Louise Frère-Smith is the creative talent behind Mizu-Usagi, and makes unique tote bags and accessories out of vintage Japanese kimonos. Here, the zero waste advocate explains how she’s putting her products on the map again after a period of ill health and shielding
My life has been a real adventure. I am a curious person so as soon as my life gets too settled or routine, I start looking for a new challenge or adventure. So, I would say that my life has had its fair share of challenges good and bad but the people I have met and the experiences I have had I wouldn’t change. So, so far I have very few regrets.
Whilst living in Tokyo I started buying Japanese Kimonos and Obi (belt) at markets and recycle shops because I loved the colours, designs and whole Kimono wearing culture. Then friends started giving them to me instead of discarding them or taking them to the recycle shop.
As my collection grew, I wanted to do something with them instead of just storing them away in the cupboard. I used to do dressmaking in my early twenties but hadn’t done any for more than 10 years. I didn’t want to do dressmaking again so I thought I would make bags – tote bags. They are simple in design and because of the beauty of the fabric the bag is better if it is simple. I had never made bags before or sewn with the Kimono fabric.
I remember when I sat at my dining room table and unpicked my first kimono, I was in awe of the fact that it was all hand sewn and how much fabric there was for me to use from just one kimono.
I started by making bags for friends and family on a table in my bedroom, but the finishing was not to a very high standard. So, one summer whilst in the UK I did an intensive course at The London College of Fashion, which was way out of my league, but I really enjoyed it. Then on my return to Tokyo I took regular lessons at The Sewing Circle in Oyamadai with Melanie Uematsu. It was here that my skill went from hobbyist to professional. As demand grew, I decided to build an online shop so that I could spread the word. This was when Mizu-Usagi was founded in 2017 in Tokyo.
The thinking behind it is to create beautiful, high-quality products created from upcycled Japanese textiles which otherwise would be forgotten about or discarded. Therefore, contributing to a more sustainable lifestyle and zero waste.
All of my kimonos and obis are sourced in Japan. Because of the pandemic I have not been able to visit Japan recently, but I have a buyer there who keeps me well stocked.
Upcycling is very important to me. I’ve always bought second-hand furniture and done it up the same with clothes I have always had a mix of new and recycled clothes in my wardrobe. And I hate throwing things away. I am not a hoarder, but I will always try to find another home for something or reuse/upcycle it if I can. It’s fun and we can be so creative with all the different materials that otherwise would be wasted. We all need to do our bit now for the environment and shop responsibly.
At the start of the pandemic, I had been ill for nearly a year and had put the business on hold so that I could focus on my health and recovery. I was looking forward to getting started again and then the first lockdown came.
Being classed as extremely clinically vulnerable I was shielding at home for a further six months alone which wasn’t fun. I had just moved into a new place, so I decided to set about unpacking and getting settled. So, it wasn’t until this summer that I started the business really running again. I thought I would stay local and focus on outdoor events first. It has been a great summer. I have done markets and pop-ups around Norwich, and I had a regular spot at Holt Sunday Market which has really helped me get on the map again.
In the New Year I plan to have a wider range of products available to purchase online. Also, I am working on creating a new collection for the home. I have already released some cushions and coasters but plan to expand on that. I am also looking to increase our pop-ups too!
Mizu-Usagi can also be found at the following events:
Pop-up at Sustainability Station, Norwich – until October 31
Winter Fair, Back to the Garden, Letheringsett – on November 27 and 28
Global Village Christmas Market at The Forum, Norwich – on December 3 and 4
Holt Sunday Market on December 5
Pop-up at Studio20, 20 Wensum Street, Norwich – from December 14 to 17
Pop-up at Frasers Yard, Holt – from December 21 to 24