TAIPEI -- For more than a decade, Japanese fashion designer Shunsuke Teranishi worked in Tokyo, Milan and Paris for leading Japanese and European apparel brands. But his career took a dramatic turn in 2016, when he was introduced to the fascinating world of ushikubi tsumugi (cow's neck silk), an exquisite variety of kimono fabric shown at a textile and fashion exhibition in Paris.
That show -- the biennial Premiere Vision exhibition -- was an eye-opener for Teranishi, an architect-turned-designer who was then working for Paris-based Hermes as the only Asian designer in the women's wear team, following earlier jobs at Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo and with Carol Christian Poell and Agnona in Milan.
Mesmerized by the vivid color and intricate weaving of the silk, exhibited by the Hakusan Koubou Museum in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture, Teranishi also became aware of the challenges confronting the modern kimono industry and its craftspeople in Japan.
Once worn by Japanese men and women as everyday wear, kimonos were gradually replaced in the 20th century by Western-style clothing -- a shift that accelerated after World War II. Retail sales have plunged since the 1970s, while craftsmen have struggled to find apprentices as the shrinking market reduced wages to levels unattractive to young people. Factories that manufactured regular cotton kimonos have closed or shifted to denim production.
Statista, a German market and consumer data provider, estimates that retail sales of regular kimonos in Japan fell to 238 billion yen ($2.1 billion) in 2020 from 310 billion yen in 2010. However, the traditional silk kimono has survived as a form of elaborate formal attire for ceremonies and special occasions.
Aspiring to boost silk-making by elevating the international profile of kimonos, Teranishi and his wife Chien-tzu Chen, a Taiwanese fashion designer, began working with Ushikubi Tsumugi, Yuki Tsumugi and Oshima Tsumugi, Japan's three biggest indigenous producers of woven silk suitable for kimonos, while still in Paris. The couple launched Arlnata, a ready-to-wear brand offering mostly Western-style clothing with silk kimono fabrics, and moved to Japan in December 2018, presenting their first collection in April 2019.
Dating back more than 800 years, Ushikubi Tsumugi's fabric is made by hand at the foot of Mount Kusan in Ishikawa, using silk thread reeled from rare double cocoons which impart a slubbed (uneven) appearance featuring apparent imperfections. Yuki-tsumugi, a 1,300-year-old luxury silk fabric listed by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, uses silk-making techniques found mainly in the cities of Yuki and Oyama on the Kinu River north of Tokyo. These produce a light and warm raw silk with a characteristic stiffness and softness.
Oshima Tsumugi silk, which also dates back around 1,300 years, is made in Kagoshima Prefecture and on Amami Oshima, the largest island in the Amami archipelago between Kyushu and Okinawa, using the island's iron-rich natural mud as a dye to create threads of beautiful and luminous black. Arlnata also works with a Japanese luxury fashion brand that in 1977 developed a method of weaving with mother-of-pearl inlays using shells mounted on washi (Japanese paper), which is then shredded and hand woven into fabric.
"Kyotango is a sericulture (silkworm cultivation) and silk industry hub [from which] fabrics ... are shipped to Kyoto for dying and embroidering. Its pivotal role is equivalent to that of Como, which underpins the upscale silk industry of Italy," said Chen. ''In the Western fashion world, materials and weaving techniques are pretty similar, even in luxury fabrics, whereas the texture of tsumugi cloth is neat and the weaving techniques are quite versatile. I think they usher in and redefine a brand-new world of fashion."
Tailoring Western-style outfits with tsumugi cloth can be a challenge. A typical roll of kimono fabric is normally 38 cm to 41 cm wide and 12 meters long, Chen said, while Western fabric rolls vary from 90 cm to 152 cm wide, and from 50 meters to 200 meters long. Pattern-making for kimonos is simpler than for Western-style clothing, but the narrow width means that machine cutting can damage the fabric.
To avoid this problem Arlnata uses a craftswoman from Kyotango who is well-versed in tailoring Western-style clothes with kimono fabrics, said Chen, a former designer in Berlin and Milan for Saverio Palatella and Agnona and in Paris for Carven, a French couture label and Shiatzy Chen, a Taiwanese luxury fashion house.
Some tsumugi fabrics can be easily damaged by rain, so a protective coating must be applied during the production process. Meanwhile, the designers weave tsumugi together with knit fabric to extend the width of cloth for versatile pattern making and warmth in winter. The silk is delicate and inelastic, and can be difficult to weave with elastic materials such as knit, so special knitting machines designed to avoid tearing or crumpling the fabric are required to create "kimono silk cashmere" scarves, capes and other Western-style garments.
Teranishi and Chen say they are determined to avoid the business models of European haute couture fashion houses, which revolve around up to six public shows a year, with frequent launches of new collections. This can result in significant wastage of material and cost-saving reductions in quality, which can dampen designers' passion for fashion.
''Each roll of tsumugi silk fabric will take artisans six months to a year to produce," Chen said. "Our goal isn't about mass production but appreciation from patient consumers for the exquisite and time-consuming art of the craftspeople."
Arlnata sells directly to consumers, with price tags ranging from 34,000 yen for breathable and washable silk summer T-shirts to 810,000 yen for a large coat. Teranishi and Chen say their main target market is middle-aged professionals looking for simple yet elegant traditional silk clothing.
A new collection will be on show in Tokyo's Isetan Shinjuku store in late August, and in 2022 an exhibition of Arlnata's clothes will be held in Kagoshima. But the company has loftier objectives in its aim to build a luxury lifestyle brand comparable to Hermes, exploiting Japan's craft skills in a wide variety of industries, including lacquer work.
This business model can be applied to other Japanese craft-based producers, said Chen.
"Europeans ... tend to identify strongly with, and take pride in, their homegrown brands," she added, suggesting that Japan's collection of craft skills and creativity leaves it well-positioned to match the European model in international markets, citing the success of Japanese brands such as Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake. "Japan has all it takes to nurture more of the most upscale luxurious fashion brands," Chen said.