Reiko Sudo at CHAT: Japanese Textile Ingenuity

This article is brought to you by CHAT, the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile.

When Japanese textile artist Reiko Sudo’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong opened at CHAT, an art centre based at The Mills last week, visitors stopped in their tracks. CHAT’s exhibition is an intriguing insight into the Japanese designer’s ruffled, puckered and multi-layered textures, translucent and iridescent works, all with beguiling names such as Splatter, Tiggy, Jellyfish and Origami Weave. They are made exclusively in Japan’s regional production centres and craft workshops with unusual rust-dyeing, caustic burning, and salt shrinking techniques.

Sudo has always loved textiles. Her earliest memories are of traditional Japanese fabrics: her great-grandmother’s woven cotton and silk bedding, and her mother sewing clothes for the whole family. As a young girl, Sudo would make dolls and toys as gifts. But the most powerful of her memories is of kimono, Japan’s national dress that traces its history from the eighth century and is steeped in symbolism. A kimono’s style, motif, colour and material communicate much about the wearer, from status to personality.

“I was born in a very small town and we didn’t have a kimono shop, so every summer and winter a kimono merchant would visit and my grandfather would select the fabric for my mother and her sisters,” she says. “I would hide and watch. I can still remember the whoosh as the fabric was unrolled onto the tatami mat. It was such a beautiful sound! I wanted to be the person who made those colourful patterned fabrics.”

Traditionally, kimono patterns were drawn by hand, and Sudo studied Japanese painting and went on to become an assistant at the textiles department at Musashino Art University in Tokyo. Then, serendipitously, while she was freelancing in 1982, she met Japanese master textile designer Junichi Arai who was fascinated by weaving and finishing processes and whose imaginative crumpled and pleated fabrics were popular with avant-garde fashion designers such as Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

“I just fell in love with his work,” she says. “When two years later he asked me to help found a small textiles atelier in Tokyo, I agreed even though I had no experience in business! We wanted to provide a meeting point between makers and users where we could sell textiles directly to consumers without the middle man. He pointed out that I could help to explain where the fabrics came from and how they were made.” ‘Nuno’ is Japanese for ‘fabric’ or cloth.”

And it is how they named their atelier.

Today, a shop in the basement of Axis Building in Roppongi remains their main studio. Over the years, Sudo has perfected her craft, exploring and experimenting with innovative techniques to produce a startling variety of textiles.

One important innovation was to apply liquid metals to textiles according to a sputter-plated method that was normally used to give cars a metal finish. Another is the diaphanous three-dimensional fabric used to create Sudo’s signature Origami Pleat Scarf. Delicate polyester is folded at sharp angles before being permanently pressed in a heat-transfer pleating procedure while the delicate graduation of colour is achieved by placing coloured dye-transfer paper between the fabric and the outer paper during the process. “If you drop it on a surface, the pleated fabric just folds back completely flat,” she says with obvious delight.

Sudo’s character is equally surprising. She is a petite mother of one with a quiet, matter-of-fact demeanour and flashes of humour. It’s a low-key personality that belies the formidable resolve that has allowed her to survive when Arai left Nuno in 1987 and Sudo took over as design director. She had to convince mills factories in Japan, who were more accustomed to large orders from the booming fashion industry, to experiment with her unusual techniques.

“I remember one of the most difficult of all was Mr. Yamazaki, a velvet weaver who made fabrics for very well known fashion designers,” she says. “His work was very, very beautiful—the best—and so I knocked on his door and he just asked ‘Who are you?’” Yamazaki told the young Sudo that he would only consider making her fabrics if she could “move his emotions” by showing him especially exciting samples of her work. She was nervous, but persevered and over the years they became very close friends.

Sudo starts each design with preparatory sketches that she draws in small notebooks that are on show for the first time at the exhibition alongside her drawings and a collage-like colour board displaying fabrics from her personal collections. Some are tiny scraps and extremely fragile and old – one even dates back to the 18th century. Others are notable for their intricate techniques including loosely woven fabric manipulated by hand to create the appearance of a natural wave or feature decorations in lacquer or paper.

“I loved textiles so I started to collect old fabrics when I was a university student,” says Sudo. “There were so many antique markets and shops in Tokyo and even as a student I could afford to buy small scraps with beautiful colours and techniques. Looking at them gave me so many ideas and when I started Nuno I used these as its colour palette of blues, reds, yellows, and black and white.”

Nuno’s own fabrics now number more than 2,500, and its designs are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Sudo has exhibited at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and the Guimet Museum in Paris and has taught at Musashino Art University and at the Tokyo Zokei University, where she was appointed professor in 2007. She has worked on a wide range of interior design projects including at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo, where she created a custom-made collection of fabrics around the theme of “Woods and Water.”

Now 65, Sudo—who also sits on Muji’s advisory board—says she feels a special responsibility to promote Japanese artisans and craftsmanship. Part of that means protecting and nurturing Japan’s weaving heritage, the concept at the core of the exhibition at CHAT, whose gallery has become an active site showing making techniques re-imagined with equipment, video and sound. There is no admission charge and visitors can walk around looking at the work and equipment from different perspectives. The installation is a collaboration between Sudo, French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère and exhibition artistic director Seiichi Saito of Rhizomatiks Architecture. The exhibition is curated by CHAT’s co-director Mizuki Takahashi.

Sudo’s interest in the environment and deep respect for the skills of Japanese artisans pervade her work, as she explores ways to reduce waste in the textile industry and designs fabrics that specifically address this issue. Another textile, Tsugihagi, uses embroidery and collage techniques to rework remnants of Nuno fabrics onto the surface of a base fabric, which is then dissolved, leaving a lacy patchwork intact. The look is subtle, natural and supremely elegant, elevating scraps to sustainable luxury design.

Working exclusively with Japanese weavers, Sudo has been a pioneer in blending different techniques to keep traditional crafts and artisan design alive. Nuno’s Big Egg fabric, for instance, applies handmade Mino washi paper produced in Gifu to polyester organdy using a special washi print technique to create overlapping ovals. Tiggy is made using konyaku gel, traditionally employed to waterproof paper kimonos, to create a stiff, flat bristles.

Another procedure she has developed softens and transforms the coarse outer layer of silk cocoons into a fibre that is spun into yarn to create traditional Japanese sandals and textiles. This kibiso fibre is naturally water repellent and UV resistant, but until Sudo revived its production by working closely with craftsmen from Yamagata Prefecture to develop a new line of textiles, it had been considered too time consuming to process through industrial means.

The exhibition collection is beautiful, but there is also a hint of Sudo’s playful side in ninety vivid koinobori, the carp-shaped windsocks traditionally displayed to mark the birth of a son and more recently, to celebrate Children’s Day in Japan. In the exhibition, they are suspended as if swimming through The Mills’ light-infused atrium.

The visual and sensual qualities of textiles still captivate and inspire Sudo, who is modest about her success. “To be honest, I think about textiles all the time,” she admits with a laugh. “Actually, I think I am just completely crazy about textiles.” CHATSudo Reiko: Making NUNO Textiles runs at CHAT until 23 February 2020 – The Mills, 45 Pak Tin Par Street, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong – 11:00am-7:00pm (Closed on Tuesdays) – Free Admission

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