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TOKYO — A group of Japanese apparel players is attempting to revive northern Japan’s tsunami-torn region by cultivating organic cotton in the area’s former rice fields and using it to manufacture jeans, polo shirts and other items.
The first fruits of the effort, called the Tohoku Cotton Project, are hitting the market now. Participating fashion brands and retailers such as Lee Japan, United Arrows Green Label Relaxing, Kurkku and Urban Research staged a fashion show of the first products over the weekend, mixing the rather basic Tohoku items with pieces from their other lines.
This first round of Tohoku-branded products includes jeans, denim shorts, polo shirts, scarves and towels. Representatives of the project said they wanted to create as many products as they could with the region’s first small harvest to reach many consumers, so the actual Tohoku cotton content of each piece is extremely limited — some items contain as little as one percent cotton from the Japanese region, which was mixed with cotton from U.S. and Uganda. The project is set to continue for coming seasons, and members hope the yield will continue to increase, allowing them to create a broader range of products with a higher percentage of the Japanese cotton.
The goal is to eventually make products exclusively out of Tohoku organic cotton, said Hidekazu Hosokawa, director at Lee Japan, which manufactures all of the denim for Tohoku Cotton Project.
The project organizers are selling the products online through their own Web site, tohokucotton.com/collection2012. The towels and scarves are also available at select retailers such as Sogo, Seibu and Takashimaya. Polo shirts retail for 8,190 yen, or $102.37, while jeans prices range from 14,700 yen, or $183.74, to 16,800 yen, or $209.99.
Models in the fashion show included locals affected by last year’s March 11 tsunami and the subsequent cotton project, such as farmers, students and representatives from the local agricultural association.
“I think this project will continue for several years from now,” said Takeshi Kobayashi, representative of the shop Kurkku. “More than the small harvest, the number of participants who came together was very unexpected. I feel a great response to the idea of reviving the Tohoku region through the power of fashion. Before the start of this project, people would have thought that cultivating cotton to be used for clothing in Japan was a foolish idea. But starting with the idea of assisting reconstruction, it is now related to a trend to rethink clothing production throughout Japan. From a business point of view as well, I think it can be profitable.”
The Tohoku Cotton Project came together about a year ago when Naomasa Ochi, chairman of major Japanese legwear maker Tabio, gathered together a core group of participants, including yarn spinning company Taishoboseki, a local agricultural association, Lee Japan and a string other Japanese apparel players.
Last year’s tsunami destroyed many of the rice fields and much of the agricultural infrastructure of Miyagi. The removal of debris in the area has been ongoing.
When the tsunami waters receded, they left behind a high salt content in the soil, making it extremely difficult to grow rice and certain other crops. But cotton has a relatively higher threshold for salt content- up to about 1 percent compared to 0.2 percent for rice.
Cotton plants were first sown on tsunami land last June, and on Nov. 26 about 100 people from the apparel industry gathered for the first harvest. Designers and buyers representing 41 companies, including United Arrows, Urban Research, Lee, Takashimaya, Itochu Corp. and Muji’s parent company Ryohin Keikaku, came from both Tokyo and Osaka to participate. The number of companies participating in the project has continued to grow, and is currently over 60.
The project currently encompasses two plots of farmland: one of nearly three acres in the Wakamatsu area of Sendai, and another of about an acre in Natori city of Miyagi prefecture. The first harvest only yielded between 880 and 1,100 pounds of cotton, which would have been enough for about 2,500 T-shirts. Project members well acquainted with cotton cultivation said that this amount of land would normally produce a yield of about two tons.
“The planting was quite late in the season, and there’s also the issue of salt damage,” said Kenichi Kondo, director of Taishoboseki, as way of explanation for the poor yield.
Ryoma Omuro, textile and raw material section manager at Itochu Corp., stressed the importance of the project for the region.
“Our company has also had success giving new life to agricultural land in India by planting organic cotton,” Omuro said. “If we transfer this know-how to Japan, it is also possible that [we create] a completely new raw cotton business.”