With Kyoto's traditional Nishijin textiles seeing a sharp drop in domestic demand in recent years, one of the industry's oldest businesses has set up shop in Europe in the hope of developing new markets overseas.
Masataka Hosoo, 44, the 12th generation owner of a family business dating back more than 300 years, has opened a showroom in Milan, his first overseas base, after spending several years developing innovative adaptations of traditional textiles for foreign tastes.
"I hope to introduce the world to the beauty of Nishijin fabrics," said Hosoo, who has used cloth customarily reserved for high-grade kimono and obi belts to make wallpaper and other interior design furnishings.
In early February, at the shop in Milan lined with an array of pieces, Hosoo spoke about the allure of the highly-decorative, finely-woven material, known as "Nishijin-ori" in Japanese.
"It has been handed down for 1,200 years from generation to generation, made with techniques unparalleled in the world," Hosoo said.
Thomas Lykke, 51, a Danish designer and long-time business associate of Hosoo who came to the showroom in northern Italy, said, "Milan is a hub for design, and also a sophisticated market. It is a place that has a magnet effect as a global stage for designers and architects. It is a smart place to be."
Back home in Kyoto's famed Nishijin district, the heart of the city's textile industry, shops are struggling to remain in business.
According to the Nishijin Textile Industry Association, domestic shipments of locally produced cloth peaked at over 270 billion yen ($2 billion) in 1990 but have since declined, falling to 18.1 billion yen in 2020. With fewer and fewer people donning kimono these days, diversification is a top priority.
Hosoo became involved in the family business in 2008. He started by showcasing obi at overseas exhibitions, but an opportunity emerged the following year. A famous American architect asked to use the fabric as "shop wallpaper."
It was his chance to expand Nishijin textiles to interior decoration and other uses, but he faced a major challenge in repurposing the material.
Conventional looms can produce fabrics about 30 centimeters wide. Hosoo realized that unless he expanded the width of the materials to use as wallpaper or furnishings, the final product would be covered in stitching. It took about one year to build a loom that could produce textiles of 150 cm in width.
Hosoo has increased the number of looms to 14, and the production system is now set. He is currently in talks with several famous overseas brands and hotels. However, as the fabric making relies on a division of labor established over a long history in the Nishijin district, it is a product that can only be made there, said Hosoo.
He displays around 200 pieces in the Milan showroom. Visitors can touch the fabric to examine the textures.
"With my base in Milan, I will also travel to other countries. I want to do my best to bring Nishijin textiles into the future," said Hosoo.