Utsuwa Kenshin

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Utsuwa Kenshin, Tiny trove of budding ceramic artistry.

Most people lucky enough to have a single-minded passion are born that way. They make a natural decision to dedicate their lives to food, fashion or design. However, for Kenshin Sato, owner of a beautiful Japanese ceramics shop so bijou it must be the world’s smallest, the tale of becoming an expert curator in his field is one of serendipity. “When I graduated from school I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Sato. “I was flicking through the job ads and found one that sounded promising. It was walking distance from home and I didn’t need to wear a suit. I applied, and got the job.” The then-22-year-old began working for a company that designed table settings for photo shoots. Over the next decade, he came into contact with ceramicists from all over Japan, and his vocation found him. After several years working at a ceramics shop, Sato had the knowledge and the network to set up on his own. All he needed was an affordable space in a good location. Again, fate stepped in. “There was a ceramics shop here before me and I knew the owner. I was visiting one day, and I told him: ‘I want to open my own shop.’ He replied, ‘Well, I want to move mine.’ So I took over the space, just like that.” From the beginning, Sato knew he wanted to focus on emerging talent. And with a size of just 3.5 tsubo in Japanese terms (less than 12 square metres, or 130 square feet), he only has space for the very best. Most of the artists he works with are in their twenties or thirties, producing pieces that combine timeless wabisabi (elegant simplicity) with hints of youthful rebellion. They include the playful-yet-melancholy works of Kazuhiro Katase, whose bold shapes and colours are softened with an unnerving sense of decay; Chie Kobayashi, whose ethereal white bowls look as if they might blow away in the wind; and the rugged aquamarine cups of Asato Ikeda, reminiscent of a calm ocean dangerously awakened. “I could never be a ceramics artist myself. I don’t have that sort of patience!” says Sato, in a confession of sorts from a man who at first appears serene yet self-confident. “But this is the next best thing.” Private buyers are Sato’s main customers, although he recently found himself on the radar of some of Tokyo’s most remarkable restaurants, including Den, whose chef shares Sato’s taste for classy irreverence. Sato works alone – and likes it that way – so because space is limited he often holds special exhibitions at other locations, during which he usually closes the little shop. His ambitious side wants to take the next step and move to a larger showroom. But something is holding him back. “I go back and forth,” he says. “It would be nice to show bigger pieces and more artists, but things would also be a lot more complicated.” So for now, Utsuwa Kenshin stays small. Until fate … Read More

Visvim

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Visvim, An enduring vision built from nomadic inspirations. Hiroki Nakamura, the founder and creative director of Visvim, a brand.

Hiroki Nakamura flicks through back catalogues of his old collections as if they are personal photo albums: Native American patterns he found on a trip to the United States; colour palettes from the monasteries of Tibet; rare dyes from a remote island in southern Japan. “This business has literally been a journey for me,” says Nakamura, the founder and creative director of Visvim, a brand that has earned a deserved reputation for quality, durability, and authenticity. In its creation, Nakamura has taken inspiration from all over the world – places he’s visited, people he’s met, and fabrics he’s held between his fingers. “To make good things, I have to start at the beginning – at the origin – with the raw materials. I cannot just add a logo to something that already exists.” The beginning for Visvim was 2000, when Nakamura quit his job working for an international snowboarding brand to make things of his own. The turn of the millennium was domestic Japanese fashion’s heyday, with hundreds of independent labels born in just a small swatch of Tokyo between Harajuku and Shibuya. “It was an exciting time,” Nakamura recalls. “Before that, it was always some businessman bringing an existing idea over from Europe or America. But we were part of a strong, home-grown movement that started in Harajuku.” For the first few years, Nakamura focused on shoes, which reflected his love of functional products. Visvim quickly became famous for its long-lasting, hand-sewn sneakers, and the brand grew organically to include denim, bags and womenswear. Nakamura’s Visvim store is called Free International Laboratory – or F.I.L. – a nod to his relentless, nomadic search for authentic inspiration. When he decided to create designs inspired by the boots of indigenous tribes in Lapland, for example, he visited a Sami village three hours by snowmobile from the nearest town in Norway. Another project involved taking handmade yarn that was naturally dyed by artisans in Japan to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to be woven into cloth. In every collection, there are things that remain limited editions simply because of the way they are produced. One such product was a bag made from grapevine hand-woven by women in Showamura, a remote village in Fukushima Prefecture, northeast Japan. Unlike factory production designed to churn out lines of identical products, each grapevine bag is made by a single person and is totally unique. That is not to say that Nakamura shuns modern manufacturing – on the contrary many Visvim products are mass-produced to meet demand. And besides, Nakamura is passionate about innovation. He describes the waterproof synthetic material Gore-Tex, as “the perfect textile,” (although, of course, the Gore-Tex in a Visvim jacket is first dyed by a Japanese craftsman using traditional indigo techniques). “The real work is actually done by bacteria, so the dye job is never completely perfect,” Nakamura explains. “But it’s incredible. It gives what is the ultimate modern product something of a history.”

Traveler’s Factory

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Traveler’s Factory, building adventures, with a personal twist. The idea is that the trip to the store should be a journey in itself.

Not so long ago, Japanese people loved to travel. So much so, that tourists from Japan became parodied the world over for their snap-happy camerawork and breathless travel schedules. But hard economic times have more recently curtailed many consumers’ taste for adventure. Instead, they make their own travel fantasies closer to home, with the help of entrepreneurs like Atsuhiko Iijima and his Traveler’s Factory. In 2005, Iijima was overseeing production for a line of stickers at a stationery company. It was a job, but not a vocation. “Work was work, and the things I enjoy – books, motorcycle touring, coffee, rock music – these were separate,” he says. “I wondered if there was a way I could blend the things I loved with the work I was doing.” He teamed up with a colleague to enter a contest to create a concept for a tall, slim notebook. The result had a leather cover and a variety of smooth filler paper that is equally at home in a Harley driver’s leather satchel as in a fashionista’s It Bag. Iijima wanted his notebook to convey a passion for discovery to those who bought it, and he needed his shop to do the same. After a year of searching for the right location, he found a former box factory only a few hundred metres – albeit with plenty of twists and turns – from Nakameguro Station. “The idea is that the trip to the store should be a journey in itself. And then the space I found, I guess that represents the ethos of customising something original, while letting its flavour become richer with time,” Iijima says, referring to the building’s original patterned window glass and preserved vertiginous staircase, which juxtapose its modern light fixtures. Traveler’s Factory, as he called his shop, is a place as much for dreaming of destinations. Curated international stationery finds – vintage postcards from Russia and rolls of old British bus tickets – sit beside collaborations with storied travel icons like Braniff Airlines and Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. On the upper floor, Iijima has turned the storage loft of the original factory into a sunny, intimate space to read, drink a cup of the store’s coffee custom-roasted, and customise their Traveler’s Notebooks. “One woman decorated hers with stickers of the Eiffel Tower and glued lace to the front, a guy stitched a rawhide pen strap into his cover, and another painted a skull on his,” says Iijima. So why exactly does this notebook strike such a chord? Iijima thinks it’s about the act of making it one’s own. “To decorate it, you have to really think about what appeals to you,” he says. “You end up wanting to explore the things you like more deeply.”

Toga

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Toga, Women's fashion. Yasuko Furuta, Designer.

Long before she became a high-profile name in the fashion industry, Yasuko Furuta was a stylist in a far more private arena: her own bedroom. For her primary school graduation ceremony, the budding talent chose to wear a tweed three-piece suit. It was a bold choice for a child, but one that garnered many compliments. “I was commended for having exceptional taste,” she recalls. “I felt proud that I might have talent.” Now an established designer, Furuta tries to give all her customers a similar opportunity to find their own style. Her brand Toga, named for the garment of ancient Rome, does not limit itself to promoting and peddling its current collection. Instead, to give her customers maximum choice, Furuta invites them to browse an edited closet of Toga designs from previous seasons under the moniker ‘Toga Archives’. “We hoped our customers would enjoy putting things from different seasons together, that they’d get creative and establish their individual style,” Furuta says. “I’m lucky because they naturally took a liking to this new way of shopping and dressing.” After graduating in 1994 from the prestigious ESMOD-ISEM fashion school in Paris, Furuta returned to Japan to design eye-catching costumes for celebrities on television. Her work needed to be bold and original. It was the perfect testing ground. “The more I did that kind of work, the more I knew I wanted to become a contemporary designer, making complex designs that would be available to everyone,” she says. She launched Toga in 1997, and with its bold prints and silhouettes, the brand continues to have a glamorous, almost televisual appeal. Her looks are unashamedly edgy – moody, modern, sometimes slightly masculine – and with a confidence that makes them stand out among other Japanese womenswear designers. Located on a quiet street in an often-forgotten corner of Harajuku (albeit less than a minute’s walk from the main crossing), Toga’s capacious store gives Furuta and her team space to have fun with and create different enclaves for each of the brand’s sub-collections. “It’s a kind of Toga souvenir shop,” she says. As well as the most recent collection and Toga Archives, there is also Toga Pulla, for day-to-day basics and shoes; Toga Virilus for menswear; and Toga Picta, Furuta’s own line of one-off vintage remakes. A tent semi-permanently standing outside the store contains more vintage items handpicked by the designer. “I adore vintage. Each piece is a discovery that can transport you somewhere new and exciting,” says Furuta. “I only want to own things that I’ll cherish.” She describes her creative process as something akin to a treasure hunt, “picking up clues,” as she puts it, from the things she reads, touches, hears and smells. “I try to tie all those things together by thinking hard about why each thing excites me. Then I try to communicate that to other people.” As a Japanese woman who has also lived and found success overseas, a message that Furuta clearly communicates is that she wants her customers … Read More

Kohoro

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Kohoro, slow-life kitchenware inspired by wisdom of rural craftsmen

The windows of the smart shopping complex near Futakotamagawa station show off posters of pouty European models putting their faces to international names. The ritzy suburb appears to be all glittering high-end retail. But nestled on a pedestrian side street only a few steps away is a shop with a certain serenity. Beyond the open sliding door, noise and neon are absorbed by wood, iron, linen, and bamboo. Lettered discreetly on the window is ‘Kohoro’, a word that harkens back to a past time as it describes the sound of a horse’s saddle settling into its packing box. But if Kohoro offers not a wholesale return to a simpler way of living, it at least provides a way of adopting some wisdoms of generations of Japanese. Shopkeeper Hiromi Onda took over eight years ago, and has grown to love using its old-fashioned tools in her daily life. “Visiting friends always ask me to make white rice,” she says. “Apparently it’s special.” She’s young enough that even her mother’s generation used electronic rice cookers. But she says what makes her rice special is her clay gohan nabe, a crock pot that cooks directly on a gas burner. The thick pottery heats slowly and evenly, its heavy lid forcing the steam back into the grains. If there is any left over, Onda puts the rice in an ohitsu, a lidded container specifically for cooked rice. The ones at Kohoro are made from Akita Prefecture cedar, which maintains the fluffiness and moisture content of the rice, while its antibacterial properties keep it fresh for several days without refrigeration. She also likes using bamboo chopsticks with an extremely fine point. “They make it easy to eat anything, even something challenging like grilled fish,” she says. To make tea, Onda uses an iron kettle known as a tetsubin. Showing off one from an historic iron-working region of Yamagata Prefecture, she explains that when water is boiled in it, it picks up minerals from the iron that give the tea an extra smooth taste. Hers has a tiny Japanese eggplant moulded into its handle – a symbol of good luck. And for miso soup, she uses a bowl made of urushi, Japanese traditional lacquer. Unwrapping one of black, with subtle shimmers of a red under layer peeking through, she explains that with enough use, the black will start to wear away. Though this erosion lends its own wabisabi beauty to the lacquerware, the bowls do come with a lifetime guarantee: if the lacquer ever wears through, they can be returned to Kohoro for a fresh coat. So where to begin in infusing one’s modern life with a touch of ancient Japan? If Onda were to recommend one piece, it would be a ceramic rice bowl. It’s just the right size and shape to pick up and hold in one hand while eating, a mannerism that’s very Japanese. There are many patterns to choose from, reflecting the work and personalities of different artisans. And then, as Onda … Read More

John Lawrence Sullivan

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John Lawrence Sullivan was a legendary Irish-American boxer and one of the last champions of bare-knuckle fighting during the late 19th century.

John Lawrence Sullivan was a legendary Irish-American boxer and one of the last champions of bare-knuckle fighting during the late 19th century. How he would feel about his name being used for a men’s fashion label over 120 years later – and half a world away – one can only guess. Japanese pro-boxer-turned-fashion-designer Arashi Yanagawa certainly hopes the so-called ‘Boston Strong Boy’ would approve: he named his distinctive menswear brand John Lawrence Sullivan out of respect for the latter’s infamous power and tenacity. After boxing for 13 years – four at professional level – Yanagawa transferred his attention to the arena of fashion. The self-taught designer started with a collection of just three pieces: one T-shirt, one jacket, and one pair of pants. But within 10 years, he was showing in Paris alongside some of fashion’s biggest names. “There is a sense of pressure and nervousness doing a show there,” he says. “People are free to give their honest opinion in Paris. Good is good and bad is bad.” As a result Yanagawa has learned to welcome straightforward feedback and channel it to reinvigorate his designs. If Paris is the big match, then Tokyo is his training gym. Designers from all over the world visit every year to find inspiration from its obsessive early adopters. Most visitors merely scratch the surface, seeing only what the city chooses to reveal to them. Yanagawa, on the other hand, has lived here since he moved from his hometown of Hiroshima aged 17. Immersed in the city ever since, he absorbs and understands not only its juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, but also the way conservatism and experimentalism harmoniously coexist here. This is Yanagawa’s edge – the spark to the unexpected designs of his label: the lines of classic tailoring, brought to life with confident dashes of colour and eye-catching details. In 2011, he ventured into womenswear, an opportunity, he says, to showcase his boldest ideas. “Some of my extreme silhouettes would be too much for men. But I started thinking they could work for women,” he explains. John Lawrence Sullivan now has three standalone stores in Japan. The Tokyo shop opened in 2008 in the Naka-Meguro neighbourhood and its stark concrete design is a reflection of Yanagawa’s own strength of character. “I don’t think there are many people who have moved from boxing to fashion,” he says, although he’s quick to add that the two vocations are not as dissimilar as they may appear. The long months he once spent training for a big match were good preparation for the dedication required to cope with the lead-up to a fashion show. “You spend half a year getting ready for something that only lasts a few minutes, and then you start all over again from the beginning,” says Yanagawa. “I think in a sense my two worlds have a similar rhythm.”