Stacey Oku Talks Designing Yara Shahidi’s Optical Illusion Earrings & Dangers Of Cultural Appropriation
Actress Yara Shahidi doesn’t just wear anything. So, when she wears anything, you pay attention. That also goes for her equally fabulous Grown-ish character, Zoey Johnson, who studies fashion on the hit Freeform series. What Yara and Zoey put on is an even bigger deal when you’re the artisan who handcrafted it with love, packaged it just so, and then shipped it off with high hopes of seeing the design make a silver screen debut.
Such is the case for Stacey Oku, a Japanese-American jewelry designer who spotted Shahidi wearing the What earrings ($80) from her Mas & Nobu brand while scrolling on Instagram. Oku knew her celebrity stylist friend Omar Berumen worked for the show. And of course, she hadn’t forgotten that he’d requested the earrings from her, received them, presented them to his boss and notified her that they would indeed be featured on Grown-ish.
Still, it didn’t get really real until Yara herself sported them while catching the light and throwing up the peace sign in a series of Instagram selfies.
“I was just like ‘Is this real?’ because it was a really nice surprise,” Oku told us. “It was total validation. And they looked so good on her, too. I am thrilled!”
Made with linen texture paper and a shape inspired by sensu fans that belonged to one of Oku’s grandmothers, her “lenticular earrings” or “origami couture” pieces offer optical illusions and statements that she hopes will start conversations.
“I’ve always been on the shy side,” Oku reveals. “I love fashion, style and creating looks. Often, I would go out and my look would speak for itself and start conversations for me. People would stop me. The earrings, I hope, will help people who are similar.”
On the outside of each earring lies a captivating image or phrase while the inside reads, “Change perspective.” As much as Oku intends for her handcrafted ear decor to start conversations for the wearers, these earrings are also a dialogue between Oku and the world. For Oku, her origami couture is the perfect mash-up to express an identity she was once on a quest to better understand.
“I don’t speak Japanese. There are people who are not Japanese who speak better Japanese than I do,” she quips.
“I went to Japan about 12 years ago and I had these mixed feelings of being so separate from the culture but also feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I understand the way I am.’ As an American girl, [the earrings] are really this true story of what it is to be Japanese American and [to] be fourth generation. I’m the product of these two different cultures mixing together. The fan earrings really represent that. They bring in so much of what I would love to see in fashion, which is something that is engaging, that sparks conversation and that is meaningful.”
The Mas & Nobu brand name pays tribute to both of her Japanese grandmothers. Mas moved to California from Okinawa and knew no English, but learned Spanish and opened up her own barbershop.
Nobu was a fashionista who loved designing clothes for her family and worked as a seamstress, against the wishes of a conservative husband who preferred she stay at home. Fun fact: Nobu helped to dress the iconic Audrey Hepburn in a kimono while the actress was Los Angeles.
Translation? Oku comes from a line of badass women who took different risks to push their creativity to its greatest potential. Having saved up and quit her marketing job to craft earrings full-time, Oku is taking a huge risk of her own. Is she concerned at all about the future of her business? A little, but not about what you think.
As more people discover her earrings, Oku hopes they will be conscious of how they incorporate the designs into daily wear. On Oku’s behalf, let’s establish a few house rules, shall we? Do allow these gorgeous earrings to push you into trying bolder colors, more dramatic garments or funkier hairstyles. If all else fails, the classic T-shirt and jeans combo also works. Don’t slip into a cheongsam (wrong culture) or a kimono (right culture, not for you though) or anything else you consider to be “peak” Asian.
We live in the best and worst of times when Asian cultures are both fetishized and celebrated. It’s a time when Dolce & Gabbana is being called out for racist depictions of Chinese culture, but also when Hollywood has finally churned out hit films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, making more Asian Americans feel seen in theaters and proving that, yes, the world is much better when every storyline doesn’t center white people. When our world has many more strides to go before people of color see themselves represented in every artistic field.
As the zeitgeist rages on, Oku creates her origami couture pieces that outsiders can take — not as appropriation but as authentic appreciation. In other words, you get to invite an artifact of Oku’s heritage into your jewelry boxes without being trash and while putting money in the pockets of a woman of color who tells her own story in the form of fashion and art.
Oku once believed no one outside of herself would care about these big, bold, out there lenticular earrings. But she wore them out one day and people stopped her to compliment them. She sold a pair to a customer who told her they inspired her to “create again.” And she sent them to a stylist who put them on Yara Shahidi — the star of a show that regularly grapples with identity, authenticity and creativity. And by the way, Shahidi also embraces her own dual identity as an Iranian and African-American.
Most importantly, Oku showed the lenticular earrings to her mom, whose eyes spilled proud, happy tears. Would the original Mas & Nobu be proud also? “They would be flipping out over what I’m doing now,” Oku muses with bubbles in her voice.
Doesn’t get any more “for the culture” than that, right?