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STYLEMAKER / Blake Kuwahara

A Design Visionary

His high-end eyewear--sporting innovative, fluid shapes and hand-tooled workmanship--is turning heads in trendy circles.

July 23, 1999|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | 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."

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