Big Love Records Founder Haruka Hirata
From Her Tokyo-Based Office to Ikebana Class, It’s All About Realness
- Interview: Romany Williams
- Photography: Cailin Hill Araki
Haruka Hirata is explaining what she loves about records. She’s standing in front of a shelf full of them at Big Love, the record store she founded and creative directs in Tokyo. We’re here after having visited her other place of work at GR8, a lux contemporary retail store located in Laforet, the labyrinth-like department store in Harajuku. She handles their PR and international relations. After Big Love, our next stop is her weekly Ikebana Class. She’s a student at the Sogetsu school of traditional Japanese flower arranging, and a woman of many talents.
In the 90s, Hirata went to the same high school as the Japanese royal family. It was strict, and she was a regular rule-breaker. Cutting her skirt to make it shorter, dying her hair, wearing mismatched socks, always arriving late to class. After graduating college in 2003 she applied to work at Escalator Records (now known as Big Love), a record shop started by her now ex-husband. She’s been there ever since. The shop, located on the third floor of a small retail complex in Harajuku, has become a cult destination for music fans travelling to Tokyo. Inside, it’s small but inviting, with records everywhere and a café (that serves beer) in a corner. Plus, there’s the thirst-inducing Big Love merch. T-shirts and hoodies printed with the label’s logo, written in Cali Thornhill Dewitt’s now infamous old English font—think Kanye West’s Life of Pablo merch—hang neatly on a rack. A minimal selection of tote bags dangle above the cash register. By keeping Big Love merch scarce, it’s become heavily desired. Appropriated by insta-influencers, Big Love has become just as much fashion label—to Hirata’s annoyance— as record store.
In Ikebana class, Hirata stares intently at the flowers in front of her. She’s carefully woven the leaves of a tropical plant together to form a patchwork pattern, two blush pink flowers, plump and round like Dahlias, emerge from the tangled leaves. For the remainder of the day, we found time to speak about Hirata’s experience growing up in Tokyo, digital vs. analog, and the reason why you should refrain from tagging Big Love merch on Instagram.
Tell me about starting Big Love.
2008, that's the year we started Big Love. We changed the store name, the label name, because Escalator Records used to have only domestic bands, and my ex-husband wanted to shift to a new phase. And then we met Cali.
Cali Thornhill Dewitt…
He has this record label called Teenage Teardrops, and we wanted to stock records from him, and then we became really good friends. It turned out he's an artist, and we saw him using this old English font. We just asked, "Can you do our logo?" And he was like, "Yeah, definitely." And it was his first time doing a logo for a store or anything. I think that was 2013 when we did the Big Love logo, and then the next year, the Kanye thing...
It really blew up.
Yeah. And Cali also got into this fashion scene, and I became like a manager of him. That's why we travel together.
That must have been a surreal experience, kind of similar to the way Big Love has become a destination and the merch has come to define itself as something else.
The thing is, I always want to be in this underground scene, but also I really want to connect this commercial stuff with the underground, because a lot of great artists or bands are suffering for money. They always need a job. So, if I got a project for them, maybe they can live for half a year with that money so that they can focus on making music or art. I feel that's one of my missions to do.
It gives extra meaning to your work as well.
Because well, when you go to fashion week, I just feel it's so stupid. It's bullshit, and I hate it so much. But I have to go to fashion week. It's my job. But I'm always screaming inside, "This is bullshit, bullshit, bullshit," and if you look on Instagram, everyone's calling each other “family,” “brother,” “sister.” If everyone's in Paris they have a chance to take photos together. [Comments] like “I'm so proud of my brother, blah, blah, blah,” and I'm like, "Oh my."
It’s all about curating your life for Instagram.
Yeah, but it's bullshit. It's fake, but I still feel that this fashion industry makes money. I want to use that to support underground bands and artists.
“I think the genuine underground artists or musicians don't care about making money.”
What’s your definition of “underground” today?
Maybe one thing is about making money. I think the genuine underground artists or musicians don't care about making money. The people who are pretending to be in the underground scene but are actually not, are the people who would let the client make them do something, like a concert, that they really don't want to do. I think underground artists or musicians can say "no."
How do you choose the bands you stock in the store or the performers you host in Tokyo?
Everyone's so nice, I think that's something we can feel through their record or their music. We try to find the records or bands that speak the same language, that you can feel through their artwork or the music itself, because you can't tell through emails if they’re a good person or not, but with art, it does have a language.
It seems like what you guys are doing really encourages in-person communication.
Well obviously we're selling records, which is against digital. We’re very analog. We really love the weight or when it becomes warm if you play it on the record player, and the sound is definitely different when you play a record. I love the object itself that you can feel, because if you play your music through your phone, it's just something existing in the air, but the record has life. I think the customers feel the same thing. They want to encounter something real, a living something.
What records do you keep on rotation, personally?
Well, my favorite band is New Order. I always go back there. One of my other favorites these days is Tzusing. He was born in Malaysia, and he's Canadian, but his parents are Taiwanese. So, he has this cultural background, and I feel the same because I always get confused with my cultural background. I was born in Tokyo and I grew up here until I was six, but my family used to live in London, and my brother and sister were much older and they were half Western. We moved to Greece when I was six, and my sister had to go to high school, and we were in the same international school, an American school. Then when I came back to Japan, I was 10, and I just felt so lonely all the time. I could not understand Japanese. I could write, read, but I never could understand their standards, their morality. I think I kind of ran away from talking or communicating with Japanese. Maybe that's why I was more into music or into fashion or just reading, because I felt like I belonged nowhere.
Does Tokyo feel like your home yet?
No. Never. Music, art, and fashion have always been helping me. I think when I'm in Tokyo, I'm always looking for my place. Maybe that's why I started working at GR8 as well, because I couldn't find a certain place I could settle down or be confident. I'm still looking. But that became a really good energy or passion, you want to start something new or have a mission so that you can distract your feelings.
There aren’t a lot of spaces to explore those nuanced, oftentimes complicated, feelings. On social media especially, it's like everything's great all the time.
You can always fake it on Instagram, like you're having the best time, or the best family, or whatever, but I think everyone's just lying.
You have “DON’T TAG SHIRTS” written in the Big Love Records Instagram bio. Is that directed at the people that incorporate your merch into their fit-pics?
I really hate that. We’re a record store. And we’re a record label. All those fashion kids just come and buy our merch. This is a strategy, I only sell our merch when I’m doing the book fair in L.A. or New York, or when a store asks us to do a pop-up. That’s the only chance. I want people to come to the record store. Even if they don’t know anything about music or anything about records. As I said, I really love the real things, records, or meeting face-to-face, so I want them to come. If we don’t have merch we can’t keep the business going on. Japanese people aren’t listening to music anymore, they only listen to J-Pop, K-pop, so we have to do the merch. It’s crucial.
It requires a concerted effort to come to the store.
Yes. It’s too easy clicking online or going to your local stores. Travel to Japan, come to Big Love and get the merch you want.
So have less people been tagging the shirts?
Romany Williams is a Stylist and Editor at SSENSE.
- Interview: Romany Williams
- Photography: Cailin Hill Araki
- Special Thanks To: Sogetsu Ikebana School