Would you believe me if I said that the most risk-taking, going-against-the-norm people I met were usually in the crafts -often traditional, even- world?
I grew up being told that handicrafts wouldn’t make money; that It’s the industry of Migi Kata Sagari – right shoulder down. If you are wondering what it’s like to have your right shoulder down, imagine a line graph showing profit on vertical axis and time on horizontal. As time goes by (to the right), the line (=profit) goes down. There you have “right shoulder down”. Among all the crafts, kimono textile industry was probably the worst hit by the modernisation, since it stopped being the daily wear for the Japanese.
Norio Arai exudes gentleness – his average-built physique, roundish shoulders and calming, quiet voice. And if I were to name one great risk-taker of all, he would be THE one; quitting his 15-year career as an interior fabric designer so he can move back to his parents’ weaving studio with his wife and four children… To all of which his father wholeheartedly objected, just so you know.
“Have you told your boss yet? No? Then it’s not too late. Don’t quit. It’s not possible when you have a family to support,” was his father’s words.
Despite his father’s plea, Arai came home with his entire family. And none of them, his father or Arai himself, knew then that he eventually would venture into kimono production. Up until then, his family had produced and sold cotton fabrics to futon manufacturers: starting kimono brand would mean that almost everything, from material procurement, developing techniques and finding customers, had to be done from scratch.
“I myself wasn’t expecting to go into kimono either. The plan I first made with my wife was to start a casual fashion brand using cotton fabrics. But when I came back and actually started working. I saw that I really didn’t know anything. Because I didn’t know anything, I tried all sorts of materials and techniques. Among all that I tried, the most challenging was the preparation for silk kimono. I thought to myself that if only I could master this technique, then I would be able to do anything else after. So I went with the hardest”
Arai says it hasn’t been an easy path, which I’m sure of. But knowing so many of us would give up on a seemingly risky path before trying, I had to ask what the driving force behind his wild decision was.
“As an interior fabric designer, I visited many countries and saw bountiful designs. But when I re-visited Hogushi-ori, the pattern-making method that was passed down in our region, I was most fascinated with it. It was something I never saw elsewhere.”
“If none of it worked, I was ready to do night shifts at construction sites if it came to it. I could still weave during the day. Knowing I had that option helped me move forward.”
It didn’t come to it. 15 years passed. His children have grown up, him and his wife are still happily married and working together. His father and mother, who recently passed away, used to come visit the workshop and help wherever they could.
His fascination with the weaving still continues and it’s proven to be even contagious. The year 2022 saw him collaborating with designers for a clothing brand and the local whiskey breweries -Ichiro’s Malt.
I wonder if he would be the same guy with a gentle smile if he didn’t take a step towards the wild side.
More on Arai’s works and stories