Fashion has always been hard coded into Vina Murad’s identity. Born into a Kurdish family from Iraq but raised in Sweden and England, she fondly remembers loving the Bratz dolls series, pouring over fashion magazines and spending hours playing Flash-based dress-up games as a child. Online, she goes by Mikan Mandarin, and quickly became a household name in the blogosphere. 

Since moving to Japan, Mikan has been able to turn her fashion dreams into reality through her entertaining YouTube vlogs and Instagram posts that document her life and outfits. The success of her content has empowered her to further explore fashion through other means. She’s now a business owner of Vina of the Valley, a brand that encompasses her personal aesthetic and hopes to share it with the world.

Photo by Rachel Hyman

No Genre Fits All

“I love J-fashion and was exposed to it from a young age through anime and artists like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. But I didn’t own a single thing from Japan for years,” says Mikan. At that time, Japanese brands like Liz Lisa were either expensive or inaccessible. It wasn’t until Mikan was around 16 or 17 years old that she started working various part-time jobs to pay for clothing online that wasn’t strictly from Japan but had elements of J-fashion that she liked.

Looking at Mikan’s fashion photos, there’s certainly a strong sense of Lolita, a Japanese fashion subculture influenced by Victorian clothes from the Rococo era, but it’s difficult to truly pinpoint what her genre she falls into. One photo of her outside a café could have Mikan in a pink and white dress, high socks and a cardigan with knitted strawberries on them. In another, she has black thigh-high laced boots, a red tartan print and dark red lips to complement the look.

“I find it hard to put labels on things,” she says. “I really just base my fashion choices on a gut feeling and whether I think ‘oh, that’s cute.’ I do take inspiration from Lolita styles, but I’m also inspired by vintage, cottagecore, doll magazines and past trends, like loose socks from the 1990s.”


Fashion for the Masses

Fashion in Japan is often noted for its lack of inclusivity as most of the country’s local brands are only available in one or two sizes or have the dreaded “free size” label which is anything but. This has long been one of Mikan’s pet peeves and is one of the key reasons she started Vina of the Valley.

“My label is still a small business, but we’ve been able to do seven sizes from launch,” she says. “In my honest opinion, this still isn’t enough, but we are hoping to increase the size options as the brand grows. And if my humble brand can do this much from the beginning, it really baffles me that big brands can’t go beyond S-M-L. Not only are these companies not thinking their audiences through, but it is really damaging to perpetuate unrealistic body standards. Not everyone here is the same size and that is okay.”

Much of the viability of Vina of the Valley, Mikan attributes to her social media following.  She already had a loyal fanbase who then became potential customers. She asserts that, despite the ongoing controversy surrounding social media and its potential mental health impact, her overall experience on various platforms has been positive.

“Growing up as a child of immigrants from Iraq, you’re encouraged to make logical life choices because stability is what you crave,” she says. “I never thought I’d be able to support myself through creative ventures like being a content creator and now, the owner of my own fashion label in Japan. My YouTube channel taking off is what gave me the confidence to pursue creativity as a career.”

Photo by Rachel Hyman

Running a small business means Mikan is often spinning several plates at once including coming up with the designs, dealing with factories that produce the clothes, social media marketing, customer service and more. Some speed bumps she’s had to face in this journey have been related to logistics, such as the astronomical fees incurred with import tax and processing returns (Vina of the Valley unfortunately no longer accepts returns) as well as PayPal issues that impact cash flow.

‘The brand is an extension of myself and what it stands for directly reflects on me,” Mikan says. “This is why my audience’s trust in Vina of the Valley means everything to me. I hold myself accountable and ensure that whatever I say publicly about the brand is true and it happens, even if I have to swallow unforeseen costs that may make something not profitable anymore.”

Put Yourself Out There

Want to follow in the footsteps of Mikan’s fashion-forward path? She encourages people to put themselves out there.

“There are many ways to get into fashion, whether you’re a designer wanting to make clothes, or a stylist wanting to dress people with your personal touch,” she says. “The important thing is to work hard on your presence and get your work seen by others as it can lead to more opportunities.”

Vina of the Valley’s Fall-Winter collection has just launched with an adorable apron set that’s perfect for long nights and temperature drops here in Japan. Not wanting to lose momentum, Mikan is excited to already be working on the brand’s Spring-Summer releases as there’s talk about adding shoes to the brand’s line of products.

Follow Vina of the Valley on Instagram and Twitter, and check out their website.