Mark C O’Flaherty
For fashion insiders, the woven statement “made in Japan” sewn inside a garment comes with connotations of meticulous quality, avant-garde technique and aggressively high price tags. For many designers and retailers, the cost is worth it. Increasingly, for manufacturers and consumers, the “made in Japan” label is one they are seeking out.
“It’s all in the detail,” says Mats Klingberg, of Marylebone menswear store Trunk, which stocks some of the best Japanese smart casual wear and tailoring brands, including Camoshita United Arrows, Comoli and Descente Allterrain. “They push boundaries and try things. They are more likely to spend extra time making something perfect. If you see something beautiful that you considered unimaginable, but makes sense when you see it, it’s more likely to be Japanese.”
Drectional tailoring labels are particularly drawn to Japanese manufacturing. While Thom Browne and the father-and-son team Casely-Hayford are synonymous with their respective homes in New York and London, most of their product is in fact manufactured in Japan. “Our tailoring is much lighter than the traditional Savile Row style,” says Joe Casely-Hayford. “Only the Japanese create that new English tailoring without losing the essence and DNA which defines the style. Italians make beautiful looking lightweight suits, but they look Italian. The Japanese can reinterpret the cultural essence of any nationality they choose.”
Italian tailoring brand Zegna is another brand cheerleading for the qualities of “made in Japan”; its creative director Stefano Pilati recently unveiled a capsule menswear collection at the brand’s Tokyo flagship store. “It’s a seamless merging of Ermenegildo Zegna design with Japanese craft and know-how,” explains Pilati. “It’s not necessary to emphasise that Zegna is an Italian brand any more: who doesn’t know that?”
That may be the sense of distance and otherness that also gives Japanese production its special allure, something that transmits even to the mass market of Uniqlo — the sole fast fashion brand that still remains acceptable for those who would otherwise be more comfortable in Comme or Yohji. Even though the only Uniqlo product manufactured in Japan is its premium denim, there’s a sense among its customers that the store shares the same values as the high-end masters of Omotesando, Tokyo’s most directional fashion district. In some ways, it does: the technology behind its thermal product was pioneered at the Issey Miyake studio (Miyake himself is a customer), while the brand’s Miracle Air Jeans are similarly igh tech: they are 20 per cent lighter than typical denim and expand by 15 per cent.
Denim is an area in which Japan truly excels — the looms of Okayama produce the highest quality cloth in the world, with a tighter weave and natural rather than synthetic dyes. The cloth weathers fabulously well. “We use it for our bespoke as well as made-to-measure service,” says London tailor Timothy Everest, “we use indigo-dyed kendo cloth for everything, from jeans to jackets, and salt wash each garment by hand in the courtyard at the back of the atelier. We’ve made a number of Japanese Denim Chore Jackets for Ralph Fiennes, who is a loyal customer.”
Denim aside, it is the avant-garde designers of Tokyo who have done more for the global image of “made in Japan” than anyone else. The complex cuts and meticulous production of Comme des Garçons have represented an apex of high fashion since Rei Kawakubo took the brand to Paris in the 1980s, while Miyake is a visionary industrial designer as much as a fashion one. His experiments with machine washable, heat-pleated, recycled fabric are peerless, while his HaaT label, launched in 2000, celebrates the links between designer and producer/manufacturer. The label’s creative director, Makiko Minagawa, has overseen textile development at the company since Miyake first showed in 1971, and the current HaaT collection features spectacular garments made by sewing fabric in a tube shape, binding it around a tube to create pleats, and then press-shrinking and tie-dying it. It is extraordinarily labour intensive, but a typical of holistic, high-end design in Japan. It represents a very different kind of vertical integration from the factories and shop floors of Zara et al.
“Designers in Japan begin designing from the thread and textile stage,” explains Rie Nii, a curator at the Kyoto Costume Institute. “They are deeply involved in every process, right up to the finished garment. The relationship between the designer and the textile industry is unparalleled.” Nii points to history to explain the status quo: “The synthetic fibre industry developed in leaps and bounds after WWII, and in the 1980s we saw a new generation of technically advanced textiles, such as Shingosen.” This would go some way to explain why brands such as Comme and Yohji embrace rayon and polyester in the same way Italy loves merino wool.
Fundamentally, for all its science lab experiments with cloth, there’s an integrity to “made in Japan” that most other nations can’t swear to. It is this that makes it rarefied and expensive. As Yohji Yamamoto explained back in 2010: “Our textile industry has meticulous standards. In contrast, 99 per cent of a garment could be made in China, but by sewing the label in Italy, it can be considered “made in Italy”. It’s tough for us to compete on price under those circumstances.” If something says it’s “made in Japan”, it really couldn’t be made anywhere else.