In Kyoto, twelfth-generation master craftsmen are not unknown. In the former Japanese capital, where age-old artisanal – and sustainable – techniques are practised as a matter of course, the heirs to the throne are updating designs for the here and now and, hopefully, it’s not too late for the future either, as K magazine investigates….
Walking through the gardens and temples of Kyoto, it’s as if one has entered a city that is in large part a work of art, so beautiful is the vision of the craftsmen that built these otherworldly buildings, and that of the landscape artists that maintain the grounds. They rake sand into decorative swirls for people visiting their favourite temples, like the thirteenth-century Shoren-In.
But away from the tourist bustle, the craftsmanship that helped make the city is still alive in other disciplines too. Kyoto is well-known for its textile and dyeing expertise, its embroidery and other skills associated with one of its main exports, the kimono.
What’s more, many of the related companies have been going for centuries and still practise age-old methods. “Kyoto was the capital of Japan for 1,000 years,” said Akiko Fukai, curator emeritus of the Kyoto Costume Institute, the country’s leading fashion museum.
“Then Kyoto became the centre for kimonos and, therefore, for Japanese fashion. It means Kyoto was not only the most fashionable place but it also became a clothing production centre. Many craftsmen gathered in Kyoto, for kimono-making requires high-level techniques, including weaving, printing and embroidering.”
At Chiso, founded in 1550 and thus making it Japan’s oldest kimono-maker, it is not unusual for a worker to spend three months hand-painting one panel of a kimono. The archives are filled with books of hand-drawn patterns, some of which are hundreds of years old. These are occasionally updated via computers, which are relatively new here.
Chiso often works with Takahashi Toku, perhaps the most famous dye workshop in town, which spent a decade perfecting one shade of colour, using indigo and vegetable dyes, for an outlandishly expensive order. Chiso recently opened a shop selling modern kimonos and materials by the roll – new to the kimono business – and it collaborates with contemporary designers like Yohji Yamamoto. Takahashi Toku has also opened a craft and textile shop and tea ceremony room inside its workshop, drawing in foreign visitors to see its work and buy local product.
Founded in 1688, textile weavers Hosoo have recently been expanding internationally, something few others have managed to achieve, although all are adapting to the modern world. It collaborates with funky creatives like the Lady Gaga shoe designer Masaya Kushino, who is based in Kyoto; rap artist-turned-designer, Ambush; and the Japanese menswear brand Mihara Yasuhiro.
Hosoo has also connected to the international luxury market, providing woven materials for both fashion and textile companies. Clients include The Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels, Comme des Garçons, luggage maker Tumi and eyewear brand Oliver Peoples (and other fashion houses for interiors).
Hosoo has become involved in two larger initiatives to help support artisans and export their wares. Japan Handmade (GoOn) involves mostly Kyoto artisans while TangoTango works with textile craftsman from all over Japan. TangoTango launched at Salone del Mobile furniture and design fare in Milan last year.
Backed by the Danish design company, OeO Studio, Japan Handmade supports six Kyoto artisans whose pieces are now sold at Hosoo, at their individual workshops and worldwide at select outlets.
“Japan Handmade is a good example of nurturing the crafts industry,” said Thomas Lykke, OeO’s founding partner and designer. He is also the creative director for Japan Handmade and advises Hosoo on its international expansion.
“It is not only in Kyoto that the craft industry is declining. It is a global phenomenon,” he said. “There is a need for new ways to view and to revitalise the industry, and to create new relevance and reason for being. The best way to keep things alive is to stay relevant, be creative, never compromise – and be nimble,” he said.
Japan Handmade members include Hosoo, Kohchosai Kosuga, which works with fine bamboo, and Kaanami Tsuji, which does a form of metal knitting (a technique believed to be over ten centuries old) used in kitchen utensils. “Japan Handmade has achieved international success as well as in Japan, where the team members have gotten celebrity status, as they have become role models for a new generation of craftsmen,” Lykke said.
Indeed, pieces from the collection have become part of London’s Victoria & Albert museum’s permanent collection, as well as that of the Cooper Hewitt and the Smithsonian in the US, and Denmark’s Design Museum.
Masataka Hosoo is the current CEO and 12th generation heir of Hosoo. He showed our reporter the old weaving machines, wearing a designer suit made with materials created here and designed by Yasuhiro.
Not dyeing out
“For our domestic market, we provide kimonos and obis (sashes) created by highly skilled craftsmen, some of whom are the living national treasures of Japan. Seven years ago, we started to target the global luxury market, both in interiors and fashion, with the new textiles we have developed using local techniques,” he said.
As for his aim: “I would like to pass down the skill-set here and the carefully crafted textiles, with their strong respect for the materials, and bring them to the global luxury market.”
This work is important. “In the last 30 years, the kimono market has shrunk to one tenth of its original size,” said Hosoo. “I do not believe that [this] market will die out entirely. However, in order to continue for the next 100 or 200 years, I believe it will have to continue to change.”
Meanwhile, over at the Takahashi Toku workshop, the process of hand-dyeing kimono silks, using techniques that date back hundreds of years, was being demonstrated. In a narrow slither of a room, deer hair brushes were being used to hand paint panels where a length of material is hung flat and covered in 20 minutes, in a temperate climate, to make sure the colour stays even throughout. Elsewhere, women soaked the materials in water kept at a certain temperature to retain the colour.
Not fading either
Almost everything is natural. Takahashi Toku practises yuzen, a seventeenth-century dyeing process that uses a series of applications and steaming treatments. The material is brushed in the water with horse hair tools; soy bean and seaweed glazes are applied to prepare the material for the base dye; soy is used to create paint; and sawdust protects the parts of the material that should not be dyed in the base colour but patterned instead.
Designs are drawn on using charcoal, while the pattern is outlined on the silk with a spiderwort (dayflower) extract; areas that are not dyed are covered in a special admixture using glutinous rice. To fix the dye, the material is steamed in a cypress box at 1000C for around 40 minutes.
“We are very worried that these traditions are disappearing,” said Fukai. “But it is a good sign that many young designers are collaborating with Kyoto traditions.”
She showed some of this innovation in her landmark exhibition Future Beauty: 30 years of Japanese fashion on avant-garde Japanese designers at London’s Barbican. The display included Issey Miyake whose menswear division, she said, has worked on tie-dye designs with Takahashi Toku; while the new brand Matohu has collaborated with the Tsujigahana-zome craftsmen.
“The Japanese no longer wear kimonos for everyday use but we are preserving some of these crafts,” she said.
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