Interview: 6 Degrees of Hapa
Talking with 6 Degrees of Hapa owner Naomi Takata Shepherd
By Sam Tanabe
(Pictured: Naomi and sibling Matthew in the latest cap designs)
Way before Hapa Mag was born, before I started making extensive Hapa connections, I stumbled across 6 Degrees of Hapa. I am always in search of trendy clothes or accessories and especially love when I am able to support small business owners. I was immediately infatuated with this Hapa-focused brand. I was excited by the idea of owning apparel that actually represented me. I’m a huge sucker for a snapback and immediately fell in love with Naomi’s notorious spam musubi design, so naturally I had to own my own 6 Degrees of Hapa gear! I ordered my first purchase through the website and included a message with my order expressing how happy I was to have discovered the brand. I was so moved upon seeing the 6 Degrees of Hapa designs being sold. My spirit has always longed for a Hapa community to be a part of, and I am always fascinated to see what I have in common with other Hapas and what is completely different.
I truly hit the jackpot when I discovered that the creator of 6 Degrees of Hapa was just as insanely cool as her designs. After a couple separate, necessary purchases, I began to get to know 6 Degrees of Hapa owner Naomi Takata Shepherd. Seeing her company and work grow over the last couple years, I remain amazed by her creativity, business savvy, and desire to bring people together. I am obsessed with this smart Hapa woman who designs some sick Hapa gear, that aims to connect with all people from all walks of life.
Naomi kindly agreed to an interview with me for Hapa Mag, and I am so excited to share about 6 Degrees of Hapa with our readers.
What inspired you to start 6 Degrees of Hapa?
The inspiration for 6 Degrees of Hapa came from the idea that a big mixed community exists that doesn't necessarily get much recognition and isn’t very well understood. I have a lot of family and friends who are Hapa, but we never spent much time talking about our feelings and experiences of being mixed race until I graduated from high school. I thought if I started a t-shirt brand (my first concept was originally just t-shirts) that celebrates being Hapa, or mixed, then people could point each other out and say, "hey there's another Hapa!” One of my hopes with the business is to make people comfortable approaching other Hapas and sharing their experiences with each other.
How did you come up with the name?
6 Degrees of Hapa came about because I didn't want my brand to only embrace Hapas and mixed people, but also include the people who help shape who we are, like our family, friends, and connections… it's all about celebrating diversity.
So when you came up with the name, you wanted to find a way to incorporate the diversity that surrounds the term “Hapa?”
Yeah, often times as Hapas we spend a lot of time focusing on just one side of our family. We sometimes end up in a group of friends that’s mostly Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or we might gravitate towards our other side. I wanted to create a brand name that's not just about one side of our family or one part of our ethnic background. 6 Degrees of Hapa includes our whole ethnic background and all of our connections in life. We’re all one degree away from so-and-so, who is one degree away from someone else. It's a play off the theory of six degrees of separation (or “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”).
How long have you been around?
I made my first t-shirts and got my business name in 2011. I was still in college at the time. After I made my first batch of shirts and started doing some pop-ups, I realized that I needed to focus on getting through school before I could really begin working on the business, so I tabled it and started back up again in August of 2014. That was my first real go at creating new apparel for the brand. I learned how to screen print, make jewelry, and I could focus on new designs.
You do a lot of pop-up shops in the Bay Area. Have you met a lot of interesting people selling your merch? A lot of fellow Hapas?
I’ve been fortunate to get to meet all sorts of people through my pop-up shops, of all ages and backgrounds, and so many of them have inspiring stories to tell, not just Hapas. The pop-up shops are one of my favorite parts of the business. It's a chance for me to get out into the real world, off my phone and off Instagram. It's really great meeting people through social media, but it’s challenging to find the spark that encourages me to keep creating through just social media conversations.
The pop-up shops help me get motivated to make new things and keep the business going. I meet so many people who come up to the booth, see the word Hapa, and say, “Hey, that's me!" A lot of people tell me that the 6 Degrees of Hapa brand is really needed, and they wish they had something like it to represent themselves when they were younger. I think a lot of Hapas went through an identity crisis or had trouble in school because we didn't necessarily fit in, but now we're at a point where parents can help their kids identify as Hapa. Parents are buying my Hapa gear for their kids because they want them to take pride in their mixed identities.
I know many mixed individuals experience a sense of confusion about being Hapa. Not only do your designs make for a cute look, but wearing your clothes helps give people a sense of security.
Yes, you’re right! When Hapas see my pop-up shop, even if they don’t decide to get anything, I can tell that having a brand that is dedicated to them makes them happy and excited because it’s creating a space where they know they will always be accepted. Growing up, I really did have a sense of confusion and insecurity. When I started using the term Hapa, I realized that it embraces me as a whole person, and that this word isn’t just about one part of your ethnic and racial heritage or another.
Even though the word has roots in meaning half Hawaiian, now we're getting to a point where it can mean anyone who is mixed. For a while I was really picky about saying "I'm Japanese, Italian, Irish, Scottish, and who knows what else." I wanted to make sure people understood that I wasn't just one thing. I'm happy that this Hawaiian term has come over to the West Coast and it is making its way across America, however I do hope that people remember and acknowledge where the word comes from as it continues to gain popularity and recognition
Agreed! When you are creating your designs and choosing colors, do you intentionally aim for a balance between an Asian/non-Asian aesthetic, that mirrors the racial mixture of a Hapa.
This is one of those things that I’m still working on. Eventually, I’d like to start branching out in my designs and illustrations to include more cultures, but I want to make sure I'm not crossing any lines of cultural appropriation when I design. I’m always trying to find a balance between being overtly Asian/Hawaiian or overtly American. Having a Hawaiian influence is my way of acknowledging that Hapa is a Hawaiian word. And then the Asian/Japanese influence is something I feel comfortable using because I am Japanese-American. The koinobori kites, cherry blossoms, and maneki neko are all symbols I've grown up with. And spam musubi to me is the perfect example of what it means to be Hapa, because it’s a food that only exists through a fusion of cultures. A lot of people look at my Hapa wave design and think it’s specifically Hawaiian-inspired. You can think that, but there are so many Pacific Islander communities and Asian cities that are coastal communities. Even the west and east ends of America are coastal, so my waves are meant to represent oceans from all over the world.
What are your plans to continue to expand 6 Degrees of Hapa? I know you definitely have new designs coming out.
I do have new designs coming out! I try to come out with new designs seasonally. I usually come out with new things for the fall and winter and then new things for spring and summer. I tend to mesh the seasons together because I am a small business and have a budget to stick to. In terms of expanding, I've been experimenting with different ideas of how to grow my online shop. It takes a lot of work, but I would really like to see even more online orders come in than there are already.
I also have a project that is Instagram-based right now called "Share Your Hapa Story.” The whole concept is that I want everyone in the 6 Degrees of Hapa community to share their experience of being mixed. I want them to tell about themselves, include photos from childhood or now, and help build a stronger community out of this project.
I'd like to extend the idea to video eventually and gain a stronger online presence. I know there are other Hapa projects out there, and I love seeing all of them,. But I feel like I also have something to contribute since my 6 Degrees of Hapa family feels comfortable sharing with me and on the 6 Degrees of Hapa platform. I reach a different audience than some of the other Hapa projects because I want my brand to include everyone, not just Japanese or Hawaiian Hapas. I want anyone who feels that they are a Hapa to be included.
I feel like there is room for more Hapa or "Hafu" groups alongside the ones that already exist. 6 Degrees of Hapa definitely has a place amongst them, and you have a unique perspective to share. Do you have a specific personal message you try to convey through your work?
I believe that not only is every Hapa person unique, but every individual in the world is also unique. I find it interesting and special that people of similar ethnic heritages can look alike but not necessarily have the same experiences or come from anywhere near the same upbringing and background. The message that I convey with my apparel is that we are all connected no matter who we are or where we come from. Everyone is welcome in my shop.
Do you have a favorite product or design right now? What flies off the shelves?
The designs I like the best are the ones that have a little humor to them. I'm always trying to make visual jokes so to speak. Last year, I made a shirt that came out around the time of the Obon festival that had a goldfish in a bowl with a ping pong ball in its mouth. Everybody liked it because people remember growing up playing the game where you would toss a ping pong ball into the bowls to win a goldfish. Back in my day, the goldfish themselves used to be in the bowl and you would win the fish whose bowl you got the ball in. Sorry, PETA! Now they do it a little differently.
My snapbacks are usually the first thing that draws people into the pop-up shop. I've gotten a lot of compliments on the designs and the quality of work. It's funny because I don't consider myself somebody super "cool" or "hip." But I get guys, girls, and even kids, who come into the shop who are way cooler than I am using all these trendy words I don't even know to describe my stuff. It’s exciting to hear that they love my apparel. One of my goals has always been to create a brand that has something for everyone. And it’s always gratifying when I can come home from a long day of working a pop-up event knowing I’ve achieved that
Where can people buy your products?
The best place to buy my products, if you happen to live in the Bay Area, is to come to one of my pop-up shops. The best month to come is April, because I have a show every single weekend. I do the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, the Nikkei Matsuri in San Jose Japantown, and a few smaller festivals too. Spring is my busiest season, and to me one of the most fun, because it's about celebrating a time of new life and seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom always makes me happy.
The other place to find me is my online shop, 6DegreesofHapa.com, which I’m working on improving and growing. Admittedly, I don't always have every new item on there, but you can always email or DM me if you see something on Instagram you like that you don’t see in the online shop. I’m happy to send it out. My friend Tam owns a shop in San Jose Japantown called Classic Loot and she recently added some of my hats to the store. It’s a great spot and definitely check it out if you’re ever in San Jose. Eventually I’d like to get my brand into more brick-and-mortar shops so that way people from all over can pick out their apparel in person any time they want versus just at my pop-up shops.
Anything else you want to add about your business? I know you’ve built it all and do most of the work by yourself. You can brag!
I think a lot of people get confused about how my shop works. In terms of the creation process for 6 Degrees of Hapa, all the designs come from my own hand-sketched or digital illustrations. From there, I go into Adobe Illustrator and re-create that design or logo—again from scratch. Usually, I'll have an idea of what I want to put the design on before I illustrate. I’ll look at different caps, t-shirts, or any blank apparel that I want to use, and I'm very picky about my materials. I choose them based on comfort, quality, and durability.
I try to get everything made locally that I can't make myself, like the screen-printed apparel and the embroidered hats. I'm really into supporting other local small businesses because I want to make sure the area I live in is successfully growing. There's a lot of clothing in my shop that I sew myself, including the reversible bikinis and infinity scarves, using fabric that I illustrate and have printed in the US. My mom helps me sew too!
I try to bring a handmade element to the things I do, but often people can't tell they’re handmade because they think my creations look like they’re professionally manufactured! I'm into sustainable fashion, so I try to make sure things are durable and use water-based inks that are more eco-friendly when screen printing. It’s so satisfying for me to have people stop by one of my pop-ups wearing one of my shirts that's been around for a few years, and say, "This shirt has lasted so long and it's still totally fine!"
End of Interview
Sam Tanabe is a NYC based performer and writer for Hapa Mag. He has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatres across the country. His passion for the arts has led him to fight for diversity and representation on stage. Follow this kawaii yonsei hapa bb on social media @Tanablems.