Most people think Bikudesigns is all about colourful and fun fashion jewellery and products based around retro Japan. They'd be right, but it's not all it is and it's definitely not what this brand started out as. There are so many evolutions, side-bars and seemingly (at the time) dead-ends.
THE EARLY EARLY DAYS
I'd always been obsessed with British charity shops (thrift stores) and the Elite dress agency in Manchester city centre, in particular. I bought most of my wardrobe from those two places in the 1980s and early 90s because I realised that I could buy better quality items for much less than the high street. Also, I loved having stuff that nobody else could find and I had zero guilt when adapting items of clothing.
At this time I was also searching for vintage mid-century beads to upcycle into fashion jewellery. I would trawl the charity shops, buy strings of 1950s glass and pearl beads, cut them up, wash them and then painstakingly sort them into bead trays before wire-wrapping them into new jewellery, even wedding headdresses. In this period I was selling my pieces in-person at school fairs and to friends and family. It was a small operation and was really pocket money to fund my vintage obsession.
The mottainai (the regret of waste) was deep within me back then, in fact, it had been there from being a small child. From unwrapping Christmas and birthday gifts with such care so I could reuse the paper for other projects, saving bows and ribbons, building models from recycled materials and never throwing away a greeting card or a box. (By the way, I haven’t changed one bit.)
HOW I ENDED UP IN JAPAN
Once I'd finished my degree (Human Studies- Philosophy and English) and then my teaching qualification I found myself in Japan working on the JET program. It was all a bit surprising how that happened.
I had no interest in Japan initially, and just went along to a JET (Japan Exchange Teaching) recruitment talk with my friend. The slideshow (yes, I'm old) captivated me and I applied on the spot. (She didn't, funnily enough...) I half expected not to get a place, but I was called to the Japanese embassy in London for an interview, still thinking there was no way I'd get in. But before I knew it, I had a visa and was having welcome drinks back at the embassy, ready to start my decades long relationship with Japan.
One year living in Saitama (a prefecture next to Tokyo) and 'real life' beckoned. I felt like I'd had my delayed gap year, with money in the bank to travel home and some savings to spare. Six months more travelling through SE Asia and South America and I was back on home turf.
It wasn't long before I got a teaching job and 'settled' into UK life. Only I wasn't settled at all. Far from it. Taking a night class in precious metal jewellery making was my only escape at that time and I desperately missed being in Japan. I missed the food, the weather, the excitement, but most of all the beauty I found everywhere I looked. Japan felt so inspiring to me, fascinating juxtapositions of the old and new, modern and traditional...so I set my sights on returning, but this time as a professional teacher.
BACK TO JAPAN
I was thrilled to get a position at an international school in Tokyo in 1998 where I stayed until my daughter was born in 2010. Throughout those years I studied 1:1 with a lovely Japanese jewellery designer in the old post-war 'dojunkai' buildings (which is now the swanky Omotesando Hills). Every Tuesday after work I would climb the grimy stairway to her studio, which was a 12 mat room with a kitchen area and bathroom, and sit with her and learn the Japanese way of jewellery. I did everything manually back then. Filing, polishing, chasing...casting came right at the end of my studies with her, almost as if cast jewellery was cheating.
Wanting to take my jewellery skills further in the classical/ ancient and commercial techniques, I took summer schools in New York for three summers (Jewelry Arts Institute and Studio Jewelers) and was an Artist in Residence in Sydney, Australia.
BIKUDESIGNS IS LAUNCHED
In around 2008, the first iteration of Bikudesigns was born...as a contemporary silver jewellery brand. Modern shapes, textures and mostly using silver and some stones with the occasional pop of gold. It was precious metals and semi-precious stones that powered the Biku brand back then. Wire-wrapped gems, stamped metal, matte and oxidised finishes. Bold rings and delicate necklaces were the order of the day with a slight nod to the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and evocative of the natural landscape of Japan.
Looking back this was a frustrating time. I had the knowledge, the skills, the finances, the studio and equipment to make what I wanted. The sketchbooks were filled with ideas of full collections, but I didn't have much time or understanding of the practical side of marketing a business. It was a 'field of dreams' business at that time; if I make it, they will come. But they didn't really come. Not online anyway.
TAKING A BREAK FROM JEWELLERY
In 2005 I started Ikebana lessons, and ended up as an Ikebana teacher by 2010.
Between 2010 and 2012 was a period I now call the ‘mum blur years’. Jewellery was put on the back burner as the noxious fumes, noise and dust are not good to have around babies. I craved something creative to do that would fit around the kids. At this time I taught ikebana and set up The Craft Space, a monthly pop-up craft event where I would teach craft skills with wine. It was like a night out for me, even though it was still work.
The vintage kimono experiments began during this time, mostly kimono combined with resin. Bikudesigns was relaunched (very softly) as a vintage kimono fashion jewellery brand and by 2016, when my youngest went to nursery, it became my full-time job.
THE NEXT STAGE
I’m now back at the silver jewellery bench! The tools have been organised, the desk polished and I’ve now added a new material to the business; precious metal clay. I’m combining metal clay techniques to bring textural elements to my work, and combining them with the fabrication techniques I used before.
My new collection is based around a small Sakura branch that survived the triple disaster of 2011 (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown). The little tree’s endurance and resilience felt so poignant to me at the time and still does today, so much so that I wanted to capture its essence during different seasons over the course of a year. What you see today in the Sakura collection is a tiny snapshot of Spring, Summer and Autumn/Winter as displayed by the tree.
I’m not sure what the future of Biku is. Will it be stepping more into silver, combining silver and kimono, teaching more small business classes or jewellery workshops or all of the above?
It feels like everything in my current business combines everything I did before this point. It’s as if all the avenues I chose to take have been leading up to this destination. What didn’t make sense back then, now feels like it was meant to be.
1980s: Fashion jewellery made from recycled mid-century beads and other vintage materials (side business)
1990s/ Early 2000s: Training in precious metal jewellery in UK, USA and Japan
2008: Bikudesigns launched as a contemporary silver brand on Etsy (side business)
2005-10: Trained as Sogetsu ikebana teacher (Japanese flower arranging)
2010-2014- Motherhood blur! Teaching ikebana.
2014-15: Experiments in kimono began.
Kimono jewellery line soft launch (side business) The Craft Space workshops.
2016: Bikudesigns becomes a full-time business
2019: Small business workshops launched.
2020: Overseas Makers Guild is launched.
2022: Return to precious metals.
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I was expecting Zoshigaya to be bustling, if not completely rammed, on the Thursday of Golden Week. But it was quiet, relaxing and a surprisingly green oasis away from the busyness of Ikebukuro (which is apparently the second most busy station in the world after Shinjuku). Life in this area somehow feels a little slower compared to my bustling town of Shimokitazawa.
Zoshigaya is not a place I'd ever been to before. I actually had no idea that it was even there, although I do vaguely remember hearing about it from creative friends. I was expecting yet another concreted area of the city with generic buildings and chain stores, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Retro vibes abound, sympathetic renovations of gorgeously historical buildings, no clearing the way for modernism in this small neighbourhood. Thank goodness.
If you’re coming from Ikebukuro, Zoshigaya is around a 10-15 minute walk from Ikebukuro central on the Yamanote/ Saikyo/ Fukutoshin/ Morunouchi lines or a 3 minute walk from Zoshigaya Station (Fukutoshin Line).
I recommend getting off at Zoshigaya on the Fukutoshin line (around 20 mins from Shibuya) Exit 3. Take a left out of the station, cross over the train line on your right and walk a little ahead. To the right you’ll see a Zelkova-lined avenue (around 3 minutes from the station).
I wandered through this shady road and stopped for a delicious iced coffee at Kiazuma Coffee, a beautifully rustic, renovated Japanese shop house with the cutest second floor accessed up a ladder-esque set of stairs. The speciality beans are ground as your coffee is ordered. It doesn’t get fresher, or tastier.
The main reason for visiting Zoshigaya was to meet up with Ken Tanaka (@kenfrog), a Fukuoka-born artist, who was exhibiting in Kiazuma coffee shop.
Ken’s circular works on canvas are mesmerising and are all hand-drawn in pen without a plan. I love the idea of meditative drawing and Ken is such an interesting artist I really wanted to meet him in person. The canvas I was hoping to buy had already been sold, so I commissioned one for my birthday gift (which I can’t wait to receive).
I'm Victoria, the founder, designer and creator at Bikudesigns, a vintage kimono accessories brand in Tokyo, Japan.