It was around six months ago when I first saw the works of HIROCOLEDGE. Just as I was looking for a small Japanese gift for a friend abroad, I noticed the “SLEEVE BAG” in interior shop CIBONE‘s e-mail newsletter and instantly fell in love with it. Today, PingMag talks to the designer of HIROCOLEDGE, Hiroko Takahashi, who created the national costume for 2007 Miss Universe winner Riyo Mori, about her passion for creative activities, as she introduces us to a selection of her exquisite works.
Written by Chiemi
Translated by Natsumi
I know that you are involved in diverse creative activities, but what exactly do you define your title as?
At the moment, I call myself an “artist” so that people can perceive me in a broader and freer sense, but to be honest, I haven’t been able to find a title that is right for me. I don’t differentiate my works of art and products as separate things; I approach them equally as different means of conveying my message.
How did you start making kimonos, which has now become your most representative work?
As a child, I wanted to become a fashion designer after I saw reports on Paris Fashion Week on TV, so I took a fashion design course at my high school and studied the basics there. After that, I studied traditional dyeing and weaving from the crafts course at Tokyo University of the Arts. But back then, I was immersed in dressmaking in my free hours outside college studies, and even went as far as setting up my own independent brand. It was in those days that I decided to challenge traditional kimono making for the first time, for my graduate presentation in the fourth year of my undergraduate course.
You’d always been making ordinary clothes until then, what made you suddenly turn your eyes to kimonos?
People usually spend a year or so for their graduate exhibition, but Western clothes to me were already so familiar and I found it difficult to perceive them as pieces of work. At the time, I was making clothes with my original fabrics, but Western clothes had limited space to show the patterns of the fabric, and they use many curved lines that make it difficult to connect to the patterns. On the other hand, a kimono can show a large chunk of patterns. Also, I was studying how to dye kimono fabric, so I thought I should challenge Japanese textiles. When I told that to my professor, he was really supportive because although there were many professors who had specialized knowledge on kimonos, students had little interest in it.
But you still aspired to become a fashion designer after you finished your undergraduate course?
That’s right. I got a job at an apparel company, but what I found there was a creative activity in commercial mass production, which was totally different from what I was aiming to do. After that, I returned to the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Ph.D. program, and explored how I could make use of the aesthetics for modern day Japanese who live in a society where both Western and Japanese clothes co-exist.
I hear there was another incident after that, which also became a turning point for you.
After two years in the Ph.D. program, I was given the opportunity to work in Paris for six months by the invitation of AFAA, which belongs to the French Foreign Ministry, and presented my kimonos at the exhibition there. I was surprised to find out that people there saw my kimonos as “traditional and modern” and accepted them. And by listening to the voices of the people who don’t have any fixed ideas on kimonos, I managed to perceive Japanese culture and my own role from an objective point of view, and became strongly aware of the fact that I am Japanese for the first time. That made me feel the significance of being involved in Japanese traditional culture, and so I decided to continue making kimonos. After returning to Japan, I went back to the Tokyo University of the Arts and started “HIROCOLEDGE.”
So tell us about your brand, HIROCOLEDGE.
I see HIROCOLEDGE as an artistic activity. I want people to touch, feel, and enjoy works of art just as they do with products. I suppose they are both means of conveying the backgrounds of making things.
Items from HIROCOLEDGE have particularly striking modernistic patterns, but is there anything you are particular about when it comes to the patterns?
As you may know, there are patterns that were created especially for Yuzen dyeing, so in the old days unique Japanese patterns must have developed hand in hand with the craftsmanship. But even though dyeing skills have evolved, the development of patterns has stopped. I suppose the fact that the kimono is no longer the everyday wear of Japanese people is part of the reason, but in nature, I feel that patterns that reflect the era should continue to evolve together with the skills. At the moment, I am challenging myself by seeing how much originality I can express with the minimum elements of black and white, circles and straight lines, and the shape of the traditional kimono. In this era of expressions with freedom, I’m making it a point to limit the available elements, and aiming to make things in a lean way that reflects the times. Because it’s a flat garment with large surface area, there should be lots of things I can do with it.
That’s a wonderful aspiration. I hear that you frequently visit many regional factories. What is your opinion on the materials and manufacturing skills?
Regarding the materials and skills, I think there are things that you can change, things that you cannot change, and things that you mustn’t change, but I always consult my craftsmen during the process. When I draw an initial rough sketch, I first show it to them, and then we consider the available options together. Design comes after that, but it’s not unusual to be told, “I think we can do it, but I’ve never done it before.” However, challenges might lead to a new step, so I do make tough requests to the craftsmen from time to time.
Can you give us an example of a work that was born out of the challenge and the efforts of the craftsmen?
I once designed a Nishijin obi in simple black and white, but weaving usually causes the colors of the crossing threads to blend into each other. So it was extremely difficult to show pure black and pristine white, but the craftsman kindly stopped all his other work and spent almost 3 months experimenting with techniques, and the obi was completed after much trial and error. When it was finished, I heard that many people in Nishijin came to have a look at it, which was unprecedented at the time.
The craftsman must have been happy with his new discovery too.
Yes, the sense of accomplishment was especially big for both of us, so there is a special attachment to it. The craftsman is really happy whenever this obi is introduced at various occasions.
Incidentally, the movement of rediscovering Japanese traditions and bringing them back in a new form is increasing considerably. How do you feel about such trends from an objective point of view?
Personally, I am also included in such trends, but I find that breaking down fixed concepts while preserving the areas that shouldn’t be changed is an extremely important thing. For example, I often see collaborations by students and traditional craftsmen, but the works produced from there seem to be heavily influenced by classical patterns. By that I mean that many people are too influenced by the past; it seems like they are mired in it.
I don’t exactly feel that my design is consciously Japanese, but I’m really happy whenever foreign people who look at my work say that my pattern is Japanese, because I think it’s natural that a pattern made by a Japanese artist should feel Japanese. That’s perhaps why some people say that my kimonos blend naturally into the modernistic spaces of today’s Japan.
I feel that today’s design is expected to provide substance. If you become too conscious of the superficial elements in your pursuit for a Japanese design, then it often becomes an awkward design. But if you have a better understanding of the roots of manufacturing and the backgrounds of how that item came to be born, then it should give you a different picture. I think Japanese items that fit into these modern times will then be created more naturally.
And finally, what is the message that you are trying to convey through HIROCOLEDGE?
I want to make things in such a way that everyone involved in the item, including the people making it and the people using it, will all be happy. There is an underlying presence of history, skills, craftsmanship, and tools for everything, but it’s naturally quite difficult to sense such things. And if you think about the global environment, now is an era where unnecessary things shouldn’t be produced at all. That’s why as a creator I want to convey such messages, while cherishing the process at the same time. And by sensing such things, I think the feeling of treasuring something will come to the user too. But that doesn’t mean that the background of making things is the sole paramount factor either. After all, the impact of the appearance is crucial, as it won’t even be picked up if it can’t attract people’s attention. Because we live in an era with a lot of products, I want to make things that would make people want to pass it down to others in the future.
Designer of HIROCOLEDGE, Hiroko Takahashi.
With so much passion for your creative activity, you must have a great relationship with your craftsmen.
Yes, many of the craftsmen that I work with come from the same generation. They have great skills as professionals, but compared to older craftsmen approaching their 80s they still lack in experience. But young craftsmen kindly feel that we are going to grow together. I share the same feeling, and hope to increase our experiences together.
Hiroko, thank you very much for your time today. We look forward to seeing your collaborative partnership with the craftsmen give birth to many more wonderful Japanese works!
[Information] A limited-time store by Hiroko Takahashi’s brand “HIROCOLEDGE” is now open in Tokyo and Hyogo. If you are in the area, please drop by.
Hyogo: Hankyu Nishimiya Gardens
“Sense of Life” inside The ROOM.
Dates: Until Friday, December 26
Opening hours: 10:00 – 21:00
Tokyo: Omotesando Hills
Dates: Until Monday, January 12, 2009
Opening hours: 11:00 – 21:00 (closes at 20:00 on Sundays)