How does one of Japan’s oldest textile houses perpetuate the use of its hand-woven silk brocades?
It teams up with a French house that shares similar craftsmanship values to produce custom-made watch straps and small leather goods for use in daily life — and suitable for gifts.
“We wanted to broaden our scope to the world outside of kimono and create usable accessories that are in line with modern lifestyles,” Jyubei Sawaya, an eighth-generation master obi craftsman, wrote in an email. (His company is named Sawaya Jyubei, with the family name first, which is common practice in Japan.)
Founded in Kyoto in 1776, the company has specialized in the art of hand weaving, creating kimono and obi, the wide belt used to fasten the traditional Japanese garment, since its establishment.
Then last year, the company and Jean Rousseau Paris created a collection that combined its fabrics and the French company’s leathers.
“Nowadays, it only takes one object to break, and another can be acquired,” Mr. Sawaya wrote. “This collaboration reflects our common and sincere desire to take care of the materials while respecting the craftsmanship that arouses attachment and makes us want to use our objects for a long time.”
Sawaya’s workshops were established (and still are housed) in Nishijin, an area in Kyoto of about two square miles that is known as the weavers’ district. In its heyday in the early 1900s it was home to 3,000 weaving companies, but today only about 100 remain.
Artisans there are renowned for the Nishijin-ori technique, which involves weaving colored silk threads into elaborate patterns, a style said to have originated more than 1,200 years ago. Sawaya uses the technique for its signature kodai-nishiki (“kodai” means ancient in Japanese) brocade — and this fabric was used for the leather goods collection.
On the Sawaya looms, which have been used for generations, the warp is composed of 4,800 silk threads arranged lengthwise while the weft, the horizontal threads, are pieces of Japanese washi paper coated with lacquer and then with gold or silver foil, cut by hand into thin strips, then cut again into hairlike threads.
The process produces brocade that is 31.2-centimeters, or almost 12.3-inches, wide — the standard width of an obi — and is offered in more than 1,000 colors and 400 patterns. “But this weaving represents even more,” Mr. Sawaya wrote, saying that the know-how and emotion of the artisans who made the fabric are also part of the product.
A client first mentioned the French brand, which has a boutique and small atelier in Tokyo, to Mr. Sawaya. “When we met, we recognized ourselves in the workshop atmosphere that reigned at Jean Rousseau,” Mr. Sawaya wrote. “Our artisans quickly got along and understood each other.”
While the collaboration officially was called Jean Rousseau x Sawaya Jyubei, the Japanese company named it Tsuyayaka, which, in English, means “shiny.” The name was meant to express the concept of “beauty in use,” the words of the early 20th century Japanese philosopher and art critic Yanagi Soetsu. “We wanted to create beautiful items that can be used every day,” Mr. Sawaya wrote. “Materials change and live with time, and I believe that there is a kind of beauty that everyone can find over time.”
The six-part collection has been created from surplus obi material combined with various types of skins, including alligator and calfskin.
The products released last year included watch straps adorned with the obi brocade ($205), sized to fit most classic watches, and four-slot card holders that fused calfskin with brocade in a floral design that included lotus and peony and that represents wishes for wealth and prosperity.
The newest items, released this month, include a yellow calfskin handbag with orange obi fabric on the front flap (180,000 yen, or the equivalent of $1,220).
“We started with existing Jean Rousseau products that we revisited to highlight the different skills and materials,” said Alexandre Lanos, the general manager for Japan at Jean Rousseau. “I also see a connection between the obi, a belt used to close the kimono, and the strap that is tied to attach the watch to the wrist.”
Jean Rousseau’s artisans create the pieces: the watch straps are made in Japan while the leather goods are made in France. All the items also can be customized, allowing clients to select fabric patterns, colors and types of leathers.
“The collaboration is an encounter between two houses well inscribed in their heritage, culture and traditional know-how, with a history and respect for craftsmanship,” Mr. Lanos said.