Photo/IllutrationKazuhiko Hoshida and his wife Junko show “setta” on display at Cafe Funchana in Sango, Nara Prefecture. (Jiro Tsutsui)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

SANGO, Nara Prefecture--Traditional Japanese “setta” flip-flops have made the leap across the ocean with fresh colors and modern designs, and their creators are hoping to spark a global trend.

The Instagram-ready footwear made its overseas sales debut in October at J+B Design, a store in an affluent neighborhood of northwestern Brooklyn, New York. The shop offers setta in 10 designs, each pair neatly packaged in a rectangular box and priced equivalent to 20,000 yen ($175).

The products are the creation of Takao Shibasaki, a 36-year-old, fourth-generation craftsman of Shibasou, a century-old manufacturer of traditional footwear in Sango.

Setta, made from wood with leather soles and fabric thongs, have long been worn in Japan to walk on snow. Leather soles were used to make the sandals waterproof.

Sango has been a manufacturing center of setta and thongs since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). However, demand for the footwear, typically worn with kimono, has declined over the years owing to changes in lifestyle.

But Shibasaki has wanted to offer a modern version.

With his wife Aya, 36, also a craftsperson at Shibasou, he came up with the idea of making thongs for setta using vintage fabrics from Europe, including well-designed ones from Germany and Switzerland that are more than 50 years old.

“Those of us in the industry have always tried to sell setta at low prices,” Shibasaki explained. “Using expensive vintage fabrics would go against such values, but we believed that making various types in small quantities would be a winning strategy for us.”

Another couple--Kazuhiko Hoshida and his wife Junko--who run a cafe in Sango frequented by the Shibasakis liked the idea when they discussed it in 2013. The four of them created a company called Design Setta Sango (http://designsetta.jp) and produced modern setta for an event promoting local industries.

Despite a high price tag, a few thousand more yen than an average pair, the sandals sold out.

"Customers found our setta fashionable and 'kawaii' (cute). We received an enthusiastic response,” said Hoshida, the 42-year-old owner of Cafe Funchana and president of the footwear company.

After a successful debut, the group made improvements to provide relief to wearers. For example, hemp coffee bags are used for insoles where the bottom of the foot touches the sandal, and cushion materials are incorporated to make soles thicker. In collaboration with textile makers, they were able to create unique and eye-catching footwear.

Junko, who is in charge of advertising, said, “Our setta is designed to look good on Instagram and trend on social media.”

The first big break came in 2015 when their setta were selected to be part of “The Wonder 500,” a Cool Japan project under the industry ministry to promote gems of Japan’s local industries in foreign countries.

That opened the door to showcase the footwear in exhibitions in Singapore and Taiwan, followed by “Japan Design Week” in Milan in 2017. The Milan event was a dream-come-true moment for the Japanese creators, who had hoped their craftsmanship would feature in the fashion hub someday.

On top of that, they returned to Design Week in 2018. Receiving such compliments as "so cool" and "really comfortable" from Europeans who tried on their setta, the team's confidence grew.

“Setta are not only fashionable, but practical,” said Hoshida, whose cafe displays about 60 pairs of setta priced at 8,000 yen or higher. “We will continue to encourage people to wear them in daily life.”