By SATOKO ONUKI/ Staff Writer
December 6, 2021 at 07:00 JST
Black never went out of style in Japan's ancient capital, where Kyoto artisans are resorting to a centuries-old dyeing method to revive faded and well-worn beloved clothing for customers.
The blackening technique refined by craftspeople in Kyoto to treat garments for ceremonial occasions is drawing considerable attention in the apparel community.
Dating to the Edo Period (1603-1867), the service is giving modern clothing a Japanesque revamp.
As the move comes independently of the latest fashion trend, the artisans are seeing orders pouring in for their traditional art despite the declining popularity of kimono these days.
RETAILERS NOW OFFERING SERVICE
In March, the Isetan Shinjuku department store in Tokyo started the Kurozome Rewear service to renovate dirty or discolored Western-style garments by changing their hues into an elegant black.
The items to be processed should be sent by parcel delivery service so they can be returned to the customer in about a month and a half or so. The prices for handling of cotton T-shirts and full-length coats start from 2,750 yen ($24) and 9,900 yen, respectively, after tax.
Shota Kamiya, 35, a buyer for the department store operator’s ReStyle women's clothing section, said the offering has already proven popular.
“Patrons told us that they were satisfied because their favorite items of clothing were refurbished in a way they can wear the garments again as the colors were not suitable for their age as they had gotten older,” he said.
Kamiya said his job is purchasing goods from popular brands all over the world to display them in corners within department stores, and that he proposed the novel service with the aim of boosting relationships with customers.
“Once the articles of clothing were sold in every season, it all ended there,” said Kamiya. “I wanted to stay close to clothing and customers in the longer term. To have people shop at department stores, it is important to prepare various opportunities, such as a repair service, to build continuous connections and not simply keep up with the trends.”
Major online shopping service provider Felissimo Corp. in October launched a similar dyeing program called Kuronicle. It is also considering pitching fashion goods specially designed for their hues to be changed to black afterward.
Providing blackening treatment for the two retailers is Kyoto Montsuki Co., a well-established business that had exclusively offered a black dyeing service for Japanese-style clothing in the city’s Nakagyo Ward from its founding in 1915.
The darkest color was traditionally adopted for clothing from olden times as described in “Kojiki” (Records of Ancient Matters), Japan’s oldest existing historical book.
As Kyoto served as the country’s capital for some 1,000 years, a traditional black dyeing method known as "Kyo kuro-montsuki zome" has been passed down there.
Like other firms, Kyoto Montsuki relies on the technique. Silk fabrics processed with the art was included in the state’s traditional craftwork list in 1979.
Under one of the unique methods, textiles are first dyed in red or blue, and then turned into black. In another method, fabrics are treated with a plant-derived dye and a chemical agent alternately.
According to the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, the technology is believed to have been established in the early 17th century.
Samurai loved that sort of treatment in the Edo Period, and it was often applied to the crested “haori” half coat and “hakama” trousers during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when it became common for the garments to be worn for ceremonial purposes.
REVIVAL OF DEMAND FOR BLACKENING SERVICE
However, demand has dropped dramatically as fewer people don kimono. Data from the cooperative of black dyers in Kyoto shows there were 106 registered members in the peak period in 1974, but the number today has dwindled to no more than three.
Toru Arakawa, 63, the fourth-generation president of Kyoto Montsuki, said the company used to receive orders for treatment of 120,000 rolls of cloth annually, but that only 1,200 rolls are processed today.
Seeking to take further advantage of the technique his ancestors have been honing to realize a purer black color, Arakawa decided to test his corporation’s skill for blackening Western-style items after a prolonged trial-and-error period.
Whereas the simple structure of textiles for Japanese garments allows for easy dyeing, modern clothes available in the market boast complex shapes and forms. Arakawa thus improved the piece-dyeing procedure to dye them uniformly.
To render garments’ hues far darker, a special agent was selected to enable the treated cloth to absorb light. Goods dealt with in this fashion are called "Shinkuro" and will unlikely lose their color even if repeatedly washed.
Starting from last year, Kyoto Montsuki has signed contracts with more than 100 enterprises, including Isetan and Felissimo, to renovate their customers’ garments, leading to a reported dramatic increase in sales.
“The color black is special for Japanese given that it is used in phrases of admiration, such as ‘the hue like a blackberry lily seed’ and ‘shiny black resembling that of crow feathers,’” said Arakawa. “The hue can also make tainted and faded garments appear neat. I would like the custom of blackening damaged clothing to be accepted as a cultural practice.”
Alike, based in Nakagyo Ward, Banba Senkogyo Co., which was created in 1870, began soliciting orders for black dyeing of Western clothing in 2004.
Maki Banba, the fifth president of Banba Senkogyo, noted a characteristic of her company’s offering is that spring water from its plant grounds is used for the treatment, making the black hue “even darker with the help of a tiny amount of iron in the water.”
More recently, Banba Senkogyo started working on a botanical dyeing program.
“Many people want their garments to be dyed with natural substances out of consideration for the environment,” said Banba. “I will further widen the potential of blackening while preserving the tradition at the same time.”
An advantage of black dyeing is that the color can be less affected by the trends of the time. The hue, in fact, is apparently attracting much attention regardless of the current color to be considered in fashion.
The Japan Fashion Color Association said the representative color of this year is not black but one known as “zero white,” which is supposed to be combined with other hues such as light blue.
Tsunemasa Uema, a journalist knowledgeable about the fashion industry, pointed out that the darkest color is the “most elegant” hue that is always much sought after.
“People from younger generations hope to wear their favorite pieces of clothing longer, and they enjoy remaking and repairing those items,” he said. “It (black dyeing) may be re-evaluated as an antithesis to the practice of pursuing materialistic affluence.”
Visit this page for the latest news on Japan’s battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Haruki Murakami and other writers read from books before selected audiences at the new Haruki Murakami Library.
The Asahi Shimbun aims “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” through its Gender Equality Declaration.
Let’s explore the Japanese capital from the viewpoint of wheelchair users and people with disabilities with Barry Joshua Grisdale.