It’s unmistakable that Sairen owners Kaitlin Uemura and Kaitlin Madriaga are twin flames. Friends from college and co-owners of their fashion design label, Morning Siren, they have a long history of creating together.
“Everyone knows we’re such good friends and we would always play guitar and have jam sessions together ” Uemura said. “So our fashion line name is actually loosely based off of a band name we once made in college. Instead of Morning Siren, our band name was going to be Weekend Mornings. It’s a nod to how we’ve been hanging out and doing creative things for a long time.”
Their journey from fashion to boutique owners was serendipitous, but not without hard work and preparation.
For thirteen years, the storefront space was home to Momo, a beloved Japanese boutique inspired by Asian and European influences. The store was host to many beautiful brands, including Morning Siren. The owners, husband-wife duo Lei Ann Shiramizu and Tom Kleifgen, also knew Uemura well because she was a Momo employee.
“In early 2020, pre-Coronavirus, I sat down with Tom and Lei Ann at dinner and we just talked about life in general, but they mentioned they might want to retire at some point,” Uemura said. “They gave us a little sneak peek that maybe if we wanted to do something we could. It was more like we were just drinking some sake and tossing ideas around about what I could do in my future. But then they mentioned that if we wanted to take over the space, it might be a possibility.”
As Uemera and Madriaga seriously considered the opportunity, the decision became increasingly difficult once the pandemic hit. They knew it would pose unique obstacles to open during such a challenging time. But they reached out to their community, and found many helping hands ready to support them.
“We got a lot of mentorship from Lei Ann and Tom, as well as another small business owner of Sassafras — we sold our clothes there as well, her name is Amy,” Madriaga said. “We had a lot of help making a decision to even venture in the small business.”
And their opening in November 2020 was a hit. Despite the fact that they needed to open on an appointment-only basis, the appointments were fully booked and nearby businesses offered generous, neighborly support.
“On our opening weekend, we were able to offer free desserts with every purchase in partnership with the Panama [Hotel],” “It’s really great to have us to refer to each other and kind of help each other out. People always come in and ask, ‘Oh where should we eat tonight,’ and we say, you definitely have to try this restaurant [Itsumono].”
Being located in the Japantown-International District is an important part of Uemura and Madriaga’s identity and mission. They worked with the landlord of the building to envision the way the space would continue to be a stronghold for community and culture. As two Hawaiian-born Asian-Americans, their vision for the business is rooted firmly in their experience.
“The name of our store symbolizes what it represents,” Uemura said. “Our store is called Sairen, and our fashion line is called Morning Siren, which was our first business venture as two Asian-American artists. I’m fourth generation and Kaitlin is third generation. So, we’re Asian-American to a tee, we have mixed cultures. When we thought about branding and what our store could be called we finally settled on Sairen which is the phonetic spelling of the word in our fashion line, siren. That’s why the extra ‘a’ is added in there, because the Japanese way to say that word would have the ‘a’ included. We also wrote the title out in katakana, which is the writing you use to translate American words … So that’s kind of how that came about to figure out what we’re representing in our space, but also feel authentic to the Japantown corner and feel like it’s the next generation taking on the corner spot.”
With the cheeky branding nod to their mixed cultures and the fresh, unique items Sairen has curated, the space has noticeably turned over a new leaf. The co-owners say they’re excited to be part of a new generation breathing life into and commitment to the area.
“We wanted the space to feel familiar, that familiar Japantown, Momo vibe, but also a new refresh for the new generation,” Madriaga said. “And that’s exactly the feedback we’ve got from people, they’re like, ‘It looks familiar, but it feels fresh, it feels bigger and a little newer.’”
While some of the merchandise at Sairen includes previous brands from Momo, Uemura and Madriaga say they’re always looking to support new and emerging artists — particularly local, sustainable, and BIPOC artists. As makers and creatives themselves, they know what it’s like to navigate the process of pricing goods and finding the right audience. They have a unique perspective and understanding of the artists they support, which makes them incredibly passionate curators.
One of their favorite things in the shop right now is a special collaboration: Linda Takano’s deliciously fragrant Lulumiere-candles in a beautiful handmade Ceremony tea cup. They also love Ksand.co’s unique clay earrings and Sherry Koyama’s designs, which include a comfy-chic quilted dress.
As for their own clothing line, they’re experimenting with what’s inspiring them right now — comfort, minimalism, loungewear, and color. They’re also working with more natural dyes and sustainable fabrics.
And they’re just getting started. The new-on-the-block business owners can’t wait to grow, support new artists, and try new things. But for now, the two say they’re just proud to connect the community with small makers.
“When people can connect to stories about makers, that’s what people are looking for,” Madriaga said. “It’s such an important thing to put a face to a product. As we were going through the holiday season, unable to see people, people wanted to come in and see the community and support small businesses. They wanted to put a face to a product instead of clicking a button from a big website. Valuing people. That’s what we want at the end of the day.”
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