Wearing her heart 

The story of the struggling independent isn't limited to musicians and filmmakers. It's the standard artist's plight: to create without compromise of quality and still somehow be both respected and popular. Fashion designers are no different, and Micaco Cullinane knows it all too well. The 28-year-old designer came here just over a year ago from Nagoya, Japan, with little but her sewing machine and her American husband, James. She also came with dreams not only of designing clothes but also creating a new way of showing them.

"Fashion is passion," Micaco says. For her, designing and sewing is cathartic. It's the creative process she craves -- seeing her works of art come to life in a meaningful and animated presentation.

"Each of my outfits has a message," she says, "a meaning for me." There's no redundancy, as no two items in her Mija line of clothing are the same; each is imbued with its own sense of character. "I am not trying to be a huge fashion label," says the artist.

In Shanghai Boutique, Mija designs -- from revamped vintage jean skirts and funky tops to club-dazzling dresses and pants -- hang with distinction next to the likes of Miss Sixty, Diesel and Custo, all established and popular name brands recognizable to the average Thornton Park shopper. The prices are in the same ball park, hanging on the lower end of the designer scale. For instance, one of her polyester skirts costs around $40, with a $60 tag on a silk version. The highest-price item in the store is a simply-tailored work dress for $129.

Shanghai owner Jen Dizon has never carried clothes by any other local designers but then, say says, no one else has ever approached her.

"I carry Micaco's clothes because they are unique, high quality, and I want to support local talent -- maybe it could start something else for other local designers. Or maybe we can grow together as a shop and a local designer," she says.

Micaco embodies the DIY ethic: She hand-makes everything, from the balsa woodblock patterns printed onto the fabric to the odds-and-ends accessories. Doing it all yourself does take time, though, and production is limited.

All of the materials and fabrics she uses are shipped from her family and friends in Japan -- beautiful, exotic silks and polyesters, brilliant in color and rich texture. Her fabrics cast a binding Asian aesthetic, but her style is all her own and not reflective of any particular culture.

For instance, a simple empire-waist dress makes one feel like a princess, draped in gauzy material adorned in flower patterns colored in soft peaches, bright oranges and fiery corals that cascade over a textured pearly pattern. A black crop-top is bound to turn heads with its pattern of contrasting bright-orange rectangles and long, flowing kimono-style sleeves. Her latest creations are her vintage jean skirts. She takes out a section here and there, replacing it with her colorful signature fabrics for a stylized something-old-something-new hybrid.

The inspiration to design her own clothes came from years of studying the fashions in Japan. She observed the way that most designers only went along with established fads, rarely conceptualizing ideas that weren't already making money in the mainstream.

She credits the famous Alexander McQueen as an influence. The young British fashion designer, 31, was again awarded the title of "British Designer of the Year" in 2001 (earning the same distinctions in 1996 and 1997). He's also known as the "enfant terrible" by the press and has created a world-wide buzz for his theatrical shows.

Micaco, too, wants to pursue her visions for "fashion theater," a term she and her husband coined for their elaborate presentations of her clothing.

"I think fashion alienates a lot of people the way it's presented," James says, while showing a video of a show they produced together in a 10-story mall in Nagoya. James is a teacher at Full Sail Real World Education, and his interest in film has led them to collaborate on several projects.

"I believe everyone has a color," Micaco says, which was the overall theme for the production in Japan. She feels that you are born with a combination of your parents' colors, but develop your own as you grow, ultimately becoming comfortable in one specific color. She illustrated this concept in her show through a theatrical interpretation.

The models wore T-shirts hand-pressed with Micaco designs that symbolized their gender. They danced to the beat of subtle Asian drums, re-creating the sperm permeating the egg, the fetus growing into a child with its combination of colors, the indecisiveness of adolescence, and then the confidence of adulthood when all people find their one color.

"Everybody got something out of [the presentation]," James says, proudly sharing stories of models crying afterward, thanking the couple for giving them the opportunity to learn something so special about themselves. And the crowd, too, was moved by the performance that managed to humanize fashion.

Micaco's stage-art style is rooted in Japanese Noh theater, a classical performance form that is a subdued synthesis of music, theater, poetry, dance and drama. Micaco and James hope one day to facilitate a similar outdoor show in Winter Park, but their concerns are more than just finances. It's generally accepted that there's a lack of interest in fashion in Orlando. Still she remains confident in her dreams.

Some would assume that it would have been easier for her to start her business in Japan, but Micaco has traded the repercussions of anonymity here with limitations due to discrimination in Japan.

"There is definitely discrimination against women, especially young women. They have a whole different way of thinking as far as women's rights," her husband laments. Women are still openly considered inferior to men, especially in a business environment. Japan is very sheltered, says Micaco, like "living in a bubble." Still, she says, "It has made me stronger. I have learned a lot."

More by Natalie Frith


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