An Interview With Hiroyuki of Suzusan

An interview with Hiroyuki Murase of Suzusan, May 2021

Suzusan both preserves the Japanese tradition of shibori dying while creating new traditions in a modern context. Founder Hiroyuki talks us through how he created Suzusan, draws on his 100 year old lineage of shibori dying in Arimatsu Japan and celebrates this craft and craftspeople, and what he is doing with Suzusan next. 

Shibori is beautiful, unique and mesmerizing – Suzusan preserves this ancient Japanese craft, whilst also presenting it in a modern and contemporary context. What are innate characteristics of Suzusan and shibori patterns – and what aspects make this practice quintessentially Japanese? 

Shibori is an ancient traditional dyeing handicraft in Japan. My hometown Arimatsu is a small village, located between Tokyo and Kyoto. The village was established in 1608 and shortly after, the history of Shibori craft was established. We have been preserving this heritage; from mother to daughter and from father to son for over 400 years. Historically this craft was developed for Yukata, which is the summer version of a Kimono. In Arimatsu, it was and still is made by a chain work of different families. One family stitches, another one ties, another one dyes, and through 5-6 different families, one Yukata fabric is finished.

Thanks to the creativity and passion of past artisans, more than 200 different Shibori techniques and patterns were developed in this tiny village. You can see dyeing techniques all over the world but it is a very rare case that such a small area developed so many different patterns, especially from an academic view point.

My family has been doing one process, part of this chain work for over 100 years, my father was fourth generation, now I’m fifth. At one point there were more than 10,000 shibori artisans in and around Arimatsu, with time and changing lifestyles this has since decreased. When I was young, there were already less than 200 artisans and my father was one of the youngest; in his late fifties. My father had fears that the tradition would disappear in the future. I was not interested in my family business when I was in Japan, I wanted to be an artist and came to Europe when I was 20 to study Fine Art. Some years later, my father visited Europe to show his textiles and I supported him, then for the first time, I saw the textiles in a new light and thought “oh, it’s beautiful”, and so Suzusan was established in Düsseldorf, 2008. It takes its name from founders over 5 generations ago. Suzusan is focused on the social aspect of handing down this rare craft to the next generation and from Japan to the world. 

You are a part of the Murase family, based in Arimatsu, Japan – a family business specializing in the traditional shibori craft for over 100 years. Your father worked with the Japanese Avant-Garde designers of the 20th Century, such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme Des Garçons, developing modern Japanese textiles utilizing and referencing ancient Japanese craft. You are an extension of this history - presenting and utilizing your family craft and history through Suzusan. How do you honor this line of history, skill and craftsmanship presenting it in a new context, adding your own contemporary and modern twist?

I have great respect for those designers, they definitely changed the game of fashion. In the 70s or 80s these Japanese designers came to Paris - with a fighting spirit that was contrary to mainstream fashion - establishing their position in and outside of Japan. Now, me as a Japanese designer making fashion in Europe, my Japanese mentality or background is a communication tool - to share the value, to respect and share cultures with the people living in other places, that’s my way I guess. Luckily in Japan, we still have a lot of handicraft, in every single corner of the country, these are values not only of importance to Japanese people but are a universal value. I want to be a bridge, on a river, connecting the floating past to the future – connecting objects, people and the future. One thing I enjoy in my job is that I can travel to many places, and that I meet people through the work we create. These are the times in which I feel the passion.

Each piece is hand made, with an ordered technique in the creation. Tell us more about the stages and process involved in shibori dying?

The name of Shibori is from a Japanese verb “Shiboru”, meaning “twist”, “screw” or “press”. Shibori has many processes to finish one fabric. The very first step, we draw the pattern on stencil sheet and make tiny holes using punch and hammer (this is my family’s original work for 4 generations). Then the second step, the pattern is printed on the fabric using aqueous ink. Following the printed marks, the artisans stitch and tie.

Their hands are dancing on the fabric. When I was a child, I have memories of visiting the homes of artisans with my father and seeing their work, (I accompanied because they often gave me sweets). After all of the stitching and tying preparation, the fabric is dyed. It’s only a few minutes, but delicate subtleties in temperature, even the weight of the pigment makes a difference to the color. Once dyed the tied yarn is undone and the patterns appear.

Each piece is unique, it’s often luck and, sometimes I lose, sometimes I’m surprised by the accident and the unexpected outcome. Mr. Jack Lenor Larsen (of the Long House Reserve local to TIINA the STORE in East Hampton) visited our village often before he passed away last year, through him, Amagansett has become a familiar place for us.

Both the shibori patterns are unique, as are the garments shapes and cuts – talk us through both those aspects, the shapes of the garments referencing kimonos and Japanese dress as well as the patterns adorning the clothes – how do these two aspects come together?
When I start to develop the collection, I always start with the fabric - Japan is a treasure of fabrics. For example, one weaver still uses an old machine which you can’t find in any other country, it can weave just a few meters a day, the weaver repairs and keeps using the machine. It makes fabrics that uniquely keeps air inside – making the fabric soft and light. Our cashmere has a long story behind it, the cashmere hair is hand combed in inner Mongolia, always carefully selected to ensure the best quality. Then the hair is shipped to Osaka and twisted as yarn, using a vintage spinning machine. After that the yarn goes to Yamagata, northern Japan and is knitted. Suzusan’s knitwear has no seams, this is why the touch is so smooth and soft on the skin. After all these steps, the clothes come into our atelier in Arimatsu for the Shibori. So all in all its a long Journey before it comes to you. Suzusan’s shape is extremely simple, but the simplicity is made by the very complicated process and passion of the artisans - comfortable happiness. For me, Shibori is “additional” value. The function of the clothes is the same if it’s dyed or not. That’s why the clothes must be perfect. Usually, I don’t design a Shibori pattern until I see the final clothes. Only after I assure quality I add the essence of Shibori. When you wear Suzusan, you wear the time and culture – which I hope you feel.

With your European education – Studies at Farnham, University for the Creative Arts, UK and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, with the latter being where Suzusan was founded. Is there a European influence or twist on this Japanese craft tradition of shibori?

I came to Europe when I was 20 years old. I’m 38 now, so it’s almost half of my life spent in Europe, which I never imagined before. My family was poor, so I earned money by myself, at the age of 19, I went to the UK. It was very exciting to study there, but after one year, I couldn’t pay the tuition fees anymore. At that time I shared a flat with 8 people, and one of them was from Germany, she told me that there are no study fees in Germany, that’s why I moved, without any knowledge of the German language or culture. Studying at the Kunstakademie was great for me – almost no tuition fees as my old roommate said, no grading, no attendance check, you could make art every time when you wanted night and day.  

Until now, I did not have any fashion or design education, I only studied fine art. Whilst studying art, I learned “Why” I make it, not “How” I make. This is the biggest difference between tradition and art, or even Japan and Europe for me. You can make something and tell about how you made it, but if someone asks you “why do you do it?”, you ask yourself and start to think. To study or do art enables one to think as they like when they see an object. Telling “How” it’s made is like a guidebook, but “Why” is endless. For me, Japan is the hand that creates and Europe is the eye that sees and reflects. I say tradition to make, and art to think. Or East and West. There are always two bipolar sides in myself, and I need both of them for creation.

How do you see Suzusan developing and evolving in the future – both the clothes and homewares?

It’s been 12 years now since I started Suzusan. It was just a few scarfs in the very beginning. I did everything, learning by doing, it’s developed step by step. One thing I’m really pleased about is that we have had good people around us. Artisans, suppliers, buyers, and people who wear our collections. Without them, we could not keep the tradition.

Now, I’m preparing a bag collection for the first time for the upcoming season with my old friend Sawako Furukawa in Milan, former senior bag designer of Bottega Veneta, it’s a very exciting project with her.

My ambition is to make Suzusan as a culture. To have longevity beyond designer, company and brand - culture can outlive anything. After 50 years, 100 years, a tradition can form fitting the time and environment of those in that era – a tradition evolved, not the same as we know it now. Tradition is not only a thing of history, it’s also the present and the future. One thing I deeply believe is, the possibility of hands and fingers will stay, even more in the future - technology makes the world faster and will make many things easier and more effective - the creativity of your hands and fingers will stay, and I think will be of more value to us all in the future.

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