FINDING MY DESIGN DNA - AN IMMIGRANT STORY:
Grandma (Laolao) said: "Mimi, lai jie mama de dian hua" (“Mimi, come pick up your mother's call”).
5-year-old me climbed up the stool and picked up the phone call, "Wei, mama?” (“Hello, mama?”)
Shortly after, she asks, "Do you want to come to America?"
I'll never forget how those thoughts raced through my mind: “What is America? I've heard so much about this mei guo, but I don't know what it looks like. Is it like Japan? I missed Japan. It sure sounds like a magical place.”
"Hao a", I replied (“yes”).
In 2005, I landed in JFK. I changed my last name from “Liu” to “Zhao”. I saw blonde hair and blue eyes for the first time. I touched snow for the first time. Fascinated. Eager. Excited. Foreign. Is this a vacation? Am I here to stay?
Do I belong?
For the next 3 years, we carried an electronic dictionary everywhere we went. We got a lot of stares. Not the good kind. I was not happy. I could not fully express myself. I was embarrassed. Frustrated. Anxious. Regardless, I forced myself to smile a lot, because I did not want to say the wrong words in English. I often wondered, “Where are my friends? I want to go home. Home as in China.”
At school, I got laughed at a lot. When I tried to stand up for myself, they couldn't hear me – they could only hear my Chinese accent and my poor pronunciation. Day after day of being mocked, I crawled back into my shell and stopped standing up for the things I believed in. I wanted to fit in at all costs. I wanted to be “American” so badly – to the point that I was embarrassed to speak Chinese, eat Chinese food for lunch, and stand next to my grandparents from China.
I was terrified about how others would perceive me based on my cultural differences, given that so many of those differences had already been turned into mockery.
The stereotypes, my Asian features, Chinese accent, mannerisms – everything was being questioned at age 9.
On the outside, I wanted to fit in. On the inside, I could cry. I missed being me. Who was I and why was I caught in-between these two warring worlds? I promised myself right then and there that no matter where I went in the future, no matter who I found myself with – I would always make them feel safe, secure, and a-part-of.
Today – 15 years later – one of the first things I say when I'm introducing myself is "I was born in Osaka, Japan and I was raised in China". My roots are a part of who I am, and I could not be more proud to be a first generation immigrant. More and more over the years, I have come to realize that everywhere we experience – regardless of whether or not it came about by our own decision – was put in place to serve as a training ground.
I do not believe in coincidences, and I do not believe that you are where you are right now without deeper significance. I strongly believe that our roots play a huge role in our calling, and we have to accept that first. We cannot create our future without examining our past.
I’ve had the privilege of connecting with so many like-minded immigrants who share similar stories, and upon hearing story after story, I grew committed to turning these patterns into art and design – weaving these cultural experiences into apparel.
It’s interesting to look back – I see younger me who thought it was more convenient to run away in fear and follow that which was not me, versus accepting and embracing everything that was me.
We are humans made of both differences and similarities – but the differences are exactly what we must embrace in order to grow. The time has come to not only accept our personal truths but to use our personal platforms to share them with the world, because it is only when we do that that we are truly aligned with our highest selves.
I know this to be true – our paths were meant to cross.
WHAT IS AKKI-LAB?
An ever-changing, heritage-driven brand on a mission to bridge East and West, and empowering YOU to feel confident in sharing YOUR truth.
- Connection First: What's your why & story?
- Passion with Curiosity: Build with a big heart and an open mind
- Lead with Love & Accountability: Be your highest self
- Think BIG, Dive Deep: Embrace the unknown, never stop learning
- Craftsmanship: Create "WOW" moments and experiences
Our Promises to You:
- We will speak from our heart and be transparent
- We will always try our best in delivering the best experience
- We will listen to your story and needs, and see how we can grow together
- We will make sure to provide a safe space for the community to express vulnerability
- We are a brand, but we are also human. We will be accountability partners.
HOW AKKI CAME TO BE:
Hi, I'm AKKI, and AKKI-LAB is something I've wanted to build since I was in third grade.
For the majority of my life, I've felt like an outsider. I want to share my story - I hope this inspires you to share yours, too. We are humans and we crave connection. We crave depth but we also run away from it. I've always known this: when you open up, others open up with you. Comfort and growth can't coexist.
I've never been a good writer, but I'll never forget the time I wrote about overcoming perfectionism as an artist in high school and my English teacher announced that we had one "A" in the class. When my paper got passed back to me, I was in awe. But this was also the event I needed to experience in order to confirm that when I'm passionate about something, there's nothing that will get in my way. Isn't it interesting, how looking forward, we can't see much but looking backwards, everything makes so much sense? When I look back on my journey as an artist, I see countless synchronicities along the way that served as “hints” towards the eventual launch of AKKI-LAB:
Kindergarten in Amagasaki, Japan was full of naps, cold glasses of organic milk, sand-balls, and origami cranes. I spent hours every day perfecting how to make a sand-ball – yes, like a snowball but with sand and water. The second-best part of my day was picking origami paper and making paper cranes. The colors were beautiful, and this was my introduction to graphics, rich prints, shapes, and color combinations. I loved working with my hands, but I disliked socializing. Oddly enough, I loved watching people interact with each other and seeing their emotions. I became obsessed with finding visual patterns around the room.
When I was five years old, I was living in ChongQing, China, I would pull all-nighters drawing. My grandparents grew concerned. They would wake up in the middle of the night and tell me to go to bed. Most of the time, I didn't listen. “Drawing what” you ask? Chickens, eggs, clouds, sun, flowers, grass, the best things I learned in class. As kids, I don't think we were ever conscious of our thoughts — but I has come to recognize that feeling of "flow state" so well. That energy transported me into another world, and in that moment, time froze – it felt as if nothing could stop me from creating something out of my mind.
When I was nine years old, I was living in Framingham, Massachusetts. I was the new girl that barely spoke any English, and I would often escape to my creative outlet. In class, we had a “What do you want to be when you grow up?" assignment, and I drew myself next to a clothing rack. I Google translated "fashion designer" and wrote it down on paper, although the letters didn’t make much sense to me. I doubted myself when I handed that assignment in, and I didn’t truly believe that I would ever actually reach that goal. I look back on this memory fondly, because I often feel that I was unknowingly drawing my future into existence.
Fast-forward to high school and my passion had been rewarded with awards spanning gold, silver, scholastic recognition in mix media, drawing, and painting – but I did not want to be an artist. I had heard of this all too often, especially in the Asian culture – "if you want to be an artist, you will starve on the street". I jumped into graphic design, meanwhile, photographed on the side to capture emotions. I even started a small business of illustrating on canvas shoes, which also drew my future into existence - 8 years later at my first corporate role, I pitched sneaker concepts to global brands i.e Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Puma, etc
When prom came around, I couldn’t find a dress that truly spoke to me and justify spending so much one event, so I asked my grandma to teach me how to sew 2 weeks before, and the rest is history.
I found that I am happiest when 1. I'm connecting deeply with an individual. 2. People can wear my designs to express themselves authentically.
I graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology in 2019 & jumped into the Collaboration/Partnerships side of @Greenhouse / @Footlocker Inc.
AKKI-LAB is an AAPI woman-owned and operated business. I'm currently based in MIA/NYC/Medellin. I love connecting with like-minded creatives & if there's anything I can personally help YOU with, feel free to reach out @0liviazhao.
MY DREAM FOR THE FUTURE:
To be honest, I care about luxury practicality and human connection more than anything. The questions I often ask myself are: “How will this experience, place, person, thing change the way I view life? How will this ____ change the way we feel? How will this ____ expand our souls?”
My dream for AKKI-LAB is to create a safe space for as many souls as I can, not just impacting your closet but your mind – I envision a way of life. I hope to open your mind to larger perspectives and inspire you to adapt to an experimental mindset, creating momentum, and running after your ikigai-inspired reason for being as if it's your last day on this planet.
The ultimate growth mindset is something I believe every single individual can achieve. This is my testimony to shine a light on what is possible. Because everything is possible – we are all humans with the same 24 hours in each day. The mentality of even if there's "no" way, I can still find a way is the difference. The “why” is the difference.
It has been said to "pay attention to what you pay attention to" and you will find your mission.
While growing up in three different countries, I've always paid attention to human behaviors and patterns – the ways people interact with each other and why/how that came to be. I believe that at our core, we are all very similar – we each crave love, attention, and care. Nurture – however – has changed our perspectives, values, and beliefs. I'm fascinated by the effects of our environment and how the things we consume i.e. fashion & design can shape us, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.