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Artist of the Week: Michi Tsuji

Seattle might be notorious for niche coffee shops and scenic waterways, but locals know it's also home to an array of people who love to create. This city is chock-full of artists who we love to feature weekly on Seattle Refined! If you have a local artist in mind that you would like to see featured, let us know at hello@seattlerefined.com. And if you're wondering just what constitutes art, that's the beauty of it; it's up to you! See all of our past Artists of the Week in our dedicated section.

Seattle Refined: What do fashion and style mean to you in terms of art?
Michi Tsuji: Some of my favorite memories from childhood are of having so much fun in grade school, using my imagination to craft and create all sorts of things from empty egg cartons, leftover gift baskets, dried leaves, and anything else we could find. But I've actually never considered myself to be an especially artistic person. Creating was fun, an outlet from all of the structured learning we go through in school.

As I got older, I also realized that my nature — detail-oriented, preference for structure over chaos — really suited what would eventually become a career in accounting. It had been years since I created anything, and I wasn't sure art was "for me" anymore, but the routine of working from home over the last year inspired me to get outside more and get in touch with my creative side again. I just started with no inhibitions or thoughts about whether I was good enough because it was just for me. I realized how much I missed creating things with my hands! In high school art classes, I remember putting so much pressure on myself to create something perfect, but now, art is about creating something meaningful and having fun, and that reflects in my personal style today, too.

I love the attitude that our current generation has, to do away with everything looking and seeming perfect, to express themselves in an authentic, meaningful way. And my hope is that CBM helps people feel that permission to revisit what they cared about as children, to be carefree in how they express themselves too.

How long have you been designing? Do you work with other mediums?
I launched C U B B Y ! by michi (CBM) in October 2020. At the moment, I only use thrifted towels and sheets to hand-make a variety of bags – mostly toiletry bags, makeup bags, clutches and the like. The towels and sheets are a combination of pre-loved and never-been-used vintage pieces. Finding a new purpose for these fabrics has been really exciting and fun.

Tell us about your business.
I officially launched during quarantine, but I had been mulling over this idea for almost a year prior. I kept thinking, "I'll launch when I'm completely ready," but realized my desire to make everything perfect was actually holding me back. So I officially went for it in October 2020 and have since given myself the space to make mistakes, try new things, and evolve. It's been a really fun, creative way to express myself and connect with people during an otherwise rather disconnected time. I also donate a portion of proceeds to a variety of organizations in recognition that a lot of privilege and opportunity has gotten me here and allowed me to pursue my passion, and those things are not equally distributed in our communities.

Can you tell us about your artistic process and how the different stages work into it?
I think the towels drive the process, not me! The vintage towels I find are so unique and beautiful in themselves that I feel they come to me with a story. So my role is to help each fabric come to life again by choosing a bag shape that shows off its best features, cutting it carefully to preserve the best of its colors, designs, size, and features like fringe or trim. I think about how pieces from each collection can complement each other and eventually add to its new owners' experience. I'm also always thinking about the bag shape in that sense — how can the bag shape best hold and protect its contents?

Tell us about where the inspiration for your styling/designs come from?
Like I mentioned earlier, the inspiration comes from the story of each individual towel. Sometimes I find towels with a backstory (for example, a towel that came from so-and-so's grandmother's estate), but most of the time, I have no idea what the backstory is. So I get to imagine up a story myself, which is quite fun to do. And that story inspires the rest of the bag design process. In terms of the bags themselves, I was inspired to create pouch-like shapes since I'm a big proponent of "bags in bags." In my personal life, I like to keep my belongings organized, and it brings me peace knowing exactly where my face mask is, for example. My heart skips a beat when I reach inside my purse and can't immediately find my chapstick! Everything has a place, and everything is organized into smaller bags. That's actually where the name of my brand came from — I thought the idea of a small bag is reminiscent of cubbies in kids' classrooms, where you keep your belongings safe and organized. They have to be functional; a pet peeve of mine is a bag with a dark lining, where it's impossible to look inside and find what you're looking for at night. So I told myself I would never use a dark lining in my own bags for that reason! Other than that, the styling/designs are very fluid and are not anchored in any which way. Just depends on the towels.

What fashion icons have inspired you?
When I think about a potential owner of my bag, I'm picturing everyday people. Maybe someone on their way to the office, rummaging around in their bag to find their bus card or work badge. I want that person to have a vibrant and unique C U B B Y ! by michi bag to store their belongings in, to stay organized but also to have a fun pop of color and something special in an otherwise sort of formal office setting. Or when travel opens back up again, I would love for people to use C U B B Y ! by michi bags in their travels to hold their passports and carry-on essentials. I'm really inspired by the every day and the day-to-day concerns that my bags can alleviate just a little bit.

What experiences in your life have affected your design/business?
My extended family lives in Japan, so the time I get to spend with them is very precious to me. My obaachans taught me how to knit (my first foray into textiles), so when I was young, and they would come visit, I would spend hours just watching them knit. So much thought went into each stitch – making each stitch the same size as the last, keeping the tension of the yarn consistent. They taught me the importance of quality and intention, and that is what I hope to put into the bags. With bags, in particular, strength and function are super important, and you can't get that without taking the time to do things right. I feel a responsibility for my bags even once they're sold, so I do everything I can to ensure they last. I've bought bags from stores in the past where they were super cute, but the moment I brought them home, they would fall apart in some way or another and become unusable. I try to avoid that in my own practice, and I tell my community that if something happens to their bag, I'll work with them to fix it (and keep their bags out of landfills).

I would also be remiss not to mention my family and friends – I've been very lucky that the people in my life have supported me 200% to pursue my passions. I definitely would not have had the courage to start without the support of my friends and family. The people in my life are very entrepreneurial in spirit and in their own lives, so the idea of starting something on my own was met with open arms, and I'm very grateful for that.

If we want to see more of your work, where should we go to find it?
My website, www.cubbybymichi.com, is where I post all available bags, as well as keep a record of past bags. My Instagram, @cubby_bymichi, is where I post updates, sneak peeks of upcoming bags, and behind-the-scenes content. I also interact with my community mostly through my Instagram.

What is next for you? Anything you're working on right now that you're really excited about?
I'm working on tote bags for the summer! Since totes are bigger, I can explore towels with larger prints, which has been fun. I'd also love to sell my bags at a farmers market this summer or next, whenever we're back in person. Since I began CBM during quarantine, most of the interactions people have had with my brand has been digital, so I would love to meet in person and just chat. Lastly, I've signed up for some lectures and classes around fashion and waste-led design and the relationship of environmental and social justice, which I'm very excited to learn about. I'm always looking for something to watch or listen to while I'm sewing, so this year I'll be tuning into those lectures.

Lastly, how do you take your coffee? We ask everyone!
If I'm out and about, I love a good almond milk latte. If I'm home, I enjoy a drip coffee, black. My parents roast coffee beans in Tokyo, and they send me their blends, which are always incredible.

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