The Japanese Textile Revolution: NUNO

Tradition and innovation are the back and front of the same thing to me. What was innovation a hundred years ago becomes tradition in retrospect. I see no special reason to artificially preserve tradition.

–Reiko Sudo

The Origins of NUNO

 

Nuno—the Japanese word for cloth—is also the name of one of the most significant textile corporations in Japan, responsible for a revolution in Japanese fabric design. The NUNO corporation is inseparable from the transformative designers that have drawn many interested eyes to this period in Japanese fashion history. 

Behind the scenes at every turn, the fabrics produced under the leadership of Junichi Arai and Reiko Sudo were vital to the emergence of a new set of aesthetic tendencies that disrupted the hegemony of Parisian couture and shaped the imagination of designers for decades to come. At the intersection of design and technology, the 1980s Japanese textile revolution is a vital starting point for understanding the material history of the turn towards deconstructionism, anti-fashion, and technological futurism at stake in the work of designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Kansai Yamamoto, Yoshiki Hishinuma, and Issey Miyake. Hishinuma, in particular, executed radical designs in collaboration with Arai throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including a gorgeous series of garments woven from Arai’s stainless steel yarn. 

Commenting on her inspirations in a lecture for the Australian Tapestry Workshop, Reiko Sudo describes walking into a gallery in 1982, where she saw a complex fabric on display from its use in the Commes Des Garcons ‘Pirates’ collection earlier that year. It turned out to be the first ever Jacquard loom structure designed by computer. Sudo was stunned. She had to know who made it. 

The fabric Sudo saw in that Japanese gallery had been designed by Junichi Arai, a pioneer of innovation in the Japanese textile industry whose work was vital to the success of the 1981 Tokyo exhibition in Paris, in which Kawakubo and Yamamoto debuted their designs to European critics. Until he met these emerging Japanese designers, Arai had sold his fabric to designers for the purpose of cutting. But after he brought Issey Miyake a swath woven with a traditional African pattern, the designer told Arai that his textiles were so beautiful that he refused to cut them, and that they should hang in museums instead. 

 

After witnessing his genius, Sudo reached out to Arai and the two partnered up. Arai brought Sudo on board his company, Nuno. Nuno was the retail outlet that Arai began to support his original design studio, Anthologie. 

In the 1980s, the use of computers for designing textiles was considered an avant-garde practice. Between them, Sudo and Arai transformed the industry, bringing a combination of traditional expert practice and computer-assisted design to materials that incorporated new metals, plastics, silks, and polyester. Sudo has been known to peruse Japanese trade magazines looking for industrial innovations to bring into the design world. She repurposed a 1996 stainless steel fiber created by a Japanese tyre manufacturer into a stretchable metal textile mixed with polyamide and cotton. The result is a shimmering, lilting stretch of blue, with just enough give to pillow like the bottom of a curtain. 

Techo-Textiles

 

Technology and fashion have always had a close relation. As Sadie Plant argues in her history of women and computation, Ones and Zeroes, the women who set patterns in the mechanical Jacquard looms of the 19th century were the first real modern programmers. At NUNO, technology became not just a means to an end, but a fundamental creative canvas that could orient the future of design. 

One principle of design Sudo has spoken to is the Japanese notion of mottanai—often translated today as ‘waste not.’ And while the term has been incorporated into the rhetoric of the Japanese environmental movement, its meaning is not as simple as the calls to avoid wasteful production we have become familiar with through Western environmentalism. 

 

Mottanai is an old idea with considerable historical and linguistic complexity, relating not only to a concern for the environment, but to a more ancient religious connotation, an expression of disdain over acts that are inexpedient before nobility or the Buddha. Mottanai is a complex and multilayered signifier, but it allows us to understand the work of NUNO as simultaneously technical and votive—fabric is constructed that makes uses of every scrap, every deconstructed fragment of cloth, but also of every scrap of the subject—the textile is a whole imaginative effort, a bow held in honor of the material’s singularity.

NUNO in Japanese Fashion

 

While Issey Miyake is rightly credited for the creative use of high technology for fabric and construction, it is revealing to understand the background of this turn to high-technology for textile manufacturing. Behind Issey’s magnificent pleated garments and iconoclastic textiles are people like Sudo and Arai. It is often easy to let the larger-than-life personas of designers efface the fact that clothes do not emerge from the creative genius of individuals, but from communal projects that draw together people, materials, and machines. In the coming months, we hope to research the Japanese textile industry in deeper rigor and depth. 


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