Reinvigorated by a slew of young brands, the spirit of craftsmanship lives on in Japan, but risks dying out with the last of the skilled laborers.
TOKYO — From the traditional artisans of Kyoto to the modern engineering geniuses at Toyota, Japan is well known for an ancient culture of craftsmanship. Quality is paramount in Japan.
Japanese consumers exact perfect construction from their goods, which has forced global luxury brands to step up their game in quality control. The Japanese are masters of local traditional crafts, of course, but over the last century, they have turned that eye of precision and dedication to learning the Western tradition, arguably far surpassing their teachers. Now foreign companies are coming to Japan in demand of superior production methods: the denim factories of Okayama, for example, make premier raw selvedge using old techniques long forgotten elsewhere.
Unfortunately, however, we cannot take Japan’s craftsmanship for granted. As with all post-industrial societies, young people were not interested in following their parents’ footsteps in the hard work of high-quality manufacturing. Thus, most small artisanal factories have closed, with the remaining few headed in that very direction.
And yet, the spirit of craftsmanship lives on in Japan — reinvigorated by a slew of young brands who have re-embraced the old, time-consuming methods of local apparel production and exploited the incredible talent of Japanese artisans to push their clothing into innovative new directions.
Over the last eight years, the independent Japanese brand Scye (pronounced “sai”) has become a star of the local fashion community, thanks to collection after collection of impeccably executed classic items.
At first look, the premium prices hardly seem justified. The value, however, is in the tiny details: items are hand-sewn in local factories and made from the world’s finest materials. Designer Hisayo Hidaka and patterner Hideaki Miyahara are obsessed with forgotten and obscure Edwardian tailoring tricks that, despite being mostly invisible to the eye, deliver unrivalled comfort and longevity.
Scye’s Hisayo Hidaka & Hideaki Miyahara
Scye is an exceptional clothing line, but Hidaka and Miyahara’s strategy of pursuing quality and craft over trend and flash is not unique amongst young Japanese brands. Miyahara explains, “I believe the Japanese people have a basic artisanal disposition. There is a word in Japanese — kodawari — meaning being obsessed with the details, and it guides almost everything here.”
While some of this so-called quality obsession may be a response to discerning consumers, Miyahara sees craftsmanship in Japan prospering from the creators’ own self-demands:
Some part of kodawari is the designers’ own self-satisfaction of creating
really nice things, even if consumers don’t notice the details. When we started the brand, we thought about how to do things from the perspective of those who actually make the clothing, and we wanted to produce clothes that people would still wear after a long time — both in terms of quality and style.
Not surprisingly, this interpretation of luxury apparel has been a winning hand in the recessionary environment. Scye’s sales have remained buoyant — especially when compared to more extravagant and fashion-sensitive brands. The average Japanese consumer may be lining up at Uniqlo, but Scye’s core customers are still willing to pay for quality when it is tangible in the clothing.
To create hand-made clothing locally, Miyahara works with a small Tokyo-based company called Watanabe Sewing. Located in the Eastern suburb of Kanamachi — an area that once abounded with apparel manufacturers — the company is comprised of just three people: the brothers Yutaka and Osamu, both in their 60s, and their 84-year-old mother Fumiko. They possess no specialised machinery, still cutting fabric with scissors and doing all sewing by hand. Watanabe Sewing gets most of its work from young brands like Scye, but has a lengthy history of working for a few of Japan’s most globally-respected high-fashion brands.
When asked whether Japanese craftsmen are the best in the world, Osamu Watanabe answers, “We think so.”
Although the Watanabe brothers are second generation tailors (their father’s picture hangs in the small workspace, overlooking their labour), becoming an artisan was not an easy road.
Yutaka Watanabe explains, “No one taught us how to sew, because the older guys didn’t want us stealing their techniques. So we just had to watch and learn for years.” The end result, however, is a small studio that can turn out clothing like no one else in the world. Younger brother Osamu says, “You can’t make stuff like we do in the big factories. Miyahara from Scye comes to us and listens to what we say, and we brainstorm together.” In this way, the old Japanese small factory system fosters and supports designers’ creativity, and this critical synergy is where true Japanese luxury and innovation are born.
Yet Watanabe Sewing is the last of a breed. “Lots of kids want to go into fashion, but they want to be patterners or stylists or designers. They don’t want to sew. And even those who try, quit very quickly. You have to work very hard.”
Ironically, Japan’s young brands all understand the value of locally hand-sewn clothing, but due to the nation’s youth’s refusal to take up artisanal crafts, these workspaces will be closed within a decade.
Street wear is not normally a genre associated with luxury, but Japanese brand Visvim has taken their clothing and shoe line to a premium price point and to the upper heights of craftsmanship. The brand sources only the world’s best materials in each category (like West Indian Sea Island cotton), manufactures in top factories worldwide, and innovates upon millennia-old techniques from indigenous people around the globe.
The current product line includes reindeer leather moccasins, inspired by the Sami people of Finland, and the first-ever leather sneakers with replaceable soles for long-term wear. Visvim is beloved by international consumers and connoisseurs alike, as well as by such Japanese designer brands as Comme des Garçons.
Visvim founder, Hiroki Nakamura
Founder Hiroki Nakamura did not start his brand with craftsmanship in mind, however. His embrace of the Japanese tradition just came naturally over time. He tells us, “In the beginning I was just focused on how I could make my products better and improve the performance, comfort, and quality. And as I explored different ways of doing so, I started to realise that there were less hints pointing towards mass-producing or hyped-up marketing, and more hints leading in the direction of traditional craftsmanship.”
Nakamura, however, understands the challenge ahead for producing high-quality products within Japan: “It’s true that right now local factories are disappearing, and it’s probably because they do not have enough workers. And good training takes an entire lifetime, and labour costs are expensive. And I’m sure their clients are demanding unreasonably low prices. But I really believe that in the end, maybe not in the near future but eventually, there will be a return to craftsmanship in Japan and that it will thrive again.”
At the end of the day, Nakamura’s dedication to quality has supplied the brand with the narrative and product to rise above the glut of local competition to become a globally-recognised source of innovation.
Craftsmanship in Japan does not just exist in the historic districts of Kyoto. Scye and Visvim embody the spirit of ancient artisan dedication, applying high standards and unfailing dedication to modern apparel. Not only do these two brands demonstrate how an embrace of craftsmanship ensures a loyal fan base, but they are also redefining the meaning of ‘luxury’ for an entire generation of Japanese consumers.
Be it out of guilt or a new sense of frugality, the recession is clearly drawing wealthy customers to brands that promise superior craft and high quality in every product. Yet Scye and Visvim both made their mark even in the height of the earlier economic boom, suggesting that this consumer demand represents a larger structural trend beyond mere business cycles.
More importantly, if these two tiny brands, established independently from large corporations, can constantly push for the greatest quality products, customers should expect the same attention to detail from the giants of traditional luxury.
There is a lesson for everyone to be taken from the Japanese craftsmen — this ’kodawari for quality’ to become a universal requirement for all luxury makers.
W. David Marx, Tokyo Correspondent