When Chie Imai embarked on a career as a flight attendant in the1960’s, it was still unique for a Japanese woman to work outside of the home, let alone outside of the country. Her fearless and forward thinking manner were ahead of their time. She contemplated whether the status of women in Japan was the same as women in other parts of the modern western world. Despite the social change that was taking place for women, Chie gave up her career and returned to work in the home after she married. In 1977, with a young family, Chie opened an import and export business. She could not have anticipated how the business would develop and evolve and change her life.
Chie enjoyed selling fur products when she discovered unique styles and production methods. She was attracted to the organic and biodegradable nature of these materials which human beings have long used to protect themselves against harsh weather. The contemporary use of fur for clothing in Japan ran against the flood of products entering the Japanese garment industry in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She was attracted to the idea of products that came from nature in place of those being produced by hand.
The idea of wearing a fur product also came from her childhood. When Chie was little she had participated in the traditional event called “Shichi-Go-San/七五三” in Japan. This event celebrates the healthy growth of children. Her mother knew how to spoil her daughter from time to time. On a sunny winter day of the event, her mother bundled her up with a fluffy white fox collar. She felt blessed. She loved the feeling of wearing the fancy fox collar even though her friends teased her and called her “a white fox”.
Chie reached a point with her import and export company where she wanted to evolve beyond the import and sale of traditional products. Her competitors were all carrying the same range of products and the import market was becoming saturated. Most of the fur products being sold at that time were still either black or brown. People still saw fur as a traditional way to protect themselves against the cold of winter.
On a trip to Paris, Chie strolled along the grand Champs-Elysees on a chilly fall day with the leaves falling around her. She visited countless boutiques in search of new fashion ideas. People in the city didn’t really care if the little asian woman was walked off her feet. Chie’s Aha! moment arrived as she was just about to give up and call it a day. She came upon a clothing boutique with a glamorously and vividly dyed hot pink fur gown displayed in the store window. She knew that she was looking at the future of wearable fur. That was the moment that she understood that the technology existed that would allow her to develop her vision. She had always wondered how she could create fur gowns which were light in weight and in brilliant colours just like sweaters. The answer was displayed in the window in front of her.
Chie had never professionally designed clothes or garments before. She drew her inspiration from the papers and magazines that she poured over every day. Her vision evolved to create practical yet fashionable fur coats which fit into a modern life style: light in weight in vibrant and cheerful colours. The traditionalists in the business thought she was out of her mind. People whispered that her business would soon fail. However, Chie was determined to realize her singular vision.
“MOSAIQUE de CHIE”, Chie’s signature line of fur and leather products, made a stunning debut in the 1990’s. Technological advances in tanning and fur dying in addition to superb Finnish craftsmanship allowed her to produce her signature pieces as light, reversible, mosaic-like jackets. When MOSAIQUE de CHIE was unveiled on runway shows during the Fur Information Council of America at Fashion Week in New York City, none of the media personnel or audience thought they were seeing fur gowns. Some of the other participants at the event, Saint Laurent, Valentino and other designers were floored by her innovative, modern, colourful designs. Chie had discarded the traditional thinking that fur and leather were just to be worn to protect against the ravages of winter. She demonstrated that fur and leather products could be seen and used in a new way.
In addition to opening a flagship store in Tokyo, Chie opened a flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York City in 2002. She was recognized as one of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World in Paris in the same year. In Japan, Prime Minister Koizumi praised her in Parliament for her accomplishments as a global businesswoman.
Chie continues to travel around the world on behalf of her business. Attending her annual runway shows in Japan and New York are a standard part of her routine. She is an active supporter of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation which is dedicated to curing spinal cord injuries by funding innovative research in the United States. Actress Meryl Streep is also a key supporter of the foundation. Chie has undertaken initiatives to support people affected by the 2011 Japanese tsunami and earthquakes. While many major Japanese companies cancelled scheduled events due to the chaos that year, she accomplished all her major runway shows on schedule and continued to raise funds for those in need through her events.
She spends her spare time finding and collecting Japanese antique porcelain, “Koimari/ 古伊万里” as well as collecting fine art from around the world. She also enjoys visiting friends and spending time at their summer house in Finland. Chie has a grown son and daughter. She also loves taking care of her dogs.