Yoko Katz: Making a difference for breast cancer survivors through fashion
Our women designers series is an on-going project to highlight innovative designers across the world that incorporate YKK® products into their unique creations.
Yoko Katz, a breast cancer survivor of 5 years, is on a mission to make a difference in the fashion industry for cancer survivors. Her personal journey through cancer treatment led her to develop a post-mastectomy blouse called the Relaxip™ (relax+zip) to ease the recovering process for patients. In late September 2019, Yoko discovered a recurrence of cancer and is determined to fight once again. In this interview Yoko shares how her journey fighting cancer led her to a new entrepreneurial endeavor.
Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up, your hobbies, where you went to school, etc.
I am an economist who can design and fight against breast cancer! I grew up in Japan up until college where I graduated with a major in economics. I studied abroad in Paris for one year while in college. I started traveling with a backpack around the world during college and went over 30 countries, mostly alone, with a big camera. Encountering new cultures opened me up to new ideas. Traveling makes me more aware of things I don’t know, makes me a curious person, and I find joy in learning them. I wanted to work for international organizations and so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics at The Graduate Center, City University of New York in 2001. In a search of my dissertation topic, I started looking into the fashion industry as I always liked fashion myself. I found no other economists have specialized in that field, so I took it as my specialty in economics. It was an isolated process as there was no other person who had worked in this field in the past. Based on my dissertation, I developed two courses: Fashion Economics and Economics for Fashion Creators at Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT, where I am currently an assistant professor.
What inspired you to start a career in fashion design?
I started my career in fashion design out of my tragic situation and out of necessity. I was struck by breast cancer at the age of 36 in 2014. There was no family history, no gene mutation, I was eating healthy, running 5 days a week, no smoking, and occasional social drinking. Needless to say, it was a shock. Quickly, I learned that I had to go through single mastectomy, egg retrieval, chemotherapy, and reconstruction. It disfigures body parts that people identify as a woman. I was devastated. I was focusing on treatment options, and I cared less about clothing. After the mastectomy surgery, what I did not realize was that I could not raise my arms. I was discharged in two days, and soon, I had to go back to see my doctors for a follow up and to visit egg retrieval specialists. What I did not realize was that putting on a t-shirt was excruciatingly painful. I was crying for my misery, especially, as I was forced to go through this. I also developed panic attacks. My mom, who was with me to help me and my family, gave me a garment she had made up for me. She had cut up her T-shirt and put hook and loop fasteners on the sides and shoulders, and I could wear it with no pain! My doctor was impressed and suggested I should work on developing something similar to it.
“What I did not realize was that putting on a t-shirt was excruciatingly painful.”
Meanwhile, as I searched for meaning in my suffering, I decided to openly document my cancer recovery journey. I chose fashion to help my healing process and I called it Heal in Heels. I dressed from head to toe with turbans and wigs when I went teaching, doctors’ office visits, and chemo treatments. My creativity was to offer the world new images of cancer patients, my blog has photos of all my styles. Other patients wanted to know how to do turbans and coordinate styles including fashionable headwear. I started taking millinery courses at FIT, hoping to come up with product ideas for patients. I have been making and selling hats and I have been a hat designer since then, selling mainly online at www.yokokatz.com.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your career?
My biggest challenge was that I did not know how to design garments for production. I had the great idea of a post-operation mastectomy shirt and a rough design of it but I did not know exactly where and how to start from there. At one semester, as usual, I did a short presentation of awareness of breast cancer at the end of the semester. A student, Ms. Sidney Nobleza, came to talk to me after the presentation. She asked if there were any garments that I did not like in the process of cancer recovery, and my answer was an immediate “YES!” Sidney was looking for a thesis project for her technical design degree and she was willing to work with me to develop designs. We worked on three different garments in the following semester, Spring 2018.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process… What inspires you?
I made my blog into a company, Heal in Heels LLC, and I have a business partner, Ms. Masayo Kawanishi. The ultimate goal of the brand is to create products that are functional and stylish for the bodies of cancer patients or other body conditions. I would like to eliminate a border between fashionable people and patients. My inspiration comes from an open-minded attitude, just like I learned in traveling around the world and picking up the dissertation topic, toward new concepts. Our garment has functions that serve areas that people suffer in daily life routine. For example, Relaxip™ (made up word of relax+zip), a patient can wear it without raising arms. She can also wear it alone at home or at an exam room of a doctor’s office, just open a side zipper, put her head through, then zip up in the side front. This provides normalcy that cancer patients crave and independence of patients. It also includes hidden pockets inside on the side, next to the zippers. A patient has surgical drains attached from the side of the body for about 2 weeks after surgery and the pockets inside can secure them. In terms of the aesthetic, we wanted to have a sporty, casual and comfortable look, with outstanding colored zippers.
“The ultimate goal of the brand is to create products that are functional and stylish for the bodies of cancer patients or other body conditions.”
What is your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in fashion?
As you develop a new brand, seek out collaborations with people with similar aspirations in the industry but in different specialties . Ultimately, for a brand to grow, a designer will need to work with people with other kinds of skills. Make sure to note credits for all the work of others when presenting.
What is your favorite part about being a designer?
When people in need actually use my design and tell me how helpful it was to use and still look fashionable. I believe my product has a message that patients are not alone because this blouse is the reminder that somebody else went through the same pain before them. If my painful experience made them smile in the hardest time, it validates my experience as meaningful. That is very fulfilling as a designer.
“I believe my product has a message that patients are not alone because this blouse is the reminder that somebody else went through the same pain before them.”
What are some of your favorite YKK® products and why do you choose YKK® products?
We love the color selections and the reliability of YKK® zippers. They come in hundreds of colors to chose from, and it is so much fun going through the mix and match with textiles. I would like my customers to be able to zip open and close as smooth as possible, from our past experience with YKK, the YKK® zippers were the first choice for us.
Yoko’s company, Heal in Heels ®, is doing a fundraising campaign for Relaxip™ during the month of Breast Cancer Awareness, October 2019. With the fundraising, Yoko’s goal is to reduce the price of the garment so to reach out to more people in need after mastectomy operation. Visit the GoFundMe page to learn more: https://www.gofundme.com/f/relaxip
***The Relaxip TM blouse is currently patent pending and it’s made in NYC, USA.