From Hawaii to New York: The Journey of Stylist Taylor Okata

Lei Taylor Okata

Hawai’i-raised, New York-based Taylor Okata on his journey from Kaimukī kid to celebrity stylist.

Text by Eunica Escalante
Images by Daeja Fallas, AJ Feducia and Christian Richard Cook

As a young boy, Taylor Okata spent hours scouring the latest issues of i-D and Dazed and Confused at Tower Records, idolizing the angst-ridden teens living inside the magazines’ glossy pages. They were the cool kids, dressed iconically in 1990s amalgamations of post-punk band tees and hip-hop-inspired streetwear.

“It wasn’t like anything I had seen before in Hawaiʻi,” the stylist says. “It was so foreign, so extravagant, so raw.”

To Okata, then just a kid in Kaimukī working summers at his dad’s bento shop, their world was mere fantasy. Never did he imagine that a decade later it would be his reality.

There’s this drive in me. I never want to feel like I’m just chilling.

Lei Taylor Okata

When we speak via FaceTime, Okata is half a world away in a New York studio. He sits languidly in his chair, confidence as much an accessory as his Prada belt bag (also known as a fanny pack, for the uninitiated). It’s natural to assume that he’s off the clock. But underneath the Gucci sunglasses, Okata is all business.

“There’s this drive in me,” he says between a styling appointment and a studio visit. “I never want to feel like I’m just chilling.”

It’s been an extended period of no chill for Okata. He has been a fashion commentator for E! News and CNN Tech and a fixture in Vogue’s New York Fashion Week street-style photos. He has styled fashion editorials for publications including Hypebeast magazine and Vogue Italia. He has also been serving as the stylist for N.E.R.D following the hip-hop group’s seven-year hiatus.

Bragging Rights

His most widely known work is his styling of N.E.R.D’s music video for “Lemon,” the act’s hit single featuring Rihanna, in which dancer Mette Towley parades around in a cropped tank top and baggy jeans that hang below camouflage underwear.

In February 2018, Okata also styled the group’s halftime performance for the 68th NBA All-Star Game. This included picking up the Swarovski crystal-encrusted thong and Adidas sweatpants he had made for Towley, the unofficial face of N.E.R.D’s new album.

Okata’s ambition is the product of a childhood split between the Honolulu neighborhoods of Chinatown and Kaimukī. Living between two households (Okata’s parents divorced when he was a baby), he was compelled to be self-sufficient.

“Mom worked multiple jobs and my dad, Lyndon, had to run Okata Bento,” he says. “That basically left me and my sister on our own.” This drive got him through what he describes as a character-building adolescence, and was what ultimately motivated him to leave Hawaiʻi.

“If I grew up with a wealthy background, then I might not have had this desire to get out and see what was beyond what I grew up with,” Okata says.

Working His Way Up

He moved to New York in 2010 straight out of college, amid the Great Recession. “Everything was a mess,” he recalls. “No one was hiring.” He bounced between fashion gigs that included editorial assistant at a fashion photography agency and creative director of an obscure menswear showroom.

Through this hustle, Okata was immersed in every aspect of the fashion industry, from styling to photography, marketing to commerce. In three years’ time, he was working for Adidas, helping transition Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s footwear line, Y-3, to e-commerce. Then Okata’s ambition pushed him further.

He asked to visit Yamamoto’s Paris atelier to better understand the manufacturing process. His casual studio visit became a breakthrough. The atelier needed a stylist for Yamamoto’s new fall collection, and the director had heard of Okata’s previous experience.

The day trip extended into nine seasons of styling men’s and women’s collections for the eponymous clothing line. “It’s something I’ll never forget,” he says.

If I grew up with a wealthy background, then I might not have had this desire to get out and see what was beyond what I grew up with.”

Lei Taylor Okata

But after two years, Okata became restless. “I was trying so hard to do a full-time job, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” he says. “I hit a breaking point.” Recollections of rifling through magazines after school reignited his passion. He left his 9-to-5 as a senior account executive at Adidas North America to pursue a freelance career as a stylist. For years, he built his clientele and worked around the clock to develop his brand. “It really lights a fire under your ass,” he says of freelancing. “People can either really do it or they can’t.”

It takes more than ambition to survive in the cutthroat world of New York fashion. Okata credits his Hawaiʻi roots for his success. The talk-story culture that he grew up in gave him the charm to ease even his most apprehensive clients.

“At the end of the day, a stylist’s biggest challenge is connecting with the client,” Okata says. “You need to know how to break that ice, how to talk story, otherwise you’re not on the same page. And in Hawaiʻi, we’re so friendly, so open, and diverse—I take pride in that.”

Lei Taylor Okata

Guide to Honolulu

For Shopping
“I love shopping at Barrio to add to my ongoing vintage aloha shirt collection. Number 808 is another must-stop shop for more Hawai‘i nostalgia goods. Owens and Co. is great when I’m looking for gifts to bring back to the mainland.”

For Food
“I eat at my dad’s shop, Okata Bento, as much as possible of course. Visiting my calabash ʻohana at The Pig and the Lady and Piggy Smalls, as well as one of their farmers market stands, is a must. Other favorites include Pioneer Saloon because the mochiko chicken is bomb, Yama’s Fish Market, Tamura’s for all my beach grinds, Liliha Bakery at the original spot on Liliha for my late-night needs, Kaimuki Superette for my farm-to-table fix, Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Ethel’s Grill for everything.”

For Beaches
“Being a townie, Kaimana and Tonggs are go-to beaches for my friends and me to link up at. On O‘ahu’s North Shore, we’ll usually go to Ke Iki beach. Lanikai is great for a swim and an Instagram moment, but I avoid it on weekends.”