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STRAIGHT FROM THE TOP with: Ayako Yanagisawa, Kate Spade

Kate Spade Japan’s President on motherhood, Audrey Hepburn, dogs, and the sound of bubbles.

Ayako Yanagisawa grew up internationally, spending much of her childhood in London and New York. She studied Environmental Science at university in Japan, and joined Sanei International in 1998, where she began her journey with Kate Spade as a merchandising assistant. Helping the brand to grow from 1 to 100 stores in Japan, she became Kate Spade’s Japan President in 2009, and has now been with Kate Spade for over 20 years.

How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?

I am an optimist. Sometimes I kill people with my positivity!


What's the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?

Watching my 16-year-old son grow up, meeting his new friends, and seeing the world through his eyes.


Which figures (historic or present, public or private) played the most important influence in your life so far?

My grandmother and my mother. My grandmother lived to 96, studying English and reading the Nikkei Newspaper every day until the day she passed away. She taught me about curiosity, and about being a lifelong learner. She was always interested in everything and anything. She loved movies, and introduced me to all the classics and iconic actresses like Audrey Hepburn. If it hadn’t been for my grandmother, I don’t think I would have joined Kate Spade, as a lot of the imagery they used was already very familiar to me – thanks to her.


And my mother – a natural born mum. She’s always been so supportive, caring, and helped guide me through life. She’s a great listener and an amazing coach. She finds people's strengths and allows them to shine. She taught me how to care for people, and how to give people freedom.


What's been the biggest failure/mistake you've experienced in life or work so far? What did you learn?

So many! My tendencies as an optimist sometimes mean I act faster than I think. A few years back, Kate launched a new brand in Japan which our global team thought would be very important for the Japan market, and scaled up very quickly. Things didn’t work out, and we ended up having to close down three years later. Psychologically, that was the toughest because there were a lot of people involved and committed to the business. Telling them we needed to shut down was really tough. Although I wasn’t directly responsible for the brand at the time, I could have flagged things earlier and tried to change the business plan. I learned it’s very easy to allow yourself to be swept up in the enthusiasm coming from global – and that regardless of your position, you always have to speak up, be vocal, and make sure people are thinking through things objectively.


Looking back, what key pieces of advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?

I would encourage her to study more and learn more. That there are so many things you don't know, so just try to study more! I would love to go back to school sometime in the future. Back then, I didn't feel studying was so important. I was in environmental science, and had never imagined I would be in this position, as the president of a fashion brand!


I’d also tell her to spend more time immersing herself in new cultures and meeting different people – as the knowledge and experience makes your life so much richer.


Lastly, I would tell her to not hesitate to make mistakes. I do not hesitate – but I would want to remind her again.


What key values do you live by?

Just be yourself, and do what you love!


What keeps you up at night?

Our business – as our stores are open 365 days a year!


What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?

Seeing other people grow. Seeing my son grow. Smiles. Customers being happy!


What are your morning rituals for getting a great day going?

I drink a glass of hot water infused with lemon and ginger, which helps wake me up (I’ve never been a big coffee person). I then walk my dog – a Maltese and Chihuahua cross, have a fight with my son, and I’m ready to go!


Where/when do you have your most "A-ha" or "lightbulb" moments?

I love being in water, and listening to the sound of bubbles. Anything related to water – baths, pools, showers, onsen. I started swimming when I was 2 years old. My mum told me I was always happiest when I was in the water.


How do you energize outside of your work?

I love doing Yoga, meeting friends, swimming, going for a nice drink, having fun with family, playing with my dog, cooking and eating, and reading books.


What's your guiltiest pleasure?

Making myself a big onigiri (rice ball) to savour after a long-haul flight back to Japan!


What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I had a vague image in my mind that I wanted to be a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world – maybe because I grew up internationally and sensed so many differences everywhere I went.


What are the top: Business, Fictional, and Biographical books you've read lately?

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”, by Hans Rosling. I found this book really interesting. It’s about how we see the world very much through our own subjective lens, and reminds us about the extent to which everything we read is based on some sort of assumption. I have a tendency to form my thoughts and decisions based on instinct and passion – so reading this book helped me to pause and reflect, to think about other perspectives, and to remember that all stories have many different sides.


Top movie of all time?

Love Actually, written and directed by Richard Curtis. It celebrates people’s imperfections, the connectedness of life, and family values. And I love the music!


Favourite cartoon character growing up?

Snoopy! I love dogs. When I was growing up, I yearned to have a dog for what felt like ages, and Snoopy was my dog before I was able to get a real one. I got my first dog when I was six, and since then have always had a dog in my life. I’ve also had a cat, a rabbit, and a lizard!


What's on heavy rotation at home right now?

My son's iTunes playlist! It has everything from jazz to the latest Japanese hip hop. I always learn a lot from listening to it.


Favourite travel destination?

Hawaii Big Island. Being surrounded by nature, the total quietness, the pure relaxation. I love the balance between volcano and sea.


Also, Harbour Island in the Bahamas. It’s a tiny Island, and you use golf carts to get around. It has this beautiful beach called Pink Sand Beach, made from powdered coral. We went there when our son was still only 1 year old.


Top bucket list travel destinations?

I’ve never been to Africa, and would love to visit Kenya and go on safari. I’d also love to go to Iceland (for the spas!), and Machu Picchu in Peru.


What will you be doing post-retirement?

I want to help my son raise his kids, to pass onto him everything my mother did for me. I also want to work for an NPO and do some volunteer work related to helping and empowering women – as I had so much support myself when starting out in my career.


And to close with, your favourite quote?

It's not so much a quote as a saying that I like to remind myself of: “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE!”

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