Fresh talent brings new thinking to Kyoto, city of tradition

Nikkei -- Jan 18
Kyoto boasts Japan's largest concentration of traditional crafts. Despite the pall the COVID-19 pandemic has cast over the country, young entrepreneurs with unorthodox backgrounds are bringing new thinking and innovation to Japan's ancient capital.

One is 42-year-old Masataka Hosoo, who last August became president of Kyoto-based Hosoo. The company produces nishijin-ori, a traditional textile made in the Nishijin district of Kyoto that is often used in kimonos. Hosoo, who was once a musician, brought the tradition-defying spirit of punk rock to the 330-year-old family business.

About 12 years ago, Hosoo could not believe his eyes when an email from Peter Marino, a world-renowned architect, landed in his inbox. Marino, who has designed stores for luxury brands like Dior, had sent him a request to create a new type of nishijin-ori textile. The message would change his life.

While in high school, Hosoo was a fan of the English punk band Sex Pistols. He set his heart on becoming a musician and joined a record label after graduating from university. He later moved to Shanghai and launched an apparel brand that fused music and fashion. But success did not come easily to a young man who, by his own admission, did not even know the cost ratio of his inventory. When his brand folded, he returned to Japan and joined a jewelry brand management company. He intentionally stayed away from his old home. "I was afraid of the pull of the traditional industry -- that I couldn't escape it once I entered," he said.

His thinking changed after he learned about the family company's attempts to push into overseas markets. "Nishijin-ori is fighting overseas," he said. "That's punk." The company had taken part in trade shows in Paris since 2006, but without much success. When he joined the business in October 2008, Hosoo convinced management to let him work on the overseas expansion project for a year. In May 2009, a Hosoo obi -- the traditional sash worn with a kimono -- caught Marino's eye at an exhibition in New York.

Nishijin-ori, which uses dyed threads to create elegant patterns, dates back 1,200 years. The weaving technique, which makes fabric from thousands of individual threads, is among the most intricate in the world.

But Marino was looking for a modern design that "looked like molten iron," something that had never been done before. Moreover, there were no machines capable of producing the textile requested. Nishijin-ori fabric used for obis is 32 cm wide. Marino had requested a width of 150 cm. That would require a custom-built loom. Overcoming resistance within the company, Hosoo invested 20 million yen ($192,500) in the project and spent a year developing a loom with veteran craftsmen.

Hosoo's nishijin-ori were used to cover the walls and chairs of Dior's flagship store, which raised the Japanese company's profile considerably. Its customers now include such luxury brands as Louis Vuitton and high-end hotels like the Ritz Carlton.

Upon becoming president, Hosoo was determined to "expand the possibilities of nishijin-ori, so as to pass the baton that has been handed down for generations." The company's nishijin-ori were also used for the interior of Lexus' top-of-the-line sedan, the LS. Silver thread is woven into the doors' trim to evoke the image of moonlight shimmering on the ocean.

- Nikkei