the nyc illustrator behind miu miu's spooky spring prints
Eri Wakiyama’s hair is a James Turrell-ish carousel of neon hues, but it’s her whispy watercolor illustrations that caught Prada’s eye.
When Eri Wakiyama swings by our office after hours on a Friday, a party is happening. Though she's arrived straight from her day job as a visual merchandiser, she looks right at home amidst birthday cake carnage and beer bottles. An enormous Stussy hoodie envelopes the hot pink, ruffled, ribboned, tutu trousers she paired it with. It's difficult to determine whether she knicked the pants from a Dolly Parton impersonator or they walked straight off Miu Miu's spring/summer 16 runway. The latter is entirely possible, and not simply because the season was full of brightly colored tulle shirts fashioned with similarly frilly trim. But because Eri illustrated three of the collection's prints.
Eri was born in Japan, but raised in Northern California by "the strictest Japanese people you'll ever meet," she tells me as the party dies down. She learned to draw well before she could speak English and spent much of her early life negotiating a space between the "mumbo jumbo" of her traditional Japanese upbringing and blossoming American friendships. But by middle school, Eri developed a stronger sense of self -- an identity in which fashion played an integral part: "I knew myself and my style and I was pretty secure in it," she says. "Fashion was my comfort zone, my safe zone."
When it came time to apply for college, Eri took a page straight out of the creative kid playbook: pull a fast one and secretly apply to Parsons. "Where I grew up was super nerded out; there's such a tech culture that didn't really value artistic creativity. Even though you're often told to follow your dreams, in that kind of environment, those dreams are expected to fall in line with everyone else's," she explains. Without ever visiting New York, she packed up and undertook one of the country's most demanding design courses.
Eri didn't major in illustration, but the skills she developed by pursuing fashion design strengthened her eye, and consequently, her drawings. "Once I became aware of why I liked what I was seeing on the runway, I started making my own kind of character," she says of her waify gang of chain smoking floral freaks. "I was always envious of my photography friends who produced amazing editorials. But my drawings became my way of presenting my girls."
Although she often illustrates her cliques fully kitted in Comme or Céline, Eri draws inspiration from even the tiniest touches. "It's a pretty intuitive process. I'll see something and if I find myself saying 'I fucking want that thing!' I'll incorporate it," she says. "I use accessories as you would another media. Say someone's painting and they choose to add blue; I add a Fendi furball."
But back to those girls. As we speak, it becomes clear that community truly is at the heart of Eri's creative practice off the page, too. Throughout high school, she gradually began sharing her drawings on a pre-Instagram, post-Xanga digital diary before tightening up her output on Tumblr and collaborating with peers who launched online magazines. Eventually, she and a few friends staged her first solo show, I See You, at a gallery space on Kenmare St two years back. "After working in the fashion industry for so long, you meet so many people who are down to collaborate. I'm all about word of mouth introductions and things happening naturally as opposed to trying to chase stuff down," she explains. Fitting, as that's precisely the way her Miu Miu collaboration was born.
She's still not sure exactly how, but Belgian super stylist Olivier Rizzo discovered her work and shared a few of her drawings with Mrs. Prada. The brand produced prints featuring three of Eri's illustrations -- waxy candles, flickering lighters, and wilting flowers -- which dotted a series of ankle length frocks. The trio forms a tight tribe of the collection's larger story, but Eri assures the process was "very open." "I didn't get any inspiration notes about what the collection was going to be about. I gave them a lot and we just kept narrowing it down until they found what they wanted to use," she explains.
The post Prada bubble hasn't quite popped yet ( "Everyone's congratulating me like it's my birthday. I still can't believe it!" she adorably interjects) but Eri wants to use the boost to discover more diverse opportunities. "Kaws remade the MTV Moonman and Murakami made work for Kanye's album: all little different spheres and worlds are colliding. I like that idea of unexpected partnerships." But as always, she'll be taking on these new challenges with a little help from friends: "At the end of the day, it's you that has to get your shit together and make things happen, but I realized that your support system is equally as important," Eri says. "All the vibes that I get from the people I work with -- that's what I'm feeling right now. I'm on a high."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Mitchell Sams
Illustrations Eri Wakiyama