Japanese designers creating more sustainably made clothing combining tradition and new technology

Figure 1: The brand also uses another traditional dyeing technque, called shibori, in its fabrics. Courtesy Shohei Collection/Yuji Fukuhara

The term ‘mottainai’ in Japan – roughly translated to ‘what a waste’ – has profound roots. In a unique way, Japanese fashion designers in Japan Fashion Week Organization displayed sustainably made clothing combining tradition and new technology.

Brands like Nisai, in their Autumn-Winter 2021 collection shown at Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week; upcycle used clothing to design “one-of-a-kind” looks. Then there is the case of boro textiles — fabrics that are often worn out, but then repurposed, patched together to create new garments.

Figure 1: The brand also uses another traditional dyeing technque, called shibori, in its fabrics. Courtesy Shohei Collection/Yuji Fukuhara

Several Japanese fashion labels are sustainably creating these traditional ideas, embracing centuries-old garment production techniques and intigrating new technology to cut waste and lessen environmental damage in the production process.

Innovation from environment

At Shohei, founded by creative director Lisa Pek and CFO Shohei Yamamoto in 2016, sustainable decision-making starts with the dyeing process. Pek says the brand, which operates out of Japan and Austria, has been working with a Kyoto-based artisan to procure textiles dyed using traditional kakishibu methods.

During the kakishibu dyeing process, textiles are immersed in the fermented juice of unripe persimmon fruit — an alternative to popular synthetic dyes, which can be damaging to soil and waterways. After the dyeing process, the fabric is tanned in the sun, creating orange hues.

Figure 2: An image capturing the protein resin process. Courtesy: Studio Membrane/Hiroaki Tanaka

Shohei also sources fabric dyed using shibori — a hand-dyeing technique that dates back to the eighth century — from a family-run business in Nagoya. Like kakishibu, shibori uses natural dyes (typically derived from indigo) and is less harmful to the environment than its synthetic counterparts.

In a similar spirit of eco-friendly production, Japanese designer Hiroaki Tanaka, founder of Studio Membrane, has been working with biodegradable protein resins derived from wool — the basis for “The Claws of Clothes,” a collection of avant garde, architectural womenswear unveiled at the 2018 Eco Fashion Week Australia in Perth.

Created in collaboration with Shinji Hirai, a professor at the department of sciences and informatics at Hokkaido’s Muroran Institute of Technology, Tanaka likens the protein resin’s texture to a human fingernail, and its durable texture to plastic.

Tanaka admits that his protein resin is better suited to wearable art than everyday clothing. When the resin is wet it reverts to its usual wool form, and loses its structure. However, since wool is biodegradable, he believes the material could be used to replace certain disposable items, such as diapers, that are currently filling landfills.

Using tech to combat waste

As fabric choices are integral to sustainable fashion, new technology and machinery is also at the forefront of this environmental movement, decreasing the amount of fabric wasted during pattern-making, sampling and sewing.

In this arena, Japanese manufacturer Shima Seiki has set the standard with its computerized Wholegarment knitting machines. Unlike the traditional way of producing knitwear, where individual pieces are knitted then sewn together, Wholegarment items are seamlessly knitted in their entirety in a singular piece.

Figure 3: Nisai, a brand that upcycles used and vintage clothing, shows at Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week on March 15. Courtesy: Japan Fashion Week Organization

In 2016, Fast Retailing Co., the parent company to fast fashion giant Uniqlo, started a strategic partnership with Shima Seiki called Innovation Factory, where they produce a variety of Wholegarment knits for the Uniqlo brand. Since then, Italian fashion label Max Mara and American clothing brand Paul Stuart have also turned to Shima Seiki’s Wholegarment technology.