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Sourcing Horizons: Japanese Industry Assessing Damage

Many apparel factories were damaged in the disaster.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 03/29/2011

TOKYO — With reports still trickling in from the areas most affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, the impact the disaster may have had on the country’s textile and apparel industry remains uncertain.

“We still can’t easily contact some factories and transportation is greatly affected, so we’re still not completely sure of the extent of the damage,” said Shigeru Chiba, a representative of the Iwate Apparel Cooperative. “The problem is that entire lifelines have been disrupted, so we’re not 100 percent sure of the reality of the situation.”

The cooperative represents 24 apparel manufacturing companies in Iwate prefecture on Japan’s northeast coast. The companies make finished garments including uniforms, men’s suits and everyday clothing for women and children. Of these, Chiba said three companies suffered serious damage, although all three are planning to resume operations next week.

But in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, south of Iwate, the situation is quite different. Azoth Inc., a printing factory located in Sendai, one of the cities hit hardest by the disaster, suffered extensive damage to its facilities. Keisuke Yamada, a graphic designer at the plant, said while the tsunami didn’t reach the factory, the earthquake itself caused disruption to the gas, water and power supply, collapse of the factory’s outer wall and damage to materials.

“Luckily, our staff and their families were all safe, but we did lose some friends and acquaintances,” Yamada said. “We had no water, electricity, food or means of communication, and we weren’t able to go about our lives for about a week after the earthquake. Even now, we have no gas, food or heating.

“It has been two weeks since the earthquake and our business is still suspended,” Yamada continued. “Moving forward, we will demolish our Sendai head office and establish an office in Kyoto in its place. We will continue with production by cooperating with factories around the country. We aim to have all of our staff involved in repair work and relocation work by May or June.”

Azoth does printing work for hundreds of fashion brands and stores, including Hall Ohara, G.V.G.V., Edwin, John Lawrence Sullivan and Vivienne Westwood.

“We have had to delay the delivery of some samples and products, but we are doing what we can [to complete orders] by working with other factories in other places,” Yamada said.

Spokespeople from Japanese fashion brands Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Matohu and Somarta also said that factories with which their respective brands work had been affected by the disaster, causing delays with delivery and production of samples for their fall collections. The brands said they are working around these delays and trying to get back on track so that they can move forward with presentations and shows.

Aside from the immediate damage caused by the disaster, many factories are now having to cope with a reduction in personnel, as many Chinese workers have returned to their home country either temporarily or permanently. Chiba said out of 110 Chinese workers at the 24 companies in the Iwate Apparel Cooperative, roughly 80 percent left Japan after the earthquake and tsunami hit, making it difficult for some firms to operate.

“I’ve heard of factories on the coast having been completely destroyed by the tsunami and others have been dealt a financial blow because of harmful rumors surrounding the nuclear power plant,” said Yamada. “Many companies use sewing plants and distribution warehouses in the Tohoku region, particularly in Fukushima prefecture, and many of those have suffered catastrophic damage. I think the effect on the Japanese apparel [industry] will be great. Because of the possibility that the nationwide apparel industry will [suffer], I think we also need to consider working in fields other than apparel, as well. We are starting from zero, so the economic burden is great.”