Kyoto is often known for its high-end traditional arts and culture, and as a city, is proud of its heritage as Japan’s ancient capital. Normally, the products from Kyoto are high quality and ornate — kimono that sell for thousands of dollars and austere traditional tea ceremonies that remain preserved from hundreds of years ago.
For this year’s J-Pop Summit Festival, the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco invited Takeshi Wakabayashi, founder and designer of Sou Sou, a clothing brand with a store at Japantown’s New People. Wakabayashi spoke in a lecture entitled “Cool Japan: Old Meets New in Kyoto” on Aug. 27.
Wakabayashi, along with textile designer Katsuji Wakisaka and architect Hisanobu Tsujimura, created the Sou Sou brand, which attempts to evoke and preserve traditional artisan styles in the Japanese aesthetics and create a modern interpretation of classical styles for daily wear.
Sou Sou, which means “yes, yes” in Japanese, is a clothing line that’s known for its line of jika-tabi, traditional style of Japanese footwear. Wakabayashi explained that in the past, the split toe design allowed the wearer better grip on the ground and the thin sole gave a better sense of footing. The “stable, functional and traditional” footwear won Sou Sou the 2010 Cool Japan Award and France Award from the Japanese government.
The fashion, with its association with construction work and other modes of hard labor, had fallen out of favor among the Japanese fashion conscious.
Wakabayashi hopes to bring back classical elements of design and production back into Japanese daily life through the Sou Sou brand.
“You can say we are trying to create a new Japanese culture,” said Wakabayashi through an interpreter. “I want to make new fits that fit modern life using traditional materials.”
Wakabayashi uses traditional methods that are in danger of dying out, such as Arimatsu-Narumi tie-dyeing from Nagoya, a craft that, according to Wakabayashi, has a 400 year-old history, but might not last more than a decade more.
When the Sou Sou brand first approached one craftsperson, he was working a part-time job on the side to supplement his income. While the ornate jobs he made sold for premium prices, the demand for his wares was limited. Wakabayashi asked the craftsperson to bring down the price of the designs on the fabric in exchange for simpler designs.
“Now he is working full time to produce fabric for us,” said Wakabayashi. He hopes that one day, people who appreciate the cheaper designs will also take interest in the premium products.
Sou Sou’s designs and styles are based on traditional motifs, such as the Japanese pine and calligraphy works, but the new works also emphasize the cultural and urban landscape of today’s Japan.
“I want to make Japanese textiles,” Wakabayashi said. “I want to make patterns that follow the seasons and have Japanese sensibilities.”
“It’s very easy to move around in. I wish I could wear this to work everyday,” said Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata, who helped model Sou Sou’s line of kimono and jika-tabi for a fashion show that took place on the Peace Plaza during the J-Pop Summit prior to Wakabayashi’s lecture.
Initially, Wakabayashi was uninterested in placing a store in New People. Seiji Horibuchi, the CEO of New People Inc. had, by chance, walked into Sou Sou’s temporary exhibition store in the ritzy Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo. According to Horibuchi, he asked Wakabayashi over and over to allow him to open a store at his new J-pop center in San Francisco, something that was initially not a part of Sou Sou’s aim to create a clothing line by and for Japanese people.
“There is a saying, that ‘the pine tree has its own beauty, and the bamboo tree has its own … It is impossible to ask a pine tree to have the beauty of a bamboo tree,’” said Wakabayashi. He said that his line of clothing is aimed at creating culturally and socially sound fashion designs for Japanese people designed by Japanese aesthetics. Nevertheless, he expressed he was happy to see people in America also taking interest in his line.
“Simply said, it thrills me,” he said. “The artisans who made (his brand’s items) also are happy I’m sure.”