How Japanese designers are building a more sustainable fashion industry

In Japan, the term “mottainai” — loosely translated to “what a waste” — has deep roots. Originating from a Buddhist belief that every object has intrinsic value and should be utilized for its full life cycle, the credo has been threaded throughout national culture for centuries.

Japanese designers

“Mottainai and handmade culture is everywhere in Japan,” said Kaoru Imajo, director of Japan Fashion Week Organization, said in an email.

Sake lees (the residual yeast left over from the fermentation process), he points out, has long been used as a cooking ingredient, and discarded orange peels have been reduced to fibers and turned into paper.

Brands like Nisai, in their Autumn-Winter 2021 collection shown at Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week (pictured above), upcycle used clothing to design “one-of-a-kind” looks.

Then there’s the case of boro textiles — fabrics that are often worn out, but then repurposed, patched together to create new garments.

“We have been fixing old carpets, clothes and fabric so we can use (them) as long as we could,” he said. “Now, boro textiles are traded very expensively and known as a ‘Japanese vintage fabric.'”

Today, a number of Japanese fashion labels are channeling these traditional ideas in the name of sustainability, embracing centuries-old garment production techniques and pioneering new technology to reduce waste and lessen environmental harm throughout the production process.

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.

The kakishibu dyeing process also creates a water-resistant effect when oxidized in the air, and provides antibacterial properties.

“This is something you might find in a tech fabric,” Pek explained in a video call, “but it’s already there in nature.”

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