Yoko Shimada, founder of fashion label Mitera, tells Lily Smith why she’s passionate about supporting modern mothers
Yoko Shimada is a woman on a mission. Her aim is to make motherhood easier for women across the world – something she plans to do through her US-based fashion label Mitera.
The Japanese-born Yoko is not shy of a challenge. She moved to the US at the age of 16, graduated from college and worked as a health specialist at the World Bank in India and Africa. But her biggest challenge to date, she admits, has been becoming mother to Hugo and Emmeline. “Nobody really tells you how truly challenging it can be.”
Yoko felt there was a social expectation of mothers to be superwomen: handling home life, breezing back into work and to be happy.
Breastfeeding, for example, was an unforeseen hardship. “I spent my career educating women all over the world about the importance of breastfeeding,” she says. “But when it was my turn, I realised how hard it actually was. Constant breastfeeding sessions every few hours meant no sleep and my nipples cracked and bled and hurt.”
Then came the challenge of breastfeeding in public and at work. Yoko returned to her job as a health specialist – where she’s been working for the last 15 years – just four months after having her first baby, Hugo.
Despite her avid preparation, she felt uncomfortable and awkward in the workplace. The tiny lactation room was in a dark, ill-suited basement so she ended up having to pump in her office. Clothing had become a problem, too. She wore nursing clothes that were unflattering and unsuitable for work. Her self-esteem dwindled completely.
“I felt exhausted, unattractive, unfit and unappreciated,” she says. “As well as that, I couldn’t dress normally. There was nothing on the market that worked for me. I wanted something well-designed and high-quality that I could wear beyond the nursing and pumping period of my life.”
Yoko believes fashion has an important place in people’s lives, not only as a means of self-expression but also of empowerment – particularly important when you’re not feeling your best. “Women can feel self-conscious after pregnancy. Maternity and postpartum wardrobes can either hinder or support women’s transition into motherhood.”
After experiencing theses challenges first hand, Yoko started to create nursing dresses designed to be more feminine and functional. She wore the dresses herself, and after the compliments she received at work, decided to launch her business. And so Mitera was born.
Designed to fit the lifestyle of a busy mother, Mitera’s dresses come in neutral colours and have a built-in patent-pending zip and liner system for easy and discreet feeding and pumping. The high-quality stretch material is easily washable, while the fitted modesty bra offers extra privacy.
And style is not compromised for functionality, with chic, timeless and elegant designs. “I want women to feel like they are done the minute they put on our dresses – mums are always short of time, right?”
Providing support for modern mothers is at the forefront of Mitera’s ethos and this includes women in the developing world. “Pregnancy and childbirth should be one of the happiest times of a woman’s life, yet the reality in many places is different,” says Yoko. “Each year, one million babies die the same day they are born and around 290,000 mothers die during pregnancy or childbirth.
“With our Mother to Mother programme, we identify companies working to improve maternal and newborn health and partner with them to help save newborns and radically improve their chances of living healthy and productive lives.”
With plans to expand the dress range, Mitera’s future is looking healthy, too. And Yoko remains committed to closing the gap between society’s unaccommodating expectations of mothers in the workplace and the tools available.
Raising a baby isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But with Mitera, Yoko hopes to make it just that little bit easier.