Daphne Mohajer Va Pesaran

Two rooms in west Tokyo is ample space for fashion designer Daphne Mohajer Va Pesaran to balance her home and work


John Burns


Cameron Allan McKean


Five years ago, Daphne Mohajer Va Pesaran traded an ‘Iranian island’ upbringing in Ottawa for two rooms in west Tokyo.

‘As you probably know, apartments in Tokyo are really, really small. Like, really small. Like, one room and you don’t have a bed.’ She describes her house as ‘kind of “luxurious”’. ‘It’s not,’ she says, ‘but it is a little special because I have a studio and I have a bedroom,’ she says. ‘Two rooms. It’s a lot!’



I really love having ample sunlight and watching it move through the room during the day. Like a cat, I just kind of follow it

The two-storey house she shares with a friend is in Kōenji, a low-rise, suburban neighbourhood two stops west of Shinjuku on the Chūō Line. Though the space could be described, politely, as ‘compact’, Daphne says she has struck lucky.

‘I have a studio, I have ample closet space, I have beautiful windows, I have lots of light. We also have a kitchen. Our shower is in the kitchen – it’s a bit weird – and then we have a backyard with a garden. It’s very rare to get this in Tokyo, but it’s a really old wooden house so nobody wants to live here.’

Daphne originally moved to Tokyo ‘to learn how to make shoes’, but, saddened to realise that it would take the best part of ten years to do so, graduated from Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion Graduate University with a master’s in Fashion Design instead; ‘I guess now I’m a dressmaker.’

It is a humble description of her work, however – from the small studio adjoining her bedroom, Daphne designs and makes custom-order pieces, costumes and one-off garments. Some of her creations are stocked at Garter, an avant-garde fashion boutique down the road in Kōenji’s Kita-Kore building – a favourite of J-pop stars and Lady Gaga. As well, Daphne also lectures in fashion design at Bunka Gakuen University – ‘the biggest, and oldest, fashion school here’ – and freelances as a photographer.

‘Kōenji’s nice,’ she says, summing up her neighbourhood. ‘It’s known for its vintage clothing and retro culture.’ Considered the birthplace of Japanese punk rock, Kōenji is becoming a bit ‘shibui’ these days – Japanese slang for a vague sentiment which, essentially, means ‘at once cool and traditional.’

‘The great thing about Kōenji is that there are shōtengai,’ Daphne says of her love for the narrow streets, lined with shops. ‘In North America, you go and buy everything in one giant big store but here, you have the fish guy, you have the tofu guy, you have the pillow and duvet salesman, and then you have the guy who makes one kind of doughnut.’

Daphne was able to sign for the apartment with the help of a family friend. ‘In order to do anything here, like get an apartment, you have to have a guarantor. My guarantor is my mum’s Iranian national volleyball team coach from the 1970s,’ she says. ‘He’s 70 and he’s really nice. He’s always, like, “You do good job! Good job. When you get married?” So, whenever I get really homesick, I spend time with him and he tells me stories about my mum and says things in Farsi.’

Both of Daphne’s parents were born in Iran, leaving for Canada just before the 1979 revolution and settling, eventually, in Ottawa. Despite the fact her parents never returned to Iran, Daphne describes her upbringing in the Canadian capital as ‘really Iranian.’ Farsi was spoken; Googoosh was played. ‘I really, really, really want to go to Iran,’ she says. ‘I want to go and see these places that I’ve heard so many stories about my whole life. And eat everything.’

Traces of Daphne’s Iranian heritage dot her Tokyo apartment – a family sofreh here, an old santour there. Her belongings are her decor, she says, and she describes the style of her home as ‘incidental’. ‘Rather than making too many decisions about it, what’s important to me is the studio, my tools and my books and plants. One of my walls is completely windows. I really love having ample sunlight and watching it move through the room during the day. Like
a cat, I just kind of follow it.’

Books point to her inspirations, her shelves lined with works on primitive jewellery, Egyptian tombs, Iranian children’s tales, Turkish carpets, Japanese armour, Ghanaian fabrics, magical symbols and Dostoyevsky’s romantic stories. ‘I mean, anything can be inspiring, right?’ she says. ‘As long as your mind is in the right place at the right time. It can be a song, it can be soup, I don’t know.’

Most of the furnishings in the apartment are made of dark wood, like the compartmented antique thread display that she saved from a dumpster and says is ‘perfect for all of her little things.’ Most other pieces, too, are salvaged, bought cheaply at Musashino-shi Silver Jinzai Recycling Center in Mitaka.

I wanted to experience living in a new culture, to start again and see what kind of person I could become

‘I wanted to experience living in a new culture, to start again and see what kind of person I could become,’ she says of her decision to move to Tokyo. After five years, Daphne now speaks better Japanese than she does Farsi, though still finds the art of Japanese conversation a little awkward. ‘You can just sit there and be like, “Ahhh… I don’t know what to say,” or, sometimes, you don’t know when you’re supposed to leave the room.’

Day to day, Daphne’s work is her obsession, a craft she still enjoys learning about. ‘I often just wake up and brush my teeth and get right to work at my desk. Sometimes I don’t even do that – I just get out of bed and right into it.’

Daphne is slowly coming to terms with the fact that Tokyo will be her base for a long time yet. ‘I love its infrastructure and nature balance, karaoke, trains, the food, the number of art galleries in the city, the way people dress, cute old ladies and hidden gems,’ she says. ‘You can get anything you want in Tokyo. Like, if you want a guy who just collects chunks of comets, you can find a store that does that.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.