Josie Natori is an American fashion designer and the CEO and founder of The Natori Company. In 1977, Natori left a successful career in finance for an even more successful career in fashion. She spoke to Steinway & Sons about her professional and pianistic passions and her two Steinway Model D concert grands.
You’ve achieved success as a businesswoman and an entrepreneur. Is there anything — a person in your life, a philosophy — any one thing to which you could attribute your repeated successes?
I don’t necessarily focus on having been successful; it’s not in my mindset. I feel I’m still on a journey — of course I’m very fortunate to be where I am — but I think the best is yet to come! In terms of people who have influenced me, there are many, including my parents: my father was a self-made man, started from nothing. Really amazing women: my grandmother, who was an entrepreneur and, I would say, a feminist in her time. And a wonderful Russian piano professor — Olga Stroumillo — who coached me, and happened to be the best friend of Horowitz. So in a funny way I lived vicariously going to the concerts and actually meeting Horowitz through my relationship with Madame Olga Stroumillo. She influenced me a lot, from just how she coached me on the piano.
You played with the Manila Philharmonic at the age of nine!
Yes, I played a concerto with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra. That was quite special. I started playing the piano at four — my mother is also a pianist; she never got her degree in it, but did play some recitals and concerts. Being the eldest of the family, there was no doubt that I would get a degree and pursue piano somehow.
And you had a rather unusual 50th birthday celebration, playing for nearly three thousand friends at Carnegie Hall?
Piano has turned out to be a personal love for me in that I'm happiest at the piano. Although it was something I knew that I would never want to do professionally — I just don't have the temperament — it was very much a part of my life. And after building my business in this country and abandoning the piano for many, many years, I decided that I wanted a gift — to prove to myself that I could play a concert again. At age fifty, I decided that would be my gift, and I practiced for three years with the ambition that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right: at Carnegie Hall with a fabulous orchestra.
How was that experience?
There is nothing like it. Even when I first had the rehearsal I said, “Oh my god, this is what you worked for.” It is so glorious. That doesn’t mean I played so well, but it didn’t matter. It was just that kind of feeling that you work toward, a feeling of euphoria and just like “wow!” when you have that singular thing. I played the Schumann Concerto in A minor plus the last movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. It was probably the highlight of my life.
How did you choose the works?
I was being coached by Robert DeGaetano. He and I both studied under Madame Olga Stroumillo, so we took the same kind of approach to piano and the same philosophy. I guess Madame knew that after she passed I would work with Robert, although Robert had taught my son first. When I spoke with him about my idea he had the patience to work with me for three years. Really the musical choices were mutual. I am a Romantic at heart. I love Rachmaninoff. Schumann I wasn't as familiar with, but it turned out to be a wonderful piece. I think Robert knew where I was leaning.
Do you only play classical?
Oh no, I actually am more comfortable playing popular music for people. I play by ear, and I grew up where I was always asked to play for guests. I'd pass a tin cup, and for every piece I played I’d get a peso or something. It was always expected for any event: “Okay, now you'll play the piano.” That’s how I stuck enough to have the gift. You just sing a tune and I can play it. I do love popular standards and the old hits. It's a pleasure to be able to entertain guests. It's part of the art of Natori — I play the piano for guests whether at this home or our other homes.
Are there parallels between playing by ear and entrepreneurship?
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Yes, in so many ways my business is very much related to my musicality — always looking for the next note or another way to play the same music. I learned my business on the job. I had no idea what I was doing. You go with it, and you're just daring. I always say you never play the same note twice; that's what's kept me going.
It’s been almost forty years in our business. You’re never sitting still, you’re always trying to improve. Even when the idea is very clear and the vision or the spirit of the brand is there, you're always going another notch, another way, another interpretation, an evolution. Always working at it. And that's true with music: you're always exploring. There’s always a surprise. Again, you never play the same thing the same way. That’s what’s so beautiful about it; you never know what sound you can produce. It’s having that passion to keep at it and discover something. That’s how I believe I have approached the business, and we’re still around almost forty years later.
‘I would venture to say a home is not complete without a piano.’
Do you still study piano?
Yes. It's such a difficult instrument. For as long as I've played the piano it's been most challenging and to this day I am intimidated. I just know there is so much more I need to work on. If I ever gave it the time, I'd be better than I am. There’s always a better way to do something and there's better sound and a better way to produce it. Other pieces to play that I won't even touch because I'm not sure I can do it. It's so challenging. I have likely approached our business that way. You just keep at it; you don't stop. I happen to love the fashion business, have the passion for it. You just keep at it you know, you take the challenge. In the end, I think that's what gets me going. Evolving and all that. It’s the same with music.
It's not every day you see two grand pianos in a Manhattan apartment. Can you tell us about your Steinways?
In every home that we've had, the first object I have is a piano. To me, there's no home without a piano. The luxury of having two grand pianos here is very special because it was in fact to practice for my birthday concert. Robert would play the orchestra, I would be the soloist. I didn't want just any piano to accompany me. It really was very special to be able to practice the concertos with Steinways, to prepare for what it would be, for playing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. It really gave me an idea of what it would be like and really just helped me a lot.
How Did You Select Your Steinways?
Oh, selecting the Steinways! That is a story in itself. I should admit I have quite a number of pianos, every one of them Steinway. I can't even imagine playing another piano. That's not even an option. A Steinway piano is so unique, not stuck. You can calibrate it in different ways — voices and action, but the bones are always there. The Steinway, it's there to help you. It is very human. It's a living thing.
Through the years, I've added to my collection of Steinways. Every piano had a story. Including my piano in Paris. It's a personal enjoyment that I have with each of the pianos.
How do your pianos differ? You mentioned your Steinway in Paris versus your Steinways here.
That was my first Hamburg piano, the one in Paris. I have another Hamburg piano in Palm Beach. Each of them has wonderful character. Every one of them — and I play in different homes — I love each of them. I think they feel at home where they are.
Do they bring different things out of you in your music?
It's really magical, that Steinway sound. I can't say I have one favorite, I just enjoy when I'm there and know what's there and I'm always surprised. Yesterday I hadn't been in our country home for a few months and I played — it's a totally different environment, all windows and all that, it's just magic. The piano surprises me each time. That sound is like nothing else in the world. It's probably my best friend, the sound coming out of my pianos.
As a designer, do you have any thoughts on the aesthetics of a piano in a home?
I don't consider it a decoration. To me, a piano is my right hand and a piece of living artwork. From a design point of view, it just gives life to a room — whether you play the piano or you don't. I do have friends who have pianos who don’t play, who think they might play. Whether you are a classical pianist or pop, I think the sound that can be produced is so artful. I would venture to say a home is not complete without a piano.
Tell me about your music room.
When I bought this concert grand it was before this room existed. We renovated the apartment. We'd been in the building for decades, but I wanted to make sure that when we finally renovated I would have the music room I wanted that could fit two pianos. The acoustics! It's really my favorite room in the entire apartment. The way it was built was, honestly, it's the closest thing I can get to Carnegie Hall. It's so magical. You can sit in there and just feel that music envelop you. These are two huge pianos, you would think there's no way you can have this, it's going to be nothing but a big bang and noise. It's not true. There's something about it: even though they're so big they just kind of work for this room. It's very special. If I'm in the mood or if I like the guest then I bring them to sit in that room. And I also had just imagined having musical evenings. It's a fantasy like the olden times. Music to me is a very integral part of having guests in your home, particularly when I'm able to play for them and they sing along. It's really a signature Natori way of having guests at home — they know to expect that there will be music. That room is specially created for that.
Can you tell me about any of the other pieces you have in there — the art for instance?
The room is meant to create a sense of serenity in a way. It's very calming. One of my favorite pieces in the house is the lacquer Buddha that I acquired in Vietnam a long time ago, a very ancient one. On the right is a very old Chinese stone sculpture. It gives a sense of peace and beauty. There's a sense of repose and you're just there and you settle in. It has that kind of serene feeling.
I am a big collector of antique fabrics and I have a collection of tapestries, embroidered things that for over forty years have been really the inspiration for what Natori is today: the East–West sensibility. I love to always be surrounded by art, not just looking but using it. As you can see it's part of the doors to open to the TV.
And this is a jade fudong, the Chinese jade dragon. Through the years I collected and bought pieces that I loved because I like looking at them. I think it seems to be perfect. It’s like a guard, but with a very regal look. It’s a massive piece, really very artful.
That’s basically that. It’s really all about the pianos — they are the main stars.
‘Music is everything in my life. I think there’s something about your relationship with a piano because there's no intermediary, it’s just you and the instrument.’
Especially for a creative person. What role does piano have in your life as a creative?
Music is everything in my life. I think there's something about your relationship with a piano because there's no intermediary, it's just you and the instrument. I think from a creative point of view, it's the most personal way of expressing one's self. In the design part of your life, you express yourself in how you dress and what you create and all that. But I think this is the most intimate way of expressing yourself, the piano, because that sound you produce comes from within. The feeling of being able to produce beautiful sounds is such a gift.
My music is a huge factor in why I’m still at it forty years later in this nutty business. I still like it. The day I stop liking it, I’m gone. You’re seeking that unnamable state, you're seeking that nirvana. Sometimes you have glimpses of it when you’re playing this concerto and you’re so together with the other, which is the orchestra — it’s magical. That’s what you search for — everything just connects.