Founder and CEO JOSIE NATORI on fashioning a global empire, how the arts is a country’s soul, and her passion for philanthropy.
Sophisticated vegan leather ensembles instantly shoppable via livestream, “healthwear” scrubs made out of functional yet supple fabrics, and athleisure perfect for stylish ladies doing pilates on the Upper East Side – these are not the first things that would come to mind when one hears the brand Natori.
But the label, founded by banker-turned-fashion-designer Josie Natori in 1977, has long surpassed its origins as a luxe loungewear company. In fact, after 45 years in the business they have successfully transitioned into a global lifestyle empire, diversifying with fine jewelry, home decor, swimwear, menswear, shoes, pet wear, and according to Natori herself come Spring 2023, childrenswear too.
But this is not to say that the company has changed, or that their line of hand-embroidered caftans, impossibly chic Chinoiserie-printed silk kimonos, or second skin lace brassieres aren’t the best in the market. But rather, as Josie Natori talks to Lifestyle Asia, it was really just about expanding her vision and her aesthetic to encompass every aspect of a woman’s being.
“Today, I think it’s a way of dressing, a way of life. Natori is translating art into life. That is my philosophy. So, to me you can be artful from head to toe, from the inside out, and in what you live around,” she says. And, it’s really easy see how the sumptuous motifs that have transformed the designer’s creations into artistic canvasses would be just as desirable in one’s abode, or one’s jewelry box.
EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE
It seems everything Natori touches exudes an understated opulence and a rich exoticism, stemming from a life filled with wonder, adventure and style. “I inherited from my mother the love for beautiful things. While shopping all around the world – from souks to flea markets – I’m always on the hunt for something beautiful,” shares the globetrotting fashionista, whose modern pieces often reference the vintage kimonos and fabrics, Oriental antiques, and delicate porcelains she collects.
And while the marriage of East and West has long been a recurring theme in fashion, Natori’s sensual yet eclectic take has an air of authenticity. Having moved from the Philippines to the United States to study at the age of 17, and eventually starting a family, this fusion of worlds is her lived experience.
“I understand the balance of both – the practicality of the West with the exoticism of the East. Where you can apply them or combine them together, that would give them a more distinct feel. And I think that Eastern heritage has become what I would say the defining thing for the Natori brand, and from far away you would know that it’s our print, and our embroideries. And they’re all inspired form this amazing trove of treasures that I have accumulated over the years,” she elaborates.
Naturally, the process from inspiration to a finished garment is a long and winding road, and is where the designer’s skill and imagination come through. “It’s not something that you look at in the museum, that you can’t wear. [It’s about] being able to interpret them for today,” she shares.
This immediately recognizable visual identity is clearly an asset for the brand, emerging absolutely refreshed through countless reincarnations of silhouettes and patterns. It appears as a gold dragon embroidered mid- flight on a couture silk caftan for her premium Josie Natori line, or as peonies blooming on day dresses that take you from brunch to the boardroom for her prêt-à-porter Natori line.
There’s a timelessness to the designer’s aesthetic, somehow au courant and yet unfettered by trends. This intrinsic beauty is indeed sublimely translated into all her creations, and hints at the more emotional side of getting dressed. “Natori is about products that make you feel good, about always giving newness. It’s about glamour 24/7. She puts it on, and she wears it, and lives in it. It’s a reward, a gift to herself,” she declares.
A STYLISH SUCCESS
“There are not too many brands that are number one, women-owned, led by women, and also privately held,” Natori proudly shares. And having done this for decades in the highly-competitive fashion industry, and starting in the ‘70s no less, is truly no easy feat.
One can perhaps credit that while Natori is an artist at heart, she has always had a good head on her shoulders. She’s highly appreciative of her background in finance as well as being raised by a family of entrepreneurs. “I approach fashion and the industry I went in as a business. It wasn’t some kind of hobby,” she conveys.
Clearly also inheriting that gene is her son Kenneth, who joined the firm 14 years ago after, like his mother, doing a stint on Wall Street. “He was able to bring so many things that has really transformed the company, like our e-commerce business in 2008,” which she notes was such a savior during the lockdowns.
It’s a good balance according to Natori, having her son around, who currently serves as President of the company. “I really focus on the creative and marketing, and Kenneth gets involved a lot in the operations, strategies and forging new ideas,” she communicates.
Aside from being an astute businesswoman like his mother, Kenneth is keen on connecting with Natori’s newer clients, a generation that lives a huge chunk of their lives online. Natori declares, “He just did a metaverse thing for Natori, with Roblox. And now he’s started livestreaming on our website every week. It’s really good, and again he can take it to the next level.”
And he is taking all of this in stride, exuding the same passion as his mother when talking about their brand. He chats animatedly with a guest influencer during one of their livestreams, talking about how stylish, comfortable and versatile all the clothes are. Then he asks, “But how does itfeel?,” expertly drawing our attention to the fact that for the Natori brand, the fabrics are just as important as the fashion.
Having begun as an intimates company, Natori is an expert and a huge advocate on the importance not only of beauty, but of comfort through good design and superior- quality fabrications. “If you really care about yourself, that to me should be the most luxurious thing, what touches your body. And it’s the closest thing to you skin,” she says of her belief that women should always wear amazing lingerie, and clothes too.
“And we’ve touched women,” she continues, her statement perhaps referring not only to the physical sense, but also the emotional one. “Our bras, [they’re] actually the best- selling designer bra in the United States,” noting how a well- considered combination of amazing construction, comfort,and softness have made these brassieres so loved. “You will feel feminine. You will feel bulletproof” she shares. With such an irresistible combination, it’s no wonder even Lady Gaga herself is a fan, spotted in black lace Natori number at a Grammy’s after party a couple of years back.
The firm is equally committed to sustainable practices, incorporating eco-friendly options like Supima cotton, bamboo viscose, as well as other biodegradable and eco-friendly textiles. The fact that they’re breathable, soft, and will last years, make them an even wiser investment.
The Natori company’s commitment to sustainability extends well into their production processes, and is something the company has instinctively done by engaging in good labor practices, and employing a lot of women. “We’ve had the factory for 42 years. So our people really grew up here, have worked here for decades and [we] take pride in the quality and the craftsmanship here,” she shares.
From their factory in Pasig emerge 70% of all the apparel the company makes, and is where Natori has her main sampling team, that coordinates with her design team in New York. The designer herself recognizes how their atelier has been integral in building, and differentiating the brand. “To me without the factory there would be no Natori. I think it’s really been the foundation of what has made us unique in terms of products,” she elaborates,expressing how the excellence, innovation, and creativity that has come out of their workshop is truly beyond compare.
PASSION, PURPOSE, PHILANTHROPY
Apart from being an accomplished designer and businesswoman, Natori is equally passionate about philanthropy and sits on the board of many charities. She is the Vice-Chair of the Asian Cultural Council, which raises funds to support the arts and promote Eastern culture. “I think we have probably given Apart from being an accomplished designer and businesswoman, Natori is equally passionate about philanthropy and sits on the board of many charities. She is the Vice-Chair of the Asian Cultural Council, which raises funds to support the arts and promote Eastern culture. “I think we have probably given grants to over 400 Filipino artists over the years,” she recalls, among their other endeavors.
The Filipino-American is also active with the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, to recognize the contribution and value of immigrants and support worthwhile causes. She is likewise on the board of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, working to raise funds and give free music education in New York. An accomplished pianist, the virtuoso also once played an entire concert at Carnegie Hall with this amazing orchestra.
Natori has also been immensely active in supporting Filipino creatives over the years. “I think I would say the arts is my biggest focus, because I feel that’s the soul of this country,” she shares. Back in 1998, she started the highly respected Fashion Design Council of the Philippines. “It was just this idea of an organization where the designers can be together, and be a voice [in] the industry. And I’m very proud that it still exists today,” she shares.
Despite various accolades, her ultimate goal is to give back. “I hope I’ve made a little difference, like when I employ people. But even more, I’ve always said that I don’t want to be remembered for fashion. To me, if I were to be remembered, it would be because I made a difference in people’s lives.”
A GLOBAL VISION
The Natori brand is indeed an ode to the founder’s roots, and a way to share our culture with the world. “I’ve always believed in the talent in this country,” the designer shares, talking both about her own team of artisans, as well as the crop of emerging young talent.
“I always flaunted that I was from the Philippines. I’ve taken pride in that, and I’m the biggest supporter of [our] creativity and craftsmanship. I am proud that we built a brand that is global in appeal, that people will pay thousands of dollars for, because it’s unique and I’m proud that it’s made in the Philippines,” she continues.
She’s grateful to have found a good partner in Rustan’s, which has carried her line for more than two decades. Moving forward, she’s working on expanding their product lines and expanding globally, and to really share the amazing Natori lifestyle with the world.
Photos by NATORI.