Kumiko Inaba: My Life Is Outdoors
Portrait _ James Oliver
Photography _ Kumiko Inaba
Writer _ Rie Arima
It was in a tiny studio flat that doubled as retaW’s office where I first crossed paths with Kumiko Inaba. She was introduced to me as ‘Qoo from Fragment,’ and as soon as she spoke, she gave off an air of honesty – an impression which has stayed with me to this very day.
After spending time in the UK in the early ‘90s, and with her heart firmly set on working in an industry she loves, Qoo returned to Japan and joined Burton Snowboards. She progressed to Creative Manager of Marketing at Burton, which eventually led to her meeting Hiroshi Fujiwara and in turn joining Fragment. In terms of her work, she is now indispensable to Hiroshi. But their relationship runs much deeper than just work. They are like family, enjoying regular snowboard trips in the winter and a bond that makes me almost envious. Outside of work she is as active they come, and when most people think of Qoo, they think of the mountains – which is where she spends almost every spare minute. On a more personal level, she has saved me more times than I can remember, and whenever I’m struggling – with or without good reason – I always end up at her house. I recall one such occasion that I think really encapsulates Qoo. I was at the lowest point of my life, so, of course, I went over to her place. She put on The Rocky Horror Picture Show and we got so into it that I forgot all about my problems and realised that I had nothing to worry about. Just like that, she had saved me once again.
When I was asked to interview Qoo, I thought it would be a great chance to get to know more about her and her passion for the great outdoors.
Which mountains have you visited recently?
I usually visit the Northern Japanese Alps – the world of Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book.
Do you climb the same mountains over and over again?
A mountain is not always the same, even if it is the same mountain. Everything changes if you climb the mountain from a different starting point. No matter how many times I visit my favourite mountain, it is always great.
I like to climb early in the morning before sunrise, at about 5am when there are no tourists.
I can usually be found frantically pressing the shutter button of my camera. I can never find the perfect shot, but all of my thoughts and feelings go into each and every one of them.
What kind of things are on your mind while you’re climbing?
Nothing but the moment. I’m simply taking in the experience. I don’t particularly think about life away from the mountain – I can’t.
Of course there are times when business emails are weighing on my mind, but I let it all go along with my cell phone signal as soon as I reach the mountains. I am, however, constantly thinking about the weather. Climbing is very dependent on the weather.
Leaving the mountains and come back to Tokyo, isn’t it disappointing heading back to reality?
It could be disappointing or discouraging to some extent, but I’m already making plans for my next trip on my way back. It’s actually a time I really enjoy, thinking, ‘where shall I go next?’ I always have my schedule more or less planned for the following 3 months, so it’s terrible when the weather turns on me. I don’t go to the mountains on rainy days, so when I’m forced to cancel because of the rain I usually take walks around various places. I don’t like staying at home very much. I always want to be finding something interesting, beautiful, delicious and fun.
What are your thoughts on outdoor fashion?
In recent years, mountain climbing has become hugely popular, and many stylish yet highly functional outfits have emerged. It’s not even strange to see them being worn just for fashion these days. I’m definitely more into classic mountain fashion, but I couldn’t possibly wear my mountain gear in town. [After showing me a photo of her in the mountains, I was surprised to see Qoo wearing a wool sweater, beret, wool knickerbockers, argyle-patterned high socks and climbing shoes.]
Why do you stick to such classic mountainwear?
The fashionable and high-tech outfits available now are great, but for me, wool is warm and functional enough. Cotton becomes cold when it’s wet from sweat, but somehow wool doesn’t. Wool also has exceptional thermal qualities. The reason for my style is probably because it was the only one I knew, from looking at my father’s style when he took me to the mountains as a kid. I know all about the latest high-tech goods as I’m in the industry, but my personal choices have never changed. Knickerbockers are made from sensible patterns that suit mountaineering – they provide comfort of movement when climbing and descending the mountain. Regarding the argyle-patterned socks, I guess it comes from the fact that mountaineering was popular in the UK and it is a familiar look for long-time climbers. Speaking of which, I actually saw the memorial plaque for British mountaineer Walter Weston on a recent climb in Kamikochi.
You look in great shape. Have you always been into climbing?
Back in the day, there was a time when instead of spending my time in the mountains, I would spend my time out on the town. It was the ‘80s, and working in the apparel industry at that time meant plenty of nights out. This led to both an unhealthy lifestyle and an unhealthy image – something that was classed as the ‘in thing’ back then.
During that period, there was no way anyone would say, ‘I like mountaineering.’ Everyone’s skin was much fairer and nobody wanted a suntan. Lips were painted bold shades of red instead of natural pinks, and outfits were very loud and over the top. Just as I was running out of patience and longing for the mountains, Madonna took the world by storm with her muscular figure, and it made me realise, ‘Oh, it’s okay to be healthy! Being fit is cool!’ This helped me gradually get back into the outdoors. If it wasn’t for Madonna, maybe I wouldn’t be so healthy now [laughs]!
Were you nervous when you first joined fragment design?
Of course. I was nervous every day. I thought it would be similar to what I had been doing at Burton, but it was totally different. Above all, Hiroshi’s presence was too much for me. To be honest, even now, I sometimes wonder if I’m good enough to be here. It’s been 10 years working with Hiroshi, but I still feel what I do is insufficient at times. Every day is still a lesson for me.
[After interviewing Qoo, I had the chance to sit down with Hiroshi Fujiwara for a quick chat.]
What is your impression of Qoo?
It’s good. She is frank and lovely, and I think she is very cute – both inside and out.
Who is she to you?
She is the most important person for me. She makes sense of what I’m thinking and what I’m trying to do before even I can.
When I talk with her, I’m subconsciously working and doing so at her pace. She is a person with mysterious powers. When we’re together outside of work, we’re working, and we’re together at work, we’re playing. She’s neither a secretary nor a manager. It’s nothing like that. She is a member of fragment design.