Josie Natori at her piano, and browsing her archival collection at her home.
Most know her as a self-made Filipina businesswoman-turned-designer specializing in lingerie and sleepwear, but Josie Natori insists she's "a musician number one in my soul."Natori, who turned 70 in May, started taking piano lessons at her mother's request when she was age 4. "In the Philippines, it is a given that every child plays an instrument, no matter from what walk of life," she says. "It’s not even a choice. You just do it."At age nine, she played her first concert, and by 50, she had become so devoted to piano that she destroyed a wall in her Manhattan apartment so her Steinway could be hoisted out of it and into Carnegie Hall. There, at the prestigious music venue, Natori gave the performance of her life."It is a highlight," she recalls of her 50th birthday concert at Carnegie. "The Nineties were a very difficult decade in the business. In the Eighties, I couldn’t do anything wrong, and in the Nineties, I couldn’t do anything right. The only thing I did right was this concert." It was, she says, a gift to herself — one that 2,800 people watched her unwrap.Complete with an 85-member orchestra, the performance was the culmination of three years of rehearsing Schumann's "Piano Concerto in A Minor." But despite her tireless practice, Natori recalls that her delivery was flawed. "I had a moment where I forgot something and I stopped, but I got back to it," she says. To this day, people remember her "blip" — "I don't call it a 'mess up'" — and how quickly she recovered. Carnegie Hall isn't for the faint of heart.She had hoped to throw another birthday concert at age 60 and again at 65, but both times, family matters — her son's wedding, her father falling ill — took priority. "You never duplicate things in life, anyway," she concludes.Her mother's love for the ivory keys wasn't the only thing Natori inherited from her. She also takes after Angelita Almeda's habit of collecting."I wouldn’t call her a shopaholic, but I guess in a way [she is]," Natori says of Almeda, who primarily collects art. "Me, I never really started buying until I came to school here [in the U.S.] at age 17. I would spend weekends going to the antique market — [10th Street and Broadway] was Antique Lane. All the dealers were there." She took a liking to English furniture, became obsessed with Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and eventually formed an emotional connection to Oriental art."There was something in the exotic I liked about it," she says. "That doesn’t mean I don’t do anything that’s not Asian, but it’s in the DNA. It’s an iconic thing and it’s become a strong point. You look from far away and say, ‘That’s Natori.’"A self-described shopaholic, Natori has acquired hundreds — possibly thousands — of pieces through the years that now make up her inspiration archive. She took WWD through a small portion of it in mid-August, but reveals there are "other cabinets in other rooms," items in her warehouse and even more in her Manhattan and Paris apartments.She revisits the archive on a seasonal basis and encourages her employees to do the same — if ever they ask to buy new fabrics and prints, Natori first points them in the direction of the archive. "It is clearly to me one of our biggest assets," she says. "When our licensees come, they go bananas. When you think about people today, they sell you a paper print for $600. Give me a break — I have the original."She's a bit overwhelmed by what she perceives to be the archive's disorganization — to an outsider, it appears the opposite — but perhaps it's the sheer volume that causes her anxiety."Sometimes I worry so much if something should happen to me," she says. "I feel like I’m not taking care of it the way I should, but organizing the archive is such an undertaking." She's hired a museum expert to restore some of the items, mainly the most valuable ones, which live on the walls of her apartment. Her all-time favorite is a print with 5,000 Buddhas — "each one different from the next" — all in gold thread."Can’t buy everything, but you know, it’s been fun," she says. "It’s not over yet." A shopaholic through and through.
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