"Around 40 years back, I started this company," a 64-year-old Yasumi Inoue recalls. She got together with two other friends with a similar interest in fashion and they founded a clothing label, 45R — then called 45RPM, an acronym denoting the size of the American vinyl records that was all the rage back then.
"It was more to an American casual direction," she laughs as she joked that everyone else around the table was too young to know the American fashion tidal wave that swept through Japan back in the '70s. "Everyone was chasing the American style at that time — the Ivy League, the American graphic tee!" The three friends had no lofty business plans. They just wanted to hop on this exciting American fashion bandwagon.
Soon after, Inoue and friends introduced a denim line, christened Indigo, to their brand. It was a calculated move. They wanted to bring 45R back to where it truly belonged — America. Yet, they realised that they had to first speak the language. "Denim was an internationally-known and understood language in fashion. That's why we chose denim."
Denim pieces from 45R's latest spring collection titled, "Safari".
In 2000, Inoue opened her first store in SoHo, New York. "We brought in Japanese wool, and that's when the Americans really appreciated our items." The meticulously hand-made pieces of denim that 45R introduced were different from the mainstream, mass-manufactured Levi's that the Americans wore back then. "When we opened our first shop in New York, the Americans went, 'What is this? It's a very casual brand. But why are the clothes so neatly done? Why are they so well done — the finishings and stitches?'"
The local media soon got hold of Inoue for interviews. When Inoue got round to reading the interview questions and the media's reportage, she was puzzled by their choice of vocabulary. The media dubbed her label in two words — slow fashion. This was a term that she had never heard of back in Japan.
"At that time in Japan, slow fashion was not known at all. I didn't know what slow fashion was. The first time I saw "slow fashion" was in an interview questionnaire. I was wondering if it meant clothes for people with very slow lifestyles. Did that mean that fast-paced people were not allowed to wear slow fashion? At the start, I went, "No, no, no." But after Googling and research, I realised that it meant a longer clothes-making process. And I was like, "Okay, I can relate to and understand this. No wonder we are called a slow fashion brand."
When she arrived in New York in 2000, Inoue realised there exists two categories of fashion — high fashion and casual, everyday wear fashion. She wanted to bridge the gap by making everyday wear in high fashion production methods and standards.
Inoue jokingly admits that her clothes-making process is indeed very slow. In fact, she thinks that her brand came to be "slower, and the slowest fashion now".
She did not intentionally design a "slow" clothes-making process for the brand. To her, it organically happened. "Along the way, as we were making clothes, we wanted to give customers the best clothes. And to achieve that, the process became longer and longer. We wanted to make something that the customer could wear for a very long time, and even pass it on to the next generation." For instance, in the earlier years of the brand, Inoue and team would buy a bale of fabric, bring it back to the studio, cut the fabric up, and make ten pieces of T-shirts. That entire process took a month or so. Over time, as consumer demand increased, Inoue and team realised that they had to make more clothes. "That's when we started to make our own fabrics. After the fabrics, we were like, "We need to make more!" So we tried making our own threads. And after the threads, we went, "We need something more — in higher quality for the comfort levels of the wearer." So we decided to find our own yarn. We went around the world, looking for the finest quality of cotton yarn. That's when the product became smaller and more in-depth. And that is why our clothes have a very long making process, and why they call us slow fashion."
Today, the making of a 45R T-shirt requires the minimum of a year. Inoue tried to count the number of people involved in this, and she shook her head saying, "uncountable". The brand's colossal effort is plain for all to see — consumers can palpably feel that a 45R T-shirt feels different when compared to the T-shirts they are used to wearing.
Back in the 2000s in New York, this was something that the Americans picked up on. Inoue shyly mentions that the filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani were her customers. "At that time, there were a lot of Americans who had an eye for freedom — like artists and filmmakers," Inoue adds. These people had an eye for objects — and clothes — that were different.
Yasumi Inoue, the 64-year-old founder and designer of Japanese clothing label, 45R. Inoue has recently appointed a successor for her label. While Inoue will continue to oversee the brand in the coming years, she expects designer Midori Matsubara to helm the brand when she retires.
Even so, Inoue does not attribute her label's success to slow fashion. In fact, she steers clear of branding 45R as a slow fashion brand. To her, the underlying motivation should be "to make the best clothes for our customers". This way, everything else such as materials, production, fair wages, and design will fall into place. And this very customer-driven purpose has. in return, rewarded Inoue with a deep sense of satisfaction in both her business and life.
"I walk around in my shops in Japan a lot. Once in a while, I find that I start to appreciate the clothes like how a customer would. It's really about how a customer feels at the end. My aim was to make them happy, so to hear feedback from the customers is my greatest motivation and the greatest gift I have received in return from the clothes-making process."
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