I don't know how to describe him in English or in Japanese. Only one word works perfectly. Saito Hiroshi-san is a mensch and it is life enhancing just to be around him. The way he moves, works, lives, plays, talks, laughs and serves the world exudes decency, purpose, fulfillment. Born and raised in cosmopolitan Yokohama, Saito-san came to traditional Kyoto after college, but as a product of the late 1960's he rejected the salaryman's way. Instead, he set out to learn to hand paint designs on kimono, and became the apprentice of a yuzen artist. Eventually he found the proscribed formality of the classic kimono limiting and dreamed of moving beyond its conventions to the expression of original, unconventional and artistic wearable art. However, making the move from the narrowly-defined to the open-ended proved to be a leap more challenging than he had expected: his body was not free enough to follow the pathways of his creativity. So rather than pushing himself in a direction that wasn't working for him, he pulled back, and began to study Butoh, the Japanese-born contemporary dance form based on spontaneous, authentic movement. Through these studies, Saito-san transformed himself inwardly, allowing him to free himself from his analytical mind and move to free form, abstract and bold textile painting. His work now includes extraordinary one-of-a-kind stoles, scarves, men's shirts and contemporary kimono.
In addition, Saito-san’s continuing path of integrity and purpose has led to his organizing outdoor dye workshops and groups that create AIDS quilts, projects that he calls his “Life Work.” Recently, he created a successful Japanese grass roots crusade to rescue cottage industries producing the magnificent textiles that through a long history have made Japan a leader in textile innovation. His biggest success has been to save wool muslin from extinction. Low in cost, wool muslin is lightweight, soft, hangs beautifully, takes dye and shows color exceptionally well, breathes and is comfortable to wear. Because of Saito-san’s efforts wool muslin clothes are now showing up in Japanese boutiques. Indeed we have a very special mensch to thank.
In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld
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