Handmade style from Japanese label 45R

Japanese label 45R takes a hands-on approach to its clothing, with artisanal techniques and craftsmanship

Designer and co-founder of Japanese fashion label 45R Ms Yasumi Inoue recalls how, many years ago, a friend told her that the shirt she was wearing cost just 300 yen.

"She said she could wear it a few times and just throw it away. Hearing that, I knew I did not want to make clothes like that," recalls the graceful and soft-spoken 62-year-old designer.

Ms Inoue has certainly gone in the opposite direction with 45R.

With prices ranging from $450 for a silk printed dress to $1,130 for a pair of linen madras pants, the brand takes a hands-on approach to its clothing with artisanal techniques and traditional craftsmanship.

It has designs that are handstitched and prints that are silk-screened or block-printed by hand. The label even has a range of designs that is hand-dyed in a natural indigo dye called ai, which is derived from the rare Tadeai plant in a long and tedious traditional Japanese process (see story on facing page).

A friend once told me that her shirt costs only 300 yen, so she could wear it a few times and just throw it away. Hearing that, I knew I did not want to make clothes like that.

45R DESIGNER AND CO-FOUNDER YASUMI INOUE

  • 600-YEAR-OLD CRAFT OF AI DYEING

  • The Japanese ai dyeing process is more than 600 years old and was originally reserved for clothing worn by the aristocracy.

    The natural indigo dye is made from a fermented paste derived from the leaves of the rare Tadeai plant.

    The fermentation process is time-consuming and tedious and only five farms in Japan produce the paste today.

    The leaves of the plant are gathered, sun-dried over about two weeks and then undergo a fermentation process that lasts 100 days.

    The leaves are kept in a storage space on the ground, which allows the heat from the earth to interact with them. Natural springwater is mixed with the leaves with shovels and the leaves are covered with straw blankets. This is done every four days for 100 days till the leaves ferment into a paste.

    About 12kg of leaves are needed to make a baseball-size amount of the paste. This fermented paste is called sukumo. One sack of the paste, weighing about 55kg, costs about one million yen (S$13,200).

    The sukumo is purchased by factories that specialise in the ai dye process, which is done by hand. Only a handful of these factories exist in Japan.

    One such company is Asai Roketsu, a small family-run business that has partnered Japanese fashion label 45R to dye the clothes under its Ai range. The factory also provides dyed fabrics to other companies.

    Asai Roketsu, which also dyes kimono fabrics in other types of dye, was founded more than 60 years ago by Mr Masafumi Asai, 78. He learnt how to use ai dye from a craftsman in another ai dye factory in Tokushima.

    He has passed on this skill to his son Naoyuki Asai, 50, who now runs the factory with his wife Sachiko Asai, 51.

    To make the ai dye, about 100kg of the fermented paste is added to a 1,000kg vat. This vat is then filled with hot alkaline water mixed with charcoal ash, causing a reaction with the paste to produce the indigo colour.

    A full bottle of sake, about 1.8 litres, is also added to the mix.

    The younger Mr Asai says the fermented leaves are still alive and the sake helps to keep them "healthy and refreshed".

    More alkaline water and sake are added to replenish the mix every few days as more dye is used.

    The factory has three 1,000kg vats. Each is used for a full day of dyeing and then allowed to rest for two days.

    Mr Asai, whose hands have been permanently stained blue like his father's, says that since the dye is alive, it gets "tired" and must be allowed to rest. Each vat of dye lasts two to three months, depending on the amount of fabric dyed.

    Before it is dyed, a piece of fabric or clothing is machinewashed. This softens the fabric and helps the dye to be absorbed.

    While wet, the piece is then fully immersed by hand into the vat. As the fabric is brought out of the dye, it is shaken and aired for a few seconds. Mr Asai says this helps the dye to "breathe" and be absorbed into the fabric.

    The excess dye is wrung from the piece and it is then hand-washed to get rid of the excess alkaline solution. Washing the fabric in a machine would cause the dye to appear patchy.

    The piece is then hung up to dry before the dipping process is repeated till the cloth retains the required depth of colour.

    Asked what happens to a piece that is accidentally dropped into a vat, Mr Asai laughs and says it is retrieved when the vat is drained after the dye runs its course and that it will be very blue.

    Depending on the material, a piece of fabric has to be dipped, washed and dried multiple times.

    Thinner fabrics such as linen and cotton go through five to 10 dipping cycles, while more resistant materials such as calfskin can take up to 40 cycles and almost three weeks to complete the process.

    At peak production, the Asai Roketsu factory can put about 600 pieces of clothing through one dipping cycle in a day.

    Melissa Heng

Other artisanal materials and methods used by the brand include Suvin cotton, a fine-textured organic hybrid cotton, and Japanese craftsmen embroidering intricate designs by hand.

Ms Inoue says that since starting the unisex brand 38 years ago, the emphasis has always been "materials first".

Speaking to The Straits Times, she says: "Everything has a beginning. When I have good material to begin with, the strength of that material contributes to the quality of the end product."

The brand's first store in Singapore opened in July last year at Capitol Piazza. The business is a joint venture between 45R and Mr George Quek, 60, founder of BreadTalk and director of 45R Singapore.

45R is not the only Japanese brand to place such an emphasis on artisanal techniques; other wellknown ones include Blue Blue Japan, which features traditional construction techniques, natural fibres and indigo hand-dyeing methods.

Ms Inoue says the love of craftsmanship is in the DNA of the Japanese. "Even when you look at pastries and art, there are many hand-crafted techniques from the past. I think it is in our blood to love artisanal things."

45R was founded by Ms Inoue, the brand's director Shinji Takahashi, and another person who has since left the brand.

The name 45R is inspired by the rotational speed of vinyl records - 45rpm (revolutions per minute) - and is a reminder to the brand to consistently produce good work, says Ms Inoue.

Known for its understated and vintage-inspired aesthetic, 45R designs are light and slightly bohemian, with a whimsical touch. It has three ranges - Basic, Seasonal and Ai dye - with each updated almost every month.

About 80 per cent of the clothes from the privately owned brand are made in Japan. The label has a factory in Japan's Aichi prefecture that specially produces cut-sew work - where garments are put together from scratch from raw fabric - and knitwear. It also partners 35 factories and companies from different parts of the country that specialise in various traditional crafts. Certain materials are imported from other countries such as India, China and Scotland.

Though it began with only one store in Tokyo, 45R now has 47 locations in Japan and has also opened stores in countries such as France, China and the United States. Though the brand declined to disclose figures, sales for the brand reached 7.3 billion yen (S$96.3 million) last year, according to its website.

Speaking to The Straits Times in a phone interview, Mr Quek, who was introduced to the brand almost 20 years ago by a Taiwanese friend, says: "I like the brand because the clothes are comfortable. They have a unique personality and are low-key, which I find matches my attitude."

He made contact with the label through that same friend and decided to bring it to Singapore last year, after hearing that Capitol Piazza had an available space and was looking for a new concept.

When asked how the brand has been doing here since its debut, Mr Quek admits that sales have been about 20 per cent below expectations. But he says there is potential for growth.

Though he acknowledges that the crowd at the mall is small, customer satisfaction with the brand is high, with return customers making up 60 per cent of 45R clients here. He adds that he is in negotiations with at least three malls to open more outlets.

While Ms Inoue acknowledges that 45R prices are high, she says that customers who invest in its pieces understand that it is not fast-fashion and that the clothes are meant to last.

"I want the people who buy my clothes to love them. To find that after washing and wearing them over a period of time, the clothes become more comfortable and even more uniquely theirs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Embracing dyeing crafts'. Print Edition | Subscribe