[Part2]Companies go high-tech in design, pitch new products to keep tradition alive

Thomas Lykke and Anne-Marie Buemann in front of some of the looms used at Hosoo Co. in Kyoto's Nishijin district (Emi Tadama)

Founded in 1688, venerable Kyoto fabric weaving firm Hosoo Co. cannot rely exclusively on the kimono market to stay in business today.

To deal with the declining sale of expensive kimono in Japan, companies such as Hosoo are turning to modern design and printing know-how to open up new sales routes.

"Unless we go on the offensive by offering new products, we would not be able to protect the tradition of kimono, and we would go out of business," said company President Masao Hosoo. "We are seeking to become the Ferrari of the fabric world."

Hosoo Co.'s factory is located in the Nishijin district of Kyoto, known for creating high-end textiles.

On a recent winter morning, Hosoo was engaged in discussions with Thomas Lykke and Anne-Marie Buemann of the Danish design company OeO Studio.

The fabric woven at the Hosoo Co. studio shines brightly due to the minute gold and silver foil that is included in the silk threads. However, the fabric is not used in kimono, but as material for interior products.

Lykke and Buemann were called on by Hosoo to support the company's overseas strategy. An important upcoming event scheduled for May is to be held in New York City at a members-only club where fabric manufactured by Hosoo Co. will be displayed.

Lykke and Buemann came to Japan to discuss with Hosoo what should be included in the presentation to the wealthy potential clients.

While Lykke praised the outstanding techniques maintained by Hosoo Co. over its long history, he stressed that what should be emphasized in the New York meeting is the new future to which that tradition will lead the clients.

Hosoo was shown a video presentation on the computer Lykke had brought with him. Tree leaves, which are a traditional motif found in kimono fabric, appeared and disappeared on the computer screen. Lykke explained that the image would be cast over fabric on display at the New York meeting like a shadow painting. That would give the impression that the fabric had come to life, Lykke said.

He expressed confidence that those at the meeting would take photos of that presentation and spread word of it over the Internet.

"You certainly came up with a very good idea," Hosoo said.

Lykke said the purpose was to have the audience understand what the fabric had to offer within a modern context. He added that what was important was not overemphasizing the Japanese aspect of the fabric.

According to statistics compiled by the Kyoto prefectural government, shipments of textiles from the Nishijin district have fallen to 22 billion yen ($183 million) in 2013, less than 10 percent of the peak level of 315 billion yen in 1991.

Realizing what lay ahead for his company, Hosoo began eyeing the overseas market from about a decade ago. The company began receiving orders from such famed brands as Dior after the textile was sold as material for wallpaper and sofa surfaces for use in overseas flagship stores or in luxury hotels.

"Our strength is in incorporating gold and silver foil into the silk threads used in the weaving process," Hosoo said. "The fabric is also thin and light."

A problem facing the company was that the looms then in use could only weave fabric with a maximum width of 70 centimeters. That would limit what the fabric could be used for. To meet additional demand, the company developed new looms that could weave fabric with a maximum width of 150 cm. It cost 15 million yen to construct each loom to that new specification. Now five such looms are busy churning out the fabric for the overseas market.

Hosoo Co. has annual sales of 1.5 billion yen, including the manufacture and sale of kimono. Of that figure, exports account for 150 million yen and have been increasing at an annual rate of 20 percent.

Another major kimono-producing region is Tokamachi in Niigata Prefecture.

One company that is trying something new to survive is Uonuma Seisen, a dyeing and processing company. At the factory, kimono was being "printed" using 10 inkjet printers, with each printer costing 5 million yen.

"The color may look faded now, but it will become much more clearer once the fabric is steamed," said Yasujiro Wakui, 43, the company president.

The company was printing kimono based on an order from Iuchi Shoten, a Japanese clothing outlet in Osaka city.

"While a considerable number of printed kimono have been put on the market, that fact was hidden from customers," said Hisakatsu Iuchi, 47, the president of the Osaka retailer. "But now we want to use inkjet printers in a positive light."

The material used is mainly cotton or polyester. That means the kimono can be sold for between 30,000 to 50,000 yen, much less than the several hundreds of thousands of yen that would be needed to buy a silk kimono.

Although he operates a retail outlet, Iuchi began producing kimono for sale after receiving strong requests to do so from his customers.

About 15 years ago, Iuchi began selling kimono over the Internet in a manner similar to a clearance sale because it had become increasingly difficult to sell the kimono through his retail outlet.

In a sense, Iuchi Shoten became a pioneer among Japanese clothing stores. Moreover, those who thought highbrow Japanese clothing stores were not their cup of tea found it much easier to order and buy kimono over the Internet.

Eventually, those customers began sending in various suggestions, such as asking that kimono be made of cotton or polyester so the finished product could be washed at home. Other customers began sending in design suggestions for kimono.

Iuchi turned to digital technology and inkjet printers because he wanted to create kimono with more original designs. If he had turned to a traditional kimono manufacturer, Iuchi would not have been able to ask that only a few items of a certain design be produced.

However, with inkjet printers it was much simpler to print a small lot of kimonos designed on a computer. If there are no problems with copyright, it is also possible to recreate designs on used kimonos by taking digital photos and incorporating it through computer technology. There are also no concerns about having to maintain a huge inventory.

“The kimono industry has not been creating and selling kimono that the customer wants,” Iuchi said. “I am struck every day by the fact that there are so many people who still want to wear kimono.”


Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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