Japanese brand 45R is all about slow fashion

Unlike high-street brands, Japanese clothing label 45R uses traditional bassen dye and print technique to create garments that age with the wearer. The Straits Times visits the Suzuki Nassen in Yamagata, Japan, that does the bassen print for 45R.

Japanese label 45R's painstakingly handmade garments are meant to be treasured pieces that age with their owner

Clothes are like precious heirlooms, Ms Ai Tomatsu tells me while seated on tatami in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. We are in snowy Yamagata - a small city in northern Japan known for its traditional hand-weaving and dyeing.

The 34-year-old has been the general manager of Japanese artisanal clothing label 45R's only Singapore store since it opened in Capitol Piazza mall in Stamford Road two years ago.

The label brands its garments as treasured pieces that age with the wearer, with traditional handmade techniques that allow hues to fade naturally with time and sun exposure for softer tones that look like watercolour paint.

In a bid to extend the lifespan of its clothes, in September last year, 45R rolled out a laundry service so customers can get their garments cleaned and the colours restored from 900 yen ($11.40) for a pair of jeans.

Ai Tomatsu, general manager of 45R's Singapore store. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE 

For shipping fees starting at $50 for a round trip, Singapore customers who sign up for a free membership can have their 45R garments sent to Japan for this service as well.

The unisex label's approach is in stark contrast to modern "disposable" fashion, with fast-fashion giants rolling out new collections each week.

We feel that new things are not always good.

MS AI TOMATSU, general manager of 45R's Singapore store, who grew up in Yokohama. In Japan, she says, the culture of passing down items from one's ancestors to the next generation is commonplace

The challenge these days, it seems, is who can do it faster.

It takes just 25 days for a Zara coat to go from design to store, the Wall Street Journal reported in December.

Luxury brands such as Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford are also moving away from the tradition of showing a collection months before it goes into production. Instead, retailers are moving to a "see now, buy now" model, with collections made available once they have been down the runway.

In contrast, 45R's idea of "slow fashion", says Ms Tomatsu, who works and lives in Singapore but grew up in Yokohama city, stems from the Japanese value of respect for old people and things.

In Japan, she says, the culture of passing down items from one's ancestors to the next generation is commonplace.

  • Five pieces in the Singapore store

    1 Women's indigo patchwork dress

    Technique: Bassen print by hand

    Fabric: 100 per cent cotton

    Price: $1,140

    2 Men's indigo flower shirt

    Technique: Bassen print by hand

    Fabric: 100 per cent cotton

    Price: $890

    3 Women's Saijiki T-shirt

    Technique: Silkscreen print by hand

    Fabric: 100 per cent cotton

    Price: $870

    4 Unisex seasonal bandana

    Technique: Silkscreen print by hand

    Fabric: 100 per cent cotton

    Price: $120

    5 Women's indigo bassen Hawaiian camisole

    Technique: Bassen print by hand

    Fabric: 100 per cent cotton

    Price: $710

    PHOTOS: 45R

"We feel that new things are not always good," she says.

This ethos is reflected in the way the garments - fuss-free clothes that are whimsical, with dainty motifs and a hint of bohemian style - are made at 45R, a name inspired by the rotational speed of vinyl records - 45rpm (revolutions per minute).

The prints on each item are handdyed using various traditional dyes such as ai dyes, rope dyes and shibori dyes. Printing methods include silkscreen and woodblock printing.

The 40-year-old label also has a collection that is hand-dyed using a traditional Japanese bassen, or discharge print, technique. It takes about a year for bassen dyed garments to go from the design stage to stores.

It is no wonder - bassen printing is a laborious, painstaking process that involves many pairs of hands.

First, a designer at 45R's Tokyo headquarters draws the design by hand, based on themes curated by the brand's designer, Ms Midori Matsubara, 35.

The designs are then handed to a printmaker, who makes the printing frames and sends them to Suzuki Nassen, a factory in the mountainous city manned by 25 workers.

Workers there apply the prints byrepetitively pressing the frame against a roll of pre-dyed cloth in measured motions, making sure to apply the same pressure each time so the designs are even.

The bassen solution, which extracts the dye, is then applied on top. At this point, the prints are almost invisible against the dyed cloth.

This all changes in the next stage, when the prints are washed, unveiling the intricate patterns.

Only about 130m of bassen-printed cloth is produced a day at Suzuki Nassen. Modern machine-based silkscreen printing is made at 100 times the speed of traditional bassen printing, factory chief Takeo Suzuki, 68, tells The Straits Times at the factory grounds.

Such attention to detail comes at a price. The clothes at 45R, which carries apparel for men and women, are not cheap. Items go for $80 to $2,000, with blouses priced upwards of $450.

But whether a garment is expensive depends not just on its price, but also the mileage you get from it, says Ms Tomatsu.

Some garments cost $100, but spoil after just one wash, she points out.

More mileage from handmade pieces

"I feel it's very expensive. But our garments, for example a dress - it costs more than $800, but we can wear it even after 10 years. I don't feel it's expensive."

It appears as though some Singapore customers have caught on to this, as business "is doing okay", says Ms Tomatsu, although she declines to reveal exact figures.

Its website, however, shows that sales of the brand reached 7.3 billion yen in 2015.

The brand's store in Singapore opened in 2015 as a joint venture between 45R and Mr George Quek, founder of BreadTalk Group and director of 45R Singapore.

There are plans to open a second outlet here in the next two years, adding to the brand's stable of 66 stores worldwide, in places including Hong Kong, Japan and the United States.

In 1977, the brand started off as a lone store in Tokyo.

The printed and textured items, says Ms Tomatsu, are popular with Singaporeans who are drawn to the fact that, being handmade, every piece is different.

Ms Tomatsu, who has lived in Singapore for two years, says more than 30 per cent of 45R's Singapore customers - mostly Singaporean women in their 40s - became fans after shopping at its stores in Hong Kong and Japan.

She adds that new customers discover the brand through advertisements in newspapers and magazines.

The brand also plugs a gap in retail here. "Singapore's fashion industry is filled with the super high end, such as Chanel and Hermes, and fast street fashion such as H&M," says Ms Tomatsu, who adds that 45R's garments are made with fabrics including organic cotton and Indian silk. "45R seeks a middle ground."

Touching on fashion in the region, she says that, in some ways, choices in Singapore are "more limited" when it comes to shopping.

"In Tokyo and Hong Kong, there are so many options, so many brands," she adds.

Still, the brand has to stand out to catch the attention of customers.

For 45R, this has meant going against the tide, says Ms Tomatsu, adding that unlike other brands, 45R has no immediate plans to open an online store in Singapore. Instead, it is focusing on giving customers a hands-on experience at its physical stores.

Mr Quek's wife, Ms Katherine Lee Lih Leng, says that introducing customers to the story behind the making of the garments is the way forward.

More time, she says in Mandarin, is needed to "let customers learn more about the brand... and experience the quality of each garment."

Ms Tomatsu agrees. She says: "Sometimes, we need to learn from old things".

•The writer's trip was sponsored by 45R.

•45R is at 01-13/14 Capitol Piazza, 13 Stamford Road, open: 10.30am to 9.30pm daily, tel: 6702-3545

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Crafting heirlooms over fast fashion'. Print Edition | Subscribe