‘I grew up in a home full of fabric. The only place that there wasn’t any was in the toilet', Hiro, eldest son of the Murase family, tells me. ‘Initially I didn’t want to go into the family business, I wanted to be an artist.’ But like many people in Japan who come from a craftsmanship background, the intuitive and technical creative process and sense of responsibility drew him back in.
Shibori is only one of Japan’s traditional crafts that is suffering from a decline. Much like the world over, manufacturing and craftsmanship is diminishing due to the rise of machine-made and refined products. Numerous techniques that Japan had managed to hold onto for hundreds of years are being lost to industrialisation and westernisation and Hiro, along with this team of creatives, are working towards revitalising them. Combining their creative innovation and desire for heritage preservation, Hiro is giving the shibori technique a more contemporary relevance through the development of new and innovative procedures and creations with Suzusan, a contemporary brand that still champions these old techniques.
‘I didn’t go to university in Japan, they wouldn’t take me. I tried twice! I studied art in Europe, at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham Surrey as well as at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. My time in Europe has influenced me greatly, I go to museums and galleries often and use them as a source of inspiration in my designs. I’m very inspired by German designers: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Dieter Rams, Braun. All of them have the philosophy that less is more. They create super simple products that are very effective. I think this is similar in a way to Japan. Japan is a country of “less”. For Me, Japan is also a country of hands; well skilled hands. Usually Japan is very good at teaching technique and skill - how to carve wood for example - but often the “why” is missing; why you made it or how you view it. This is what I was able to learn from my time in Europe.’ Hiro tells me.
‘I launched Suzusan in 2008. I had the idea, made business cards, and became a Creative Director overnight. I didn’t study fashion, but I have a background in fabric so knew how it worked. I went back to Japan to research and that was that.’ With Suzusan, Hiro designs everything himself, creating upscale fashion and homewares collections that are produced by his family in Japan. ‘My father is almost 70, he’s still very involved in the everyday running of the process in Arimatsu,’ Hiro says, describing the methods which have remained practically unchanged over the centuries. A process akin to a village production chain, before full completion, a textile will typically pass through four or five different pairs of hands, each specialising in a particular part of the process, from stencilling patterns, printing on fabric, stitching, and dyeing.
Suzusan as a brand has helped to revive the shibori handicraft so that today, young people work again in the traditional way in the artisanal studios of Arimatsu, crafting clothing and furnishings made of fine yarns with individual modern designs. Traditionally, shibori was used on silk and cotton fabrics, which were then made into typical Japanese clothing such as kimono, but Hiro has been experimenting with Alpaca cashmere, mohair, and linen, combining ancestral techniques and contemporary materials, making new combinations, shapes, and colours. Today, Suzusan products can be found throughout Japan and Europe in high end department stores and boutiques, and the Murase family fabrics have been found in couturiers and ateliers across the globe, from Christian Dior, to Issey Miyake.
‘Some designers like Yamamoto and Miyake use our fabrics, but it’s a small percentage. At first we tried to sell fabric directly to designers, with success, but it was unstable work. We realised that we had to build a brand and create our own demand to save shibori. Traditions must always move on to keep up with modern life, particularly in a dying craft. To attract the new generation, we must first make the future of shibori. Now we have 12 young artisans in our company, the youngest is 20 and has been with us for two years.’ Hiro explains, his passion for revitalising tradition by collaboratively investing in the future being abundantly clear. He teaches textiles (specialising in the marketing and technical procedure of shibori) at Nagoya University, where he has both Japanese and international students that often intern or embark upon one of the many shibori workshops at his family’s company in Arimatsu.
‘Alongside lecturing, I’m currently involved in a three year project as an Art Director for the city of Nagoya, whereby I advise on how to replicate Suzusan’s success in other handicrafts: developing designs, products, and marketing, whilst supporting and passing on my knowledge.’ Hiro says, detailing collaborations with big names and brands – the Head Designer at Graph; the Founder of United Arrows; a designer of Bottega Veneta handbags – to help bring back from the brink shibori and other traditional textile techniques.
‘Most people think just because a technique is old it must be kept, but why? Artisans can die, AI can think for us, but the possibility of hands and fingers to make many things - not just tapping screens - that is something fascinating. Something that most people cannot accomplish. For me, I hope people see Suzusan as a brand where product, technique, and culture can meet.’