TO HONOR THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST SPACEFLIGHT BY COSMONAUT YURI GAGARIN—who became the first human to journey into outer space in 1961—the Swiss watch company Swatch released a commemorative wrist- watch designed by Italian comic artist Igor Tuveri in 1992. With a bright, orange-and- green color scheme and the illustration of a cute cherub wearing a spacesuit and sitting on the Moon on the watch’s face, the lively-looking timepiece caught the eye of Sanford Mock, a Hawai‘i-based creative director who was visiting Los Angeles at the time. He purchased the watch and gave it as a gift to his future wife, photographer Rae Huo.
“Wait a minute,” Huo says, remembering. “Was it the Yuri watch or was it ‘Gulp?’”
Huo is referring to another Swatch named “Gulp!!!” which was designed by a different Italian illustrator and comic artist, Massimo Giacon. This watch features stars, exclamation points, a businessman’s stretched-out face, has a neon blue-and-pink color palette, and incorporates a futuristic, Googie design aesthetic that looks like something out of The Jetsons.
It’s easy to forgive Huo if she sometimes forgets whether her first Swatch was “Yuri” or “Gulp!!!” (she owns both) because over the past 25 years, she has collected more than 500 Swatches. Editions may range from chrono watches, to scuba models, to ones that play music, but one thing remains the same: If it’s a Swatch—and especially if it was created in partnership with artists, such as Keith Haring or Vivienne Westwood— Huo is interested.
“It all started with that first one. I never even wore the watch, I just looked at it,” Huo syas. “The artwork was beautiful; the packaging was interesting, and I decided that I was going to pick up a few of the more rare Swatches and start a collection.”
Created in the early 1980s as a response to the influx of digital watches from Asia into the (traditionally mechanical and European-made) watch marketplace, Swatch quickly became known for their creative collaborations with renowned names in the art world, as well as those in the fashion, architecture, graphic design and pop culture spheres, which yielded dozens of original watches each year. Mock’s gift helped ignite a lifelong pursuit for both himself and Huo, who often began traveling to destinations, like San Francisco and New York City, to stand on first-come, first-served lines (sometimes at 5 a.m., occasionally in the sweltering heat or the pouring rain) waiting to be one of the first to receive new Swatch lines upon release.
“We were unstoppable for a few years. Whenever there was a new Swatch coming out, we’d fly wherever to pick it up,” Huo shares. “Sometimes, they only allowed one watch per person, but there were two of us, so we’d always get two! If we couldn’t make it to the East Coast, I’d ask my brother—he was doing his residency at Yale in Connecticut—if he could go and pick one up, or my father, and they would.”
For Mock, who is perhaps better known as the celebrated vintage Japanese toy collector and artist Zakka, being on the perpetual hunt for rare finds was familiar territory. But for Huo, this was a new adventure. Luckily, she is no stranger to exploring new things.
Born in Taiwan, Huo’s parents moved the family to Japan for a few years before settling in Hawai‘i. She graduated from Saint Francis High School, got a BFA from USC (“There are only a handful of working painters;
I thought I’d be waitressing full-time, then painting on the side,” says Huo.), before returning to O‘ahu and working as a space coordinator designing window displays for the former Liberty House in the early 1980s.
Huo eventually became a manager but realized she wanted to pursue photography, so she enrolled at the ArtCenter College of Design. For over 30 years, she has since worked in Hawai‘i as a commercial and editorial photographer, shooting lifestyle, food, interior design and product photos for clients, such as HMSA, Hawaiian Telcom, Hawaiian Airlines, as well as for most local publications.
“I’m lucky to have been able to make a living in Hawai‘i doing something I love. I don’t even call photography a job; it’s just my passion,” Huo says.
It was while working for a publication that Huo and Zakka met: “He was the creative director for Aloha Magazine, and we had worked together for a couple of years in the art department. One day after a photo shoot, it got late, and the two of us decided to get a bite to eat before heading home. That was our first date!” Huo says. The duo bonded over a shared love of photography, art and design. Between Huo’s Swatch collection and Zakka’s collectible designer toys, they had the idea of one day opening their own museum filled with pop- culture figurines, watches and artwork. Recently, Zakka passed away, but Huo still hopes to bring their shared dream to life.
“He’s with me every second of the day. I wouldn’t be able to do this without him,” Huo shares. “I’m still building our photo studio and display space. This is everything that the both of us love, and I want to share it with the community.”
Follow Huo and Zakka’s studio on Instagram: @ ZakkaRaeAtelier