The menswear designers celebrating the value of craft
In celebration of Earth Day (22 April 2021), we hone in on five menswear brands championing artisanal production
After months of human interaction umpired by computer screen, pleasure now lurks in the raw edges and amorphic patches applied with meticulous care to a vintage workwear jacket. This artisanal aptitude isn’t new – silk and cotton garments have been mended and patched together since the 17th century in Japan and, in North West Nigeria, indigo dye pits have been in operation for over 500 years – but it is enjoying a resurgence in menswear.
Many of the pre-industrial production methods employed by the five designers featured here are intrinsically sustainable and culturally profound. Evidence of the human hand takes on a more significant role at this unparalleled time: craft forces us to reconsider our own place in the world.
Each of India’s 32 states has its own artisanal legacy and Harsh Agarwal wants to revive every single one. His Jaipur-based menswear label Harago is a living, growing archive of indigenous crafts. ‘How I started was very random, I’ve always been passionate about clothing but I never thought of taking it up as a professional thing,’ he says. After graduating in economics from Pune’s Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, Agarwal began working on a project with the United Nations, documenting traditional practices across the country. He made some clothes up for himself using the handloomed woven textiles he’d learned about and soon, family and friends took notice. ‘I never thought I’d start a label but I realised that there wasn’t much being done with menswear in India. People expect long tunics and narrow drawstring trousers in linen from us but we don’t really do that. I wanted patterns and shapes that were more experimental. With a little twist.’
A short-sleeved shirt in upcycled heavyweight cotton gauze with cross-stitched kittens at the pockets typifies his approach. ‘Over lockdown I was going through my grandmother’s old bed linens, handkerchiefs, table cloths and curtains and I came across so many kinds of embroideries that are now very rare. I wanted to find the artisans who could do them again and when I did, they were so intrigued. They were like, “WOW! We used to do this 40 years ago and nobody has asked for it since.” That’s when I realised why I was doing this.’
Prospective Flow was launched in Los Angeles in 2009 by three Japanese brothers with the founding motto: ‘Today is the future our ancestors dreamed of. Keep the heritage flowing.’ Daisuke, Yusuke and Kensuke Muramatsu are devoted to the concept of ‘Onko-chishin’, a Japanese expression meaning: the attempt to discover new ideas by studying the past through scrutiny of history. ‘There are a lot of things going on in the world right now – things are changing on a daily basis – and that’s why we need to maintain our concept even more,’ Daisuke says. ‘We still believe that the world is a better place today than it was in the past. The admiration of genuine products has been passed on from generation to generation.’
Their workwear-inspired clothes have a lived-in serenity. ‘Today, in the era of smartphones and social media, technology is evolving faster than ever. And although new technological advancements can be exciting, they can also become overwhelming. When it comes to garments that you are going to put next to your skin, people prefer the sense of warmth they can feel from something that’s made by hand.’
Adam Pogue x Smock
Each vintage piece is appliqued with hand-dyed fabrics by Pogue and in true artisanal fashion, each wears its patina with pride. ‘They’re great because of the oil stains and wear and tear they’ve collected over the years which kind of gives a roadmap for each jacket to repair and reuse.’ Pogue who studied architecture and sculpture, first began crafting materials together to decorate his apartment, upholstering a sofa in Japanese boro-style. His serene constructivist collages champion a wider philosophy too: ‘If I can make something or repair something, (rather than buy something) then that’s what I’ll do.’
Much of our perception of textile craftsmanship is oriented around the ancient techniques of Japan with less attention paid to the Kofar Mata dye pits in Kano, North West Nigeria. ‘I grew up in Nigeria so I had an implicit awareness of African textile crafts but I didn’t appreciate it until recently,’ designer Daniel Olatunji says. Hearing about the indigo traditions of his homeland whilst a student at Central Saint Martins in London, Olatunji moved back after graduating and set about learning as much as he could. His clothes – made using antique linens and homespun cottons – reflect a new feeling in menswear that refuses to be rushed.
‘I enjoy the process of making. I find it very meditative. The first time I saw the Fulani tribesmen in the north of Nigeria that grow and hand-weave cotton I was completely awestruck. The looms are built by the artisans using materials found around them and recycling parts from previous looms. This is also a reaction to my time working for more corporate and commercial brands where you see so much waste,’ he says. ‘Reviving and maintaining these processes can go some way to creating a more sustainable model for our industry. And our planet.’
With their opulent use of boro – the patchworking technique developed in the north of Japan during the Edo Period – the Kyoto-based label typifies how we often expect ‘crafted’ clothes to look. ‘Kyoto is a place where the making of clothes enters the field of fine arts,’ designer Kayoko Kondo says. ‘In our current world of advanced mechanisation, without the feeling of love, we can’t work tirelessly in same way as hundreds of years ago. What’s most important with clothing is first that you just love it and second, that you’ll live with it your whole life.’
When the label launched in 2004, Kyoto’s antique markets were stuffed full of elaborate antique kimonos, whilst old pieces of indigo-dyed cloth were thrown away. Now things are different: ‘Once I sewed some boro cloth together and made it into a jacket. I displayed it in my shop and many people gathered around, some frowning, some smiling, some criticising it loudly. It felt like being at one of the amusement parks I had gone to as a child!’ Kondo says. Now, there’s been a global shift to revisiting tradition: ‘Just as a wild stitch can be more attractive than a neatly aligned seam, the heart may throb more for rough nonconformity than for pristine fabric. Craftsmanship is a sensory realm.’ §