Japanese linen, out of the closet and into the mainstream

By Kaori Shoji
Monday, August 25, 2008

New York Times

TOKYO: Japanese linen, once made almost obsolete by the general preference for the much cheaper Chinese product, is quietly making a comeback. Up until now, linen had been about summer shirts and suits, but these days the subtext is changing from mere summer fashion to year-round lifestyle.

“‘People are starting to think differently about textiles, and more are buying or using linen in the way Europeans did in the 19th century,” said the interior stylist Mika Sonomiya. “Unlike cotton, good linen is expensive but grows more beautiful with time and washing.”

Sonomiya is a self-professed “laundry fiend” and considers the washing/drying of linen products to be the highest of stress relievers. She insists on 100 percent domestic linen for sheets, towels and wraps, used lovingly in every aspect of daily living.

“Before, I loved the feel of French linen but now I’ve come to recommend the Japan-made product,” she said. “It makes sense to support the domestic textile industry, not just for cost purposes but simply because new companies in that field are doing great work.”

Kyoto and the nearby Omi region had been well known for domestic linen, and a few textile artisans had kept the flame going. But the problem is, their linen products are often formal (mostly kimono materials and related paraphernalia) and too expensive to use on a daily basis, which had kept the average linen user from crossing over to home-grown products.

Recognizing the demand for more casual linen, the textile giant Teikoku set up an online linen shop called Teisen where finely woven sheets, towels, pajamas and other sundries bearing the “made in Japan” logo are available.

“But the ones to watch are the smaller companies,” Sonomiya said. “Hardly anyone knows about them, because they operate on such a small basis and rarely bother to advertise.”

In Omi, the family-operated Loop produces bed and bath items made from ramie and hemp – stitched by hand and the brand logo (artfully faded) stamped with typewriter keys.

Closer to Tokyo, Oldman’s Tailor, run by the young couple Toku and Yuji Shimura, has become a metaphor for domestic linen products in just seven years, from its start in 2001. Oldman’s Tailor has no shop, and there are no employees, apart from the Shimuras (not counting Yuji’s mother, who helps out by washing and then sun-drying the finished products). The office is in their home (located at the foot of Mount Fuji, an area once renowned for textiles) and the more than 200 linen products they create (by themselves or collaborating with weavers) are sold in a handful of selected boutiques, or online.

The Shimuras, intent on making linen products “that would enchant and entice people 100 years later” are not only dedicated craftsmen but also designers – towels, for instance, have a marine theme that is reminiscent of the captain’s cabin of a French naval fleet in the late 19th century.

Sonomiya, a fan of the couple’s work, said: “There’s an unmistakable air of authenticity and romance in everything they make. You can tell that they understand and love linen, how romantic and evocative it is.”

Analysts see the revival of Japanese linen as part of a bigger trend, one that bears the stamp of ecology. The textile artist Hiromi Kanzaki said she sees a shift from “design to materials” in Japanese fashion.

“It’s less about the cut and the silhouette” than “whether the material is natural and how it feels on the skin, where it was made, whether the process damaged the environment unnecessarily,” Kanzaki said. “People are much more attuned to that sort of information.”

The concern and interest in materials is bolstering the domestic textile industry, and design companies, quick to ride the wave, are now creating textile products made from domestic organic cotton, washi and wood charcoal and colored with 100 percent water-soluble plant dyes.

As the editorial director Masanobu Sugatsuke said: “Right now, no fashion trend could emerge or last very long without giving a big bow to the environment, because the consumer is so much more concerned about such things than they were 10 years ago. Now whatever is wasteful, excessive or selfish just won’t cut it anymore, no matter how snazzy the design.”