the opportunity to buy limited-distribution merchandise from designers such as Rogan, Chatav Ectabit, BRD from Berlin and Japanese denim brands Ossa Mondo and Dania.

But Sakurai is still no slave to fashion. “I like wearing jeans and Marc Jacobs shoes,” she says. “I really like men’s clothes right now and I love vintage, the clothes are so feminine and detailed and beautiful. I don’t want to wear high fashion with just high fashion.”