Sou Sou, Visionary Japanese Clothing Maker
Sou Sou is a small, Kyoto-based apparel company that is re-interpreting Japanese traditional clothes for the 21st century. They design and manufacture apparel which they sell in their own retail stores. Within one block of a hip, back-street district of Kyoto, they have six stores, including a women’s shop, a men’s shop, a shoes and socks store, a sportswear store, a shop selling original design tenugui hand towels and furoshiki wrapping cloths and a children’s shop.
There have been a number of gaps in Japanese clothing history, which contributed to a decline in popularity of indigenous clothing. “When the bicycle was introduced to Japan in the 1860’s, there wasn’t a corresponding redesigning of the kimono to facilitate its use,” says Takeshi Wakabayashi, Sou Sou’s founder and president. “Also, most of the restrictive rules of when and how to wear kimono are relatively new to Japan. Until the end of the feudal period (1868), “there were few rules covering kimono wear.” Sou Sou is helping to re-establish that freedom with modern kimono that are light weight, easy to wear, comfortable and very versatile and, above all, very attractive. With a simple shift of the belt, what appears to be a traditional men’s kimono becomes loose fitting trousers and a blousy, long sleeve shirt. By removing the obi, a formal outfit becomes casual wear. Tie a clip around the cuffs and take off on your bicycle!
Takeshi Wakabayashi, founder and president of Sou Sou.
The biggest boost to Sou Sou’s business came 8 years ago, when they re-introduced simple workmen’s split-toe boots. The now enormously popular shoes come in a wide range of colors and patterns. They have become so popular that Sou Sou opened a San Francisco branch last year, in Japan Town.
“When I was much younger, I was very into London punk fashion. I loved London and New York, and was not particularly interested in working with Japanese traditional clothes.” When he returned to Japan, he found that dealing only in fashion that had absolutely no connection to Japanese culture was somehow unauthentic. On the other hand, Japan has one of the world’s richest textile traditions. “It was then that I decided to go to fashion design school. I wanted to design clothes that were true for me. I always thought it strange that designers from Japan, Thailand, America and China needed to make a big splash in Paris before they were recognized in their own countries. I decided to create a line of clothes and accessories that come out of our culture, that people wanted to buy because they look good, are comfortable to wear and reasonably priced.” It is not tradition just for the sake of tradition.
Sou Sou believes in the Importance of making clothes domestically. In so doing, the local culture stays alive, because the people with the skills needed to create the product live amongst the consumers in the same community. Once the skills are gone, they are very difficult to resurrect, which is a sad loss for culture.
Wakabayashi has worked hard to save endangered, Japanese-made textiles from extinction. One such fabric that he uses extensively in production is Isemomen, a distinctive cotton, woven by a company that Sou Sou has worked hard to support. Tiny companies such as this have difficulty competing with offshore giants who produce yardage by the mile with high tech machines. Each time the unusual quality, the feel and the distinct coloring that comes from a textile made with low tech, hands-on production disappears, the social network of artisans is diminished and an important nuance in our overall expression through our clothing is lost. We need to ask ourselves, “do we want to buy the same clothes made on the same automatic machines by the same designers from the same chain stores available all over the world?” As I have personally been inspired by Alice Waters and the Slow Food Movement, I applaud companies like Sou Sou who are creating a grass roots Slow Clothes Movement.
Wool Muslin is another fabric that Sou Sou has helped revive. It is comfortable in both hot and cold weather and naturally wrinkle resistant. It hangs well, dyes beautifully and is inexpensive. Sou Sou has clothes for both men and women made from this versatile, natural material.
Not only are all Sou Sou employees behind the concepts mentioned above, but they embrace aspects of traditional Japanese culture in the 21st century. They all study the Way of Tea! After spending the afternoon with Wakabayashi-san and his 20/30-something staff, I wanted to adopt them all. I walked out wearing a great pair of split-toed shoes and very optimistic about the future of Japanese fashion.