When walking through the streets of Little Tokyo, you might notice a unique storefront nestled amongst the legacy businesses. CRFT by Maki can be identified by its black-painted storefront, minimalistic branding, and eye-catching clothing pieces on floating racks. This month, I had the chance to chat with CRFT by Maki’s founder, Darin Maki about the brand’s community-focused origin and journey.
Yo!: Can you introduce yourself for our readers?
DM: My name is Darin Maki. I am the founder of CRFT by Maki, a clothing brand in Little Tokyo.
I was born here in Los Angeles, and I grew up spending a lot of time in Little Tokyo. I moved to Japan in 2004. When I would come back in the summers, visiting Little Tokyo always inspired me to come back and immerse myself in this community one day.
Yo!: When did you start CRFT by Maki and what was your initial motivation to create a clothing brand?
DM: I’ve always made my own clothes. Back then I couldn’t always afford the expensive stuff, so I would just make it myself and straight bootleg it. In 2018, we started CRFT by Maki. The whole concept started from just wanting to create clothes for myself that I’d like to wear.
When I was working for another company, we were doing a lot of great creative stuff and, at the end of the day I thought, why am I creating for someone else’s brand? I’ve always wanted to do my own thing and that's just how it started for me, wanting to create my own brand, ideas, and to include my community along the way.
Yo!: How did you settle on the name CRFT?
DM: I remember The Notorious B.I.G. had a line in his rap where he said, “Either you're slingin' crack-rock, or you've got a wicked jump-shot." For me it was always that no matter what you're doing, whether it was some white-collar work or you’re in the streets, if you’re doing something, be the best at it and perfect your craft. I’ve always respected and admired the old Japanese way of doing things, where everything is in the details and you work with your hands. That really resonated with me and that's how I came across the name.
Yo!: Why did you choose an origami tsuru as your logo?
DM: I’ve always loved animal logos like Polo Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, or Penguin. Animal logos have always been something I’ve gravitated towards, and I wanted one for myself. I also knew that the origami tsuru is very distinctively Japanese, and I have always loved and respected the origami art form. You could go across the globe and it could be recognized as a Japanese piece.
As an original design, we did trademark our CRFT by Maki logo. I recognized that there are a lot of others who have appropriated Japanese imagery in the past. I wanted to trademark the logo as a way of keeping it within our community. Not necessarily in the way of me owning the origami tsuru, because I know that so many organizations and groups in the community use it and it belongs to the people.
Yo!: What do you hope that CRFT will represent to the community?
DM: One thing that a lot of us were taught, growing up as Asian American minorities, is that we were told to go to college, get a good job, become a lawyer or doctor, and work (for the man). And what I’m trying to share is that, no matter what you do, you can make your hobbies a profession. We have the opportunity, the technology, and ways to make a living off our hobbies and that's something I want to push.
Yo!: What is the significance of your storefront being located on historic First Street in Little Tokyo?
DM: I wouldn’t have ever dreamt that this would be possible. It’s really amazing just to have this location. I don’t think I would have done any other brick-and-mortar unless it was Little Tokyo because this community means a lot to me. It means a lot to be here, especially historic First Street, where my great grandmother also had a restaurant. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to do business in Little Tokyo.
Yo!: What does your creative process look like when designing new pieces?
DM: It varies, but we always like to have mood boards. We utilize tools at our fingertips but also like to stick things on the walls to build out ideas and get to work. I’m old-school and like to draw things out a bit before putting it to computer. If it works, then we make some, and if not, onto the next. It’s very organic, very simple – we don't have a very stiff season-based type of schedule. Whenever we see something inspiring, it always goes into the folders.
Yo!: What have been some of your favorite projects?
DM: Our project with Anzen Hardware for their 75th anniversary was especially meaningful because I’ve been a huge fan of the store since I was a kid. I have a real soft spot for legacy businesses – anything that has to do with people using their hands and creating. It was an honor to be involved in that collaboration with Anzen and I think it was one of our favorites.
Yo! (Justin): Having been involved with this project myself as well, I’ll add that it was really special to see firsthand a younger community business lifting up a legacy business. When we were passing out the holiday bundles, many people told me stories about how they grew up going to Anzen and that they were so happy to see the brand collaborating in such a meaningful way. I hope that this collaboration can serve as a model for future partnerships in and amongst Little Tokyo community businesses.
Yo!: Tell me about how you are you positioning CRFT in the larger JA fashion space?
DM: For me, I was always doing just minimal style. Many brands (outside of the community) are doing katakana-based or novelty Japanese designs – I wanted to get away from that and be more of an authentic Japanese-based design found in Little Tokyo. Position-wise, being here in Little Tokyo has pushed me towards putting a lot of energy towards JA businesses and collaborations with other JA establishments. That’s my top priority over anything else.
Yo!: What are some upcoming projects readers can expect to keep an eye out for?
DM: We’re very excited to be doing a very special project at the end of June. I can’t give away too many details now, but we are collabing with another Japanese-American community staple. I hope the community responds well. I think this will speak to a lot of people who have an affinity for Little Tokyo.
Yo!: Do you have any advice for our readers?
DM: To all the younger readers, before you graduate or start your life after college, I really recommend you go overseas, live in Japan, and immerse yourself in the culture and language. One thing we’re losing as a community is our language, so I advise you all to match your love of Japanese culture with the language.
Yo!: Anything else?
DM: There are so many tools out there to start your own clothing line, your own brand. It doesn’t take a lot of capital, so if you have an idea or a dream, just go for it.
Special thanks to Darin for taking the time to chat with Yo! for this interview.