S&M, High Heels & Stanley Kubrick: Sanada Himo “samurai string” gets a makeover

Take one of Japan’s most traditional fabrics. Add a company head who understands the need to change and open up the tradition’s prospects for the sake of innovation and survival. Then mix in a leading London fashion academy, set its students the task of revolutionizing how this east Asian material might be used — and you have the recipe for some very, very interesting results indeed.

Sanada Himo‘s name comes from the samurai family Sanada, a famous ninja dynasty that is said to have developed the ribbon weaving technique in the Edo period. It is very tightly woven string made of cotton, sometimes with silk. It began as material to tie weapons and armor — both in a decorative and practical way, and also a badge of allegiance — and later developed into being an accessory that was part of the tea ceremony and for wrapping gifts.

sanada himo samurai string

The “samurai string” is today still created by Orimoto Sumiya, a crafts company based in Kanazawa and the last manufacturer of Sanada Himo in the world. Needless to say, there are no more samurai and for various other inevitable cultural and social reasons, the demand for the ribbon is shrinking in the domestic market. Just as samurai in Japanese history were both loyal protectors of their way of life, so too were they often the pioneers of change and internationalism in the country. In the same way, now the artisans have to think big to survive.

“Sanada Himo was used as string for wooden boxes such as for tea ceremony utensils, but as time has gone by, its usage has dramatically declined,” Orimoto Sumiya’s CEO Taro Sumiya tells us. “However, we are striving to continue making it in the spirit of keeping the tradition going and also for our customers who even today buy it. But it’s very tough to do this so we are hoping to develop new uses for it.”

sanada himo samurai strings

At the end of 2012 Orimoto Sumiya worked with the London College of Fashion (LCF) to come up with re-designs for the ribbon of samurai for a new era.

The broader aim of this collaboration was to revitalize the Japanese craft industry and open it up to new markets, especially luxury markets, who have recently begun to notice what an untapped resource Japan’s craft world is. After all, why not have Japanese crafts integrated in a sophisticated way into the branded bags, belts, footwear and other accessories that we buy in high-class stores? Why should crafts be relegated only to “craft shops” and museums?

sanada himo samurai strings

For LCF’s first project with a traditional Japanese artisan studio, students from the BA Cordwainers Footwear and BA Cordwainers Accessories courses were set the challenge of developing “must have” products for the European luxury goods market. The two best designers would then be invited for an expenses-paid internship and cultural experience tour in Kanazawa.

The winners selected by an industry panel were Mathilde Heintz and Jack McNamara. Orimoto Sumiya supplied five meters of the Sanada Himo ribbon of different color and pattern to each participating student, and these are the spectacular results by the two finalists.

sanada himo samurai strings
Jack McNamara’s footwear design integrating Sanada Himo
London College of Fashion, BA Cordwainers Footwear. Product Design and Development: Work created by Jack McNamara. Photography: Shawn + Chen, Creative Direction: Rob Phillips, Beauty: Pace Chen, Nail Art: Lauren Michelle Pires, Model: Miss Miranda
sanada himo samurai strings
Mathilde Heintz used the Sanada Himo in a neck piece
London College of Fashion, BA Cordwainers Fashion Accessories. Product Design and Development: Work created by Mathilde Heintz. Photography: Shawn + Chen, Creative Direction: Rob Phillips, Beauty: Pace Chen, Nail Art: Lauren Michelle Pires, Model: Miss Miranda

Heintz’s design is a quasi-bondage-style neck accessory, while McNamara has made incredible high-heel footwear. Both items are a far, far cry from the original military use of Sanada Himo ribbons. The leap from being string that was used to tie armor or in the tea ceremony to these almost cyberpunk designs is pretty massive.

“My immediate impression of the product was to do do with its quality — the extremely dense weave and fine thread make the ribbon both beautiful and highly durable. This is why it is so interesting for footwear and accessories; it looks great and can take a beating,” Jack McNamara tells us. While non-designers might simply notice the aesthetic of the string, both McNamara and Heintz remarked on its robust nature. “They really inspired me,” Heintz says. “I wanted to put wire inside to make them stiff and build 3D structures. I also noticed their strength.”

And yet neither design seems to hark back to Sanada Himo’s connection with weaponry, or at least, not overtly. “I wanted to understand the origins of the textile to get a sense of its traditional application, but then take it in a direction that was not explicitly Japanese,” says McNamara. “Stanley Kubrick’s ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ served as a jump-off point for much of my visual research.”

sanada himo samurai strings
London College of Fashion, BA Cordwainers Fashion Accessories. Product Design and Development: Work created by Mathilde Heintz. Photography: Shawn + Chen, Creative Direction: Rob Phillips, Beauty: Pace Chen, Nail Art: Lauren Michelle Pires, Model: Miss Miranda

Actually, Kubrick was a source for all the students, since the college had them use the Stanley Kubrick archives at London College of Communication Research Space for ideas, making this a truly cross-cultural and international smorgasbord. If McNamara went the route of science fiction, Heintz chose a different genre entirely. “I chose the film ‘The Shining’,” she says. “I used the ribbon as my raw material. My concept was about madness and evil (like Jack, the main character). I made an object that constrains the body, that is uncomfortable to wear, like madness.”

Of the two, likely Heintz’s design is the most provocative and challenging. Were people put off by its erotic undertones? “People were surprised because it is a very edgy product, not usual at all,” she says. “Some thought is was an S&M accessory, which it could be. I would say that people were intrigued most of the time.”

sanada himo samurai strings
Mathilde Heintz and Jack McNamara presenting their work in Japan

But how did Orimoto Sumiya respond? “When I first saw [McNamara's design], I had the impression that this was a very modern design,” says Taro Sumiya. “It was very high quality and with Sanada Himo used discreetly.” He also wasn’t fazed by Heintz’s even more avant-garde approach. “She had used Sanada Himo in a way I had not expected at all and it was very mysterious what it would be used for. I asked her and she told me she had made it to be a mask of something disharmonious. I could see by looking at the design work she had done up to finishing the product that she had considered a lot, and could feel the efforts she had made to complete her work seriously.”

sanada himo samurai strings

The two winning young designers visited Japan in March. “Our visit to Japan was unbelievable,” says Jack McNamara. “Everyone at Orimoto Sumiya was extremely generous with us — we were able to see the production processes involved with creating the Sanada Himo ribbon, which was really impressive.”

Heintz was likewise very inspired by her internship. “The visit to Japan has been an experience of a lifetime. It was the first time I went there and I was really excited about it. We met many people and I think this was the most interesting part of it. It was really about sharing moments, ideas, impressions with people from the other side of the world. In a way, it made me more open-minded.”

sanada himo samurai strings

As part of the project, LCF organized a business consultation for Orimoto Sumiya in London with luxury fashion industry reps. Of course, things are not going to change overnight for Sanada Himo but after all, this is a tradition that has survived centuries by innovating and adapting, so there’s little reason why we should not expect new applications and ideas for the string very soon.

“Things are going slowly, but we hope to move into the overseas market,” says Taro Sumiya. “I hope that Sanada Himo becomes widely recognized abroad.” Certainly conservatives need not be worried about damaging the reputation of their historical products by such cross-generational, cross-border adventures. “I can feel that the recognition for Sanada Himo in my area or from those around me has changed,” Taro Sumiya beams. “I’m very grateful that by being noticed overseas we may also be noticed again in Japan.”

“To gain first-hand experience with new cultures and strange cities is always beneficial to a designer’s practice,” says Jack McNamara. “But in a place like Japan it’s another level. It’s so saturated by craft and design, both traditional and cutting-edge contemporary, that you just don’t know where to look. I can’t wait to go back.”

Perhaps then we can look forward to more unique collaborations with other traditional materials.

Sanada Himo

With thanks to Orimoto Sumiya, London College of Fashion, Gen Ide (Project Director, International Enterprise Consultant, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London), Jack McNamara, and Mathilde Heintz