A Design Visionary

TIMES FASHION WRITER

For 12 years Patty Glover of Glendale has been an avid contact lens wearer, never thinking about switching to eyeglasses. Then six months ago, she went crazy for Kata--specifically for frame No. 47.

For nearly an hour, she admired the artfully designed handcrafted frame with spiral temples resembling coned seashells and itty-bitty ripples, like waves of water--a fusion of shape and form, the definition of Kata, a Japanese word.

"I just had to have them," Glover recalls about the $380 eyeglasses she now wears every day instead of contacts.

Blake Kuwahara would have been pleased. The 39-year-old former Manhattan Beach optometrist is the designer and founder of Kata eyewear.

In 1990, he said farewell to his patients at his private practice, where he was simply known as Dr. K and turned to designing high-end eyewear.

His hip, minimalist designs are turning the heads and eyes of fashion movers and shakers. Will Smith, Minnie Driver, Jewel, Val Kilmer and now stockbroker Patty Glover are among his fans.

Kuwahara, a fourth-generation Japanese American, is one of only two eyewear designers to be granted membership to the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York. He has been recognized by the eyewear trade magazine 20/20 for his design originality and cited by the French fashion press for his work.

Many in the fashion industry believe that Kuwahara's designs--inspired by the essentials of the Japanese garden--water, plant life and stones--are unique because of his attention to texture, detail and dimension. His combination of materials such as metal with plastic, are innovative, using new technology to cast the two so that the lines are fluid, streamlined and seamless, screws disguised into the frame.

"He is an artist with his work," says Stan Herman, council president. "Blake is very craft-minded, and that's one of the prime reasons you get into CFDA--because what you produce is an art form. It's extraordinary how far he has pressed the fashion envelope."

Others are equally impressed by Kuwahara's jump from optometrist to designer, from Dr. K to Kata king.

Kuwahara, who grew up in Monterey Park, says that as a kid he was always creative, turning weird stuff into art. His beloved grandmother, Sally Hashimoto, 82, is a world traveler and artist who loves interior designing and making jewelry.

"I was certainly inspired by her and her way of looking at things in a completely abstract, nonconventional way," says Kuwahara during a recent visit to Los Angeles from his home in Sausalito.

Prior to Designing,

Science Beckoned Him

Really, he says, he never dreamed that he'd be a designer.

He was supposed to be a dentist.

At Alhambra High School, he excelled in science, consistently scoring high in aptitude tests, his teachers always pushing Kuwahara into the field, says his mother, Candice Kuwahara.

As a sophomore he won a grant from NASA and the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry to research a project on the effects of a specific corticosteriod on tooth development. Later, his paper was one of five entered in a statewide competition. Kuwahara's was selected, and the teenager presented his work at a national symposium at Duke University.

Soon he was at UCLA studying dentistry, which didn't last long because "I didn't want to have my fingers in people's mouths all day."

And, besides, he became queasy at the sight of blood.

So he opted for his second career choice: optometry school at UC Berkeley, earning his doctorate there in 1986.

"It was a clean profession, no blood," he says, and it appealed to him "because it had that medical side to it. The balance was right--medicine and science."

Still, says Candice, who lives in Monterey Park with her husband, Shigeji Kuwahara, her eldest child "always had a natural tendency towards art and design." The couple produced three other children, sons Joel and Tod and daughter Diana.

All, says Candice, wear eyeglasses "and it's mandatory that we wear Kata," she adds, laughing. Last year, Kuwahara treated his parents to a trip to Japan and took them to the factory where each and every frame is hand-tooled, a process that includes more than 100 steps.

She recalls, "Blake was always creating something, always bringing home weird stuff and saying, 'Mom can you use this for a coffee table?' One time he rolled a giant spool--a monstrous wheel for telephone cable--uphill on our street. He made a desk out of it."

When her son left optometry for designing eyeglasses, all she could think was, " 'All that education down the drain.' But he knew what he was doing. He has a passion for design. He's a risk-taker. That's Blake."

Says Kuwahara about the risk: "All I wanted was the chance to jump into a totally different side of the industry."

And to challenge himself as well as others in the business "to think out of the box and approach eye-wear in a completely different way, more like jewelry, more like a fashion accessory and not merely a medical device."

He first landed a job in product development for Liz Claiborne Optics--and in his free time began drawing and creating prototypes for his own signature line, "something that had my own touch and feel to it, a line which reflected my interests and my likes."

"At the time there was really nothing in the marketplace that sort of addressed an aspect of eyewear," which he says was either "really outlandish, wacky or a generic product that had designer labels slapped on them."

He wanted to produce eyewear "that was artful but also wearable."

His prototypes caught the attention of Russell Haft, founder, owner and president of eyeOTA, a privately held company in Culver City that markets and distributes high-end eyewear collections.

In 1992, Kuwahara signed Kata to the company, which also distributes Isaac Mizrahi eyewear. But it's Kata that has become eyeOTA's house brand. Kuwahara also is the firm's creative director.

Streamlined Simplicity,

as Inspired by Nature

To date, the Kata label includes four collections: Gaia, designs based on elements of nature; Ethos, on motion and movement; Tribal, on urban influences; and Sunwear, style-driven designs that borrow from all three.

Kata sales have gone from $200,000 in fewer than 100 stores to more than $8 million today in more than 1,000 optical boutiques and specialty shops, including Los Angeles' Fred Segal, Maxfield, Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The optometrist-turned-designer is also known for his artistic simplicity--and streamlined designs, almost aerodynamic--inspired by what he sees in everyday surroundings: rocks, leaves, tattoos, the human body, a door hinge.

And then there are his hard-to-describe shapes. Forget pure round or oval shades--that's too boring for Dr. K, who prefers to test the bounds of geometry: squares that want to be circles, circles that want to be rectangles, rectangles that want to be octagons--shapes that Herman, of the fashion designers' council, says are a part of fashion's "new modern art form."

Tom Julian, fashion trend analyst for New York's Fallon McElligott, an advertising agency, agrees.

"I remember when Blake first launched his collection at Barneys New York. The arm of the frame, the brow bar, it's all about texture and construction, about art," Julian says.

He says Kuwahara's Kata designs are "totally unique to the market" because "he has an understanding as to what it takes to bring a new design level to the eyewear business. He's taking something that was once totally purposeful and making it something totally artistic."

Julian says these days customers "are lusting after the look of customization" in clothes and accessories, a trend he predicts will only gain fuel in the new millennium. "People are really into this mind set of wanting special things, things that make us a little different, and that's what Blake is offering."

And he's doing it so well that customers are forking over hundreds of dollars to get his frames with nonprescription lenses.

"I've been selling a lot of his frames in nonprescription form because patients like the balance and simplicity of his designs," says Barbara Duff, an optician who manages Optometry Unlimited at Encino Place Mall.

When Duff reopened the shop at its new location seven months ago, she says she had to have Kata on board, "my No. 1 choice."

"I read the eyewear publications, went to the optical trade shows and saw his frames, touched them and tried them on. I was blown away by the hand-tooled workmanship," she says.

Optometrist Eric Bass, who studied at UC Berkeley with Kuwahara, wears only Kata "because Blake understands what a patient needs: a comfortable fashion statement."

Fashion statement or not, Glover, the Glendale stockbroker, says she was sold on frame No. 47--with clip-on sunshades--because "the design was so awesome looking." These days, her Katas are her favorite accessory.

Kuwahara says he is thrilled that eyewear has become a legitimate fashion accessory. "But my philosophy is that eyewear should really enhance one's personality and not take away from it," he says. "It's about appreciating the aesthetic, the subtle details that only you know about. It's your secret."

He pauses for several seconds and then adds with a grin:

"It's almost like wearing sexy underwear that no one else can see because only you know what you are wearing."

Now, that's an eyeful.

Michael Quintanilla can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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