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With tradition and new tech, these Japanese designers are crafting more sustainably made clothing

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Written by Lena Vazifdar, CNN

In Japan, the term “mottainai” – loosely translated to “what a waste” – has deep roots. Coming from the Buddhist belief that each object has an intrinsic value and should be used throughout its life cycle, the creed has focused on national culture for centuries.

“Mottainai and handmade culture are everywhere in Japan,” Kaoru Imajo, director of the Japan Fashion Week Organization, said in an email. According to him, sake mothers (the residual yeast left over from the fermentation process) has long been used as a cooking ingredient and discarded orange peels have been reduced to fiber and turned into paper. Brands like Nisai, in its Fall-Winter 2021 collection on display in Tokyo Rakuten Fashion Week (pictured above), upcycle uses clothing to design a “unique” look. Next is the case of boron fabrics: fabrics that are often worn, but then reused and adapted to create new garments.

“We’ve been fixing old carpets, clothes and fabric so we can use them for as long as possible,” he said. “Now, boron fabrics are marketed very expensively and are known as ‘Japanese vintage fabric.'”

Today, several Japanese fashion brands channel these traditional ideas in the name of sustainability, adopting centuries-old garment production techniques and pioneering new technologies to reduce waste and lessen environmental damage throughout the production process.

An exhibition of pieces made with boron textiles at the East Asian Museum of Art in 2015.

An exhibition of pieces made with boron textiles at the East Asian Museum of Art in 2015. Credit: Brill / ullstein bild / Getty Images

Innovation from nature

In Shohei, founded by creative director Lisa Pek and CFO Shohei Yamamoto in 2016, sustainable decision-making begins with the dyeing process. Pek claims the brand, which operates in Japan and Austria, has been working with a Kyoto artisan to acquire textiles dyed with traditional kakishibu methods.

During the kakishibu dyeing process, textiles are immersed in the fermented juice of immature persimmon fruits, an alternative to popular synthetic dyes, which can harm the soil and waterways. After the dyeing process, the fabric is tanned in the sun, creating orange tones. The kakishibu dyeing process also creates a water resistant effect when oxidized in air and provides antibacterial properties. “This is something you can find in a technological fabric,” Pek explained in a video call, “but it’s already in nature.”

This Shohei piece was dyed using the traditional kakishibu method.

This Shohei piece was dyed using the traditional kakishibu method. Credit: Courtesy of Shohei Collection / Stefan Reichmann

The brand also uses another traditional dyeing technique, called shibori, in its fabrics.

The brand also uses another traditional dyeing technique, called shibori, in its fabrics. Credit: Courtesy of Shohei Collection / Yuji Fukuhara

Shohei also comes from fabrics dyed with shibori, a hand-dyeing technique dating back to the 8th century, from a family business in Nagoya. Like kakishibu, shibori uses natural dyes (typically derived from the anus) and is less harmful to the environment than its synthetic counterparts.

With a similar spirit of organic production, Japanese designer Hiroaki Tanaka, founder of Studio Membrane, has been working with biodegradable wool-derived protein resins, the basis of “The Claws of Clothes,” a collection of women’s clothing avant-garde and architecture presented at Eco Fashion Week Australia 2018 in Perth. Created in collaboration with Shinji Hirai, a professor in the science and computer science department at the Muroran Institute of Technology in Hokkaido, Tanaka compares the texture of protein resin with a human fingernail and its durable texture with plastic.

An image that captures the protein resin process.

An image that captures the protein resin process. Credit: Membrane Studio / Hiroaki Tanaka

Hiroaki Tanaka of Studio Membrane used wool-derived resins as accents in his "The claws of clothes" collection.

Studio Membrane’s Hiroaki Tanaka used wool-derived resins as accents in his “The Claws of Clothes” collection. Credit: Studio Membrane / Hiroaki Tanaka

“I wanted to make clothes totally biodegradable,” Tanaka said through Zoom, through a translator. “Because it’s only made of wool, it’s very eco-friendly.”

Still, Tanaka admits that his protein resin is more suitable for wearable art than everyday clothing. When the resin is wet, it returns to its usual wool shape 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 currently fill landfills.

Use technology to combat waste

Because fabric choices are critical to sustainable fashion, new technologies and machinery are also at the forefront of this environmental movement, reducing the amount of fabric wasted during pattern making, sampling, and sewing.

In this field, the Japanese manufacturer Shima Seiki has set the standard with its Wholegarment computerized knitting machines. Unlike the traditional way of producing knitwear, where individual pieces are knitted and sewn together, integral items are perfectly woven in their entirety into a single piece.

With Shima Seiki’s Whimegarment Integral Machine, an entire piece is woven into one seamless piece.

With Shima Seiki’s Whimegarment Integral Machine, an entire piece is woven into one seamless piece. Credit: Courtesy of Shima Seiki Mfg. Ltd

According to Masaki Karasuno, a spokesman for Shima Seiki, up to 30% of the fabric is wasted in standard production, when individual pattern pieces of fabric screws are cut before sewing. “All of this is removed when you can weave an entire one-piece piece directly from the machine,” he said in a telephone interview.

Wholegarment machinery offers brands the option to produce clothing on demand, another way to reduce industry waste. “Making garments based on projected demand tends to exceed actual demand (and that’s the reason) so there’s a lot of excessive amount … that results in waste,” Karasuno explained. “The entire sector can produce the number of parts required when required.”

Nisai, a brand that recycles used and vintage clothing, is presented at Rakuten Fashion Week in Tokyo on March 15th.

Nisai, a brand that recycles used and vintage clothing, is presented at Rakuten Fashion Week in Tokyo on March 15th. Credit: Organization of Japan Fashion Week

Another aspect of Nisai’s Fall-Winter 2021 collection that was unveiled at Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week.

Another aspect of Nisai’s Fall-Winter 2021 collection that was unveiled at Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week. Credit: Organization of Japan Fashion Week

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

Shima Seiki also offers a virtual sampling platform that provides realistic representations of individual garments – alternatives to the physical samples that occur as a collection develops. Sampling is often an iterative process, as factories ship new adjusted versions of a piece until the designer is satisfied with the final product. While the process is useful for designers as it allows them to adapt to factors such as fit, placement, and quality, these prototypes often end up in landfills.

“Each of these wasted samples requires time, cost, material and energy to produce … and all of these are simply thrown away,” Karasuno said.

Shohei has partnered with No Form, a digital design studio, to produce realistic 3D images of some of its pieces with technology similar to Shima Seiki’s virtual sampling platform. These representations can be used in your online store instead of sample photographs. “It’s the same as when you think about architecture, where you create a model … before you build it,” Pek said. “It’s also another way to be environmentally friendly and save costs.”

Related video: Craftsman makes printed warriors for modern Japan

Christina Dean, the founder and chairman of the board of Redress, an environmental charity that aims to reduce textile waste, believes that the steps of the Japanese fashion industry are a positive example for a healthier fashion ecosystem in international level.

“I think it’s very interesting how the islands face innovation. If you have a country that can’t have endless landfills and you can’t send all your waste and leave it somewhere else … it drives innovation,” he said. a telephone interview.

“When you go to Japan, it’s a beautiful, considered, minimalist cultured society, and if you combine their traditional past with the fact that they’re very high-tech, Japan’s textile industry is a champion in terms of technology.”

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