When I meet Chiharu Sei at a coffee shop in Bushwick, nothing about her apparel suggests that she's one of the skate world's most in-demand artists. She’s covered in designer clothing from head to toe, to start—Louis Vuitton watch and scarf, matching shoes, YSL bag. The only hint that she's deep into skate culture is the Fucking Awesome T-shirt hidden beneath her Prada jacket. “It was a gift from Fucking Awesome,” she tells me, dropping the skate brand’s name casually. Fucking Awesome, of course, is a big deal in its world: it's the buzzy skate and clothing label headed by Jason Dill, with whom Sei has formed a close and unlikely friendship.
It’s nighttime, but Sei insists on ordering a coffee—she’s jetlagged after an LA trip, having spent the last few days hanging out with Dill and painting his portrait for a new deck. “Jason is like no one you’ve ever met before,” she says. “He makes such unique expressions, and it makes drawing him the more fulfilling.” she tells me. This was Sei’s second time painting Dill, but that she’s in this position at all is still something of a surprise.
Three years ago, Dill and Sei were introduced by her manager at the Louis Vuitton store in New York’s Soho. At the time, Dill was shopping for his next luxurious buy. Sei was working as a sales associate, but working her way toward becoming a regional artisan—someone who does custom paintings on the brand's hard-sided luggage. Sei recognized Dill immediately. “I remember seeing him in a lookbook at Supreme and thinking to myself, ‘That guy has such an interesting style,’” she tells me. She had decided to sketch a drawing of Dill on her phone at the time—and then, when he came into the store, she worked up the nerve to show it to him.
Dill must have liked what he saw, because, a few days after the encounter, he reached out to Sei with a task: he wanted her to design a board for Supreme skater Sean Pablo. A few months later, Sei’s Ex Machina-inspired sketch of the skater was printed onto decks and sold through Fucking Awesome, a huge co-sign from the skate world for an artist. The product performed so well that Dill hired her again: first to sketch a design for 2018 Thrasher Skater of the Year Tyshawn Jones, and then to paint a design of Dill himself. “I really love how Chiharu’s art works so well with FA and what we do,” Dill tells me over the phone. “The pro model graphics she’s done for us are absolutely stunning.” Sei describes her work as bridging the graphic and realistic, but the delicacy and intricacy of her composition sets her style apart.
When we meet, I remark that she's been lucky to get such a big break, but she cuts me off and reminds me of the years of preparation that led her here. Sei doesn’t believe in luck so much as timing. “If you don't prepare, you’ll never get it. I think you prepare and then an opportunity comes and then meets it at the right place,” she says.
Nearly 14 years ago, the Japanese-born painter moved to New York with $6000 and no knowledge of the English language. She was looking for a fresh start, and chose a city where public transportation was easily accessible. During a language class, she met her first friend—someone who happened to be looking for someone to sublease his Flatbush apartment. She worked a number of jobs, from waitressing tables to working at a nail salon. Those experiences, along with reality TV and a binge of Sex and the City, helped her master English. Looking for a new gig that would make use of her newfound bilingual skills, she began working as a buyer and assistant manager at a Japanese hat store in Soho. Sei was so popular with clients that a manager at Coach, looking to add a Japanese speaker to her team, sought her out and offered a job.
Sei thought of her art as a hobby, but when a secret shopper for Vuitton—someone the company sends to measure a store’s quality of service—scouted her at Coach and offered her a job as a sales associate, she was ready to grab the opportunity. She was keenly aware of LV's painting services: designs, from realistic portraits of dogs to skylines and psychedelic multicolor dreamscapes, that make an already-rare piece of luggage a true one-of-one. So she accepted the position, and set a goal to become an LV artisan within five years. “I always talked about my love for art, and would make personalized birthday cards and thank you notes for my clients,” Sei says. Those grew popular with clients, captured the attention of upper-level employees, and, after only a year, led to a permanent position as a regional artisan in 2017.
In her new role, Sei has traveled all over the world with Louis Vuitton, sketching customized pieces for clients at private events and even training other artisans to do the same. She also managed to turn the coolest musicians in the world into clients: both Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky have purchased her luggage work. When the Odd Future leader spotted Sei’s hand-painted cabs on a Louis Vuitton trunk, he immediately bought the piece rather than waiting for her to paint him his own. For the A$AP Mob member, Sei hand-painted the car from his "Gunz N Butter" music video onto a trunk, just in time for his Injured Generation tour.
It was a short step from there to Dill, on the lookout for ways to take his skate brand to the next level. "An artist like Chiharu is so interesting because when you encounter the work she is known for, the Louis Vuitton painted luggage, which is incredible on its own, in itself is a career,” Dill says. “But this is a woman that could easily do solo shows with extremely dreamlike landscapes and human interaction that people would be blown away by.”
Sei agrees, and hopes that within the next year she will find time to paint for herself. “I really would like to do shows and exhibits, but right now I’m just too busy. But freelancing the skate pieces is just as artistically stimulating,” she says. Next in the queue are designs for Diego Najera and Shane O'Neill, both highly-acclaimed skaters who reached out to Sei for artwork after seeing her decks with Fucking Awesome. “I’d also really like to paint Sage Elsesser. He has such a beautiful look and just as beautiful spirit,” she says, referring to the skater-turned-Supreme model.
So how is it that someone who doesn’t skate developed such an interest in the sport? Sei reminisces about her male-dominiant friend group growing up in Osaka, and the influence they had on her style. “All of them skated, and dressed like skaters, and at the time I was into tomboy clothing, so I dressed like them too.” And when she got to the States, she had an experience that so many of us new to the city have had: she remembers walking into a Supreme when she first moved to New York and not only falling in love with the apparel, but with the eyes of skaters in the short videos playing in the shop. “When they skate, their eyes are so passionate and curious. You don't see those eyes in a normal day,” she says. “It’s something an artist would notice.”
Originally Appeared on GQ