Crafting a Community with Tatsuhiro Akashi
Born in the Spirit of Adaptation
Okayama Prefecture’s long tradition of high quality manufacturing was not born out of pure coincidence.
The district of Kojima, translated literally as “child’s island,” has long been hailed as a mecca for crafted goods by enthusiasts worldwide. However when you look at Kojima on a map, you will not see an island, but instead a crescent shaped peninsula. This is due to the fact that modern Kojima is primarily made up of reclaimed tideland. The waters and wetlands that once surrounded this island, now reformed peninsula, were exceedingly high in salt content, and therefore the reclaimed land was wholly unsuitable for growing common food crops such as rice and barley. High salinity in the groundwater presented a huge challenge for traditional agriculture projects; so instead the people of Kojima pivoted to cultivating cotton, coinciding with the rapid industrial boom of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Thus Kojima, and many of its surrounding areas within Okayama Prefecture, were completely transformed into the manufacturing hub that it is today.
These newly formed local industries began producing everything from simple raw cotton fabrics to fully completed textiles. Naturally, garment production began to grow in this area, starting with traditional kimono sashes and cords. Slowly the market demand changed along with the development of technology to create thicker cotton fabrics, eventually leading to the production of materials which the region is widely known for today: canvas and denim.
Generations in Manufacturing
Today, tucked away down a narrow side street in the hills of Kurashiki, Tatsuhiro Akashi is fostering a new generation of craftsmen all from inside an unassuming three story sewing factory. Akashi himself comes from a long line of craftsmen working within the local industries
for which Okayama is famous. His grandfather was involved in the production of school uniforms (an industry which Okayama is particularly well-known for domestically) and produced shirts for public schools all across Japan.
Akashi, being the latest generation in his own family of craftsmen, was now tasked with taking on an entirely new challenge within an industry so heavily steeped in tradition.
For decades, Okayama has been synonymous with world-class denim production, and this is not without good reason. Okayama’s denim is undoubtedly just that; world-class and well-known for its extremely high quality and traditional production methods. However, an unintended consequence of Okayama denim’s spotlight is that it unintentionally overshadows many of the other incredible textiles and crafts being produced within the same region. Akashi, starting at his sewing factory in Kurashiki, began looking for ways to bring other local textiles, specifically Okayama canvas or hanpu, back to the forefront of the Japanese textile space.
Establishing a New Identity
For most of its history, the canvas being produced in Okayama was used almost entirely for industrial purposes. Ship sails, conveyor belts, rail cargo sheets and tents, straining cloths for the production of sake and soy sauce; Okayama’s canvas was known for its ruggedness and industrial utility but had little to no identity in the modern garment space. This left Akashi with a unique opportunity, a literal “blank canvas,” to use as a means to innovate within the local manufacturing community, while still utilizing one of the region’s most prominent textiles.
Naturally, he went straight to the source. A stone’s throw away from Tatsuhiro Akashi’s sewing factory is Takeyari Canvas, the premier canvas producer in the region, one that has been manufacturing canvas for well over a century. Looking to go beyond their usual commercially purposed goods and branch out into new garment projects themselves, a collaboration with Akashi fit perfectly into their own aspirations to innovate in the space. Through this relationship, the fundamental groundwork had been laid, but now Akashi had to find a way to radically transform the composition of this robust textile.
The project started small; a two-man team of Akashi-san and a local needleworker who began experimenting with new sewing and washing methods in order to make this sturdy canvas material into a wearable, form fitting, functional garment. Adapting this fabric, one wholly synonymous with the workspaces and waist belts used by craftsmen themselves, was a groundbreaking endeavour within a community that historically clung to its strict traditions in manufacturing and design. The needleworker did the sewing and made the major stitching patterns, while Akashi handled the cutting and finishing. Soon a viable prototype for Okayama canvas derived clothing was ready.
A New Community of Artisans
Akashi initially decided to work within the established circle of crafted clothing brands upon the development of his garment ready canvas. He began to sell via the OEM model, selling garment components to other fashion brands adjacent to his local community of craftsmen. However, he soon leaned towards establishing his own brand, one made entirely from his uniquely modified canvas. Creating his own brand would allow him to have complete control over design, volume, as well as potential collaborations. This has ultimately culminated in his current venture; blending garment ready canvas and timeless designs, all produced from within his own sewing factory.
SEUVAS, an aptly named portmanteau of “sewn canvas,” seeks to be the culmination of Tatsuhiro Akashi’s aesthetic vision of merging traditionally crafted textiles with innovations in design, while also being the avenue for which he can help build and preserve the local community of craftsmen in Okayama and the rest of Japan. Today, Akashi employs and collaborates exclusively with a network of local craftsmen to preserve the art of Japanese manufacturing while also bringing up a new generation of artisans.
Akashi believes in strength through collaboration. In developing the essence of his new brand, he went forward and immediately integrated artisan collaborations in his canvas garments. Each one of SEUVAS’ canvas derived jackets and shirts is accented with a handmade and hand painted ceramic top button, one supplied by their skilled friends at +botao in Kagoshima Prefecture. In addition to that, Akashi has now begun incorporating all-natural botanical dyes from the historic HOWA CO. dye factory, also located in Okayama. These dyes are made using local ingredients and utilized via the long standing traditional dyeing techniques Japan is known for. These collaborations establish further cross-discipline cooperation within the Japanese community of craftsmen while breathing new life into each garment that they make.
While growing along with and uplifting the local community of craftsmen adjacent to Tatsuhiro Akashi and his brand, within the walls of his own sewing factory, Akashi is making strides to foster an entirely new generation of craftsmen. He brings in local graduates of the nearby vocational schools and trains them in his unique sewing techniques. Over the course of six months, these aspiring needleworkers practice sewing fundamentals, until moving on to making over twenty garment samples before starting to sew official products.
Many of these sewing techniques, old and new, were preserved almost entirely within an oral tradition. And so as a means of further bolstering this new generation of craftsmen, Akashi began to develop instruction manuals from scratch with the help of his more experienced needleworkers. Soon they had developed a fully flushed out process for which aspiring craftsmen in this textile industry could learn and grow their skills within this field.
In Pursuit of Beauty
Since the beginning, the spirit of adaptation has defined this unique network of Japanese craftsmen. It is this merging of adaptability with tradition that has made the works of these craftsmen so highly prized and recognized the world over. In many areas, innovation came at the cost of tradition, and yet, in the case of Tatsuhiro Akashi and his new generation of craftsmen, these innovations and collaborations are ultimately serving to preserve these historic industries in the long run. This network of artisans is pushing the envelope while staying true to the roots of the industries it was born in. Akashi is hoping to grow the scope of this network, and further push the boundaries of canvas garments and the community that creates them.
Story by Jack Goldman