First-time visitors to Japanese department stores are likely to be surprised by the brand Jurgen Lehl. Chances are they haven’t heard of it although it sounds international and its quiet chic suggests they should have. As well, Jurgen Lehl outlets generally occupy large chunks of prime in-store real estate — at Matsuya’s flagship branch in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza, for example, where the label’s trademark earth-toned boutique stands proudly alongside Valentino, Stella McCartney and Celine.
Jurgen Lehl, this wide-eyed first-timer may think, could be something like Asics or Olympus — local brands that disguise their Japaneseness behind a foreign- sounding moniker. And it almost is, having been launched and bankrolled by man-made-fiber and textile giant Asahi Kasei Corporation.
But Jurgen Lehl is also a very real person — a 64-year-old German, in fact, who has lived in Japan since 1971. With the help of those at Asahi Kasei and a number of “accidents” along the way, this quietly spoken gent with a passionate concern for environmental issues has become an eponymous presence in fashion circles nationwide.
The first “accident” in Lehl’s career occurred in the early 1960s when, having left then-West Germany to avoid compulsory military service, he arrived in Paris. He was 18, had no university education, and was looking to make a start as a graphic designer. But things did not work out that way and, having been turned away by several magazines, he had no choice but to accept a job offer at a textile-design company — eventually becoming well enough known to be scouted by a firm in New York. His sojourn in the Big Apple was followed by a brief stint in Berkeley, California, and then an invitation from a friend to work in Hong Kong — but with one fateful stopover in Tokyo on the way.
It is tempting to suspect that Lehl’s concerns with ecological sustainability are in part a reaction to his own past. Having walked into a job as an adviser on fabric design at Asahi Kasei on arrival in Japan, he found himself dealing mostly with man-made fabrics for use in industry. Not surprisingly, given his “green” outlook, that work only lasted a year.
From the very outset, his Jurgen Lehl brand flaunted its ecological credentials with a series of jackets, blouses and pants for women and men with flowing, ethnic- inspired silhouettes and an earth-conscious palette of browns, beiges, creams and muted reds and greens. That work has now metamorphosed into his current passion — the spinoff label Babaghuri — all of whose products, ranging from homewares to clothes, are made using the most ecologically sound methods.
Jurgen Lehl sat down with The Japan Times early last month at his studio in Tokyo’s Kiyosumi-Shirakawa district to discuss Babaghuri, his work and his life. He also revealed a second consuming passion: a small organic farm he has on the Okinawan island of Ishigakijima.
With the Babaghuri brand you are experimenting with clothes-making that has minimal impact on the environment. What methods have you tried and have they succeeded?
Three years ago, I started the Babaghuri brand focusing on products for the home like furniture, tableware, sheets, towels and rugs. Clothing was only one part of the project. The basic ideas for the brand were to use renewable, natural or recycled materials, to use hand-spun yarn or handlooms for the textiles, to use natural dyes or the inherent colors of the materials themselves, and to ensure that all the products were biodegradable or would create no environmental problems when disposed of. I am now experimenting with chemical dyes that are biodegradable to get a wider range of colors, because the colors of the fast (permanent) natural dyes are limited.
I would love to use organically grown fibers exclusively, but even with the small production lots we do it is complicated to organize and ultimately increases the costs of the products, which are already high compared to conventionally made items and are difficult to comprehend for the unsuspecting consumers. [Jackets and pants from the Jurgen Lehl brand tend to hover around ¥30,000 or ¥40,000.]
My convictions are very strong about environmental concerns — most people’s are less so, I believe. I am considered very hardheaded.
Some people look at Japan and they think it is the most consumption-mad society in the world. As a hardheaded environmentalist, are you not uncomfortable here?
I’m uncomfortable with the state of the whole world, not just Japan. I have no right to vote in this country, so I have no influence over government policies. Voting in Germany would be useless because I don’t know who is who, and I don’t believe in the present political systems anyway. All I can do is to suggest different possibilities for lifestyles through my work and behavior.
Why did you decide to come to Japan?
I came on a holiday. At that point I was not really settled anywhere, because I had left France and ended up in Berkeley after working for a while in New York. A friend of mine asked if I would come to Hong Kong with a stopover in Tokyo. I had some friends here, whom I had met in France, and I contacted them here. I asked them whether it would be a good idea to stay for three or four months — do something, maybe help out in some office — to get to meet local people. It ended up being 37 years. I signed a three-year contract that just went on and on.
Was that with a textile company?
Yes, Asahi Kasei.
What kind of work did you do?
It was more consulting work than anything else. I did some designing, but mostly consulting about textile design.
When did you decide you wanted to go it alone and make your own label?
I didn’t decide. They decided for me! I wanted to quit — thinking that I was not worthy of the salary I was receiving from them. But they said, “Nobody in our company has ever quit, so we have to do something about that.” They asked me whether I wanted to start a company, and that’s what I did.
What was the name of that company?
That was my present company, Jurgen Lehl. It was 1972.
Were you completely free to run it as you pleased?
Yes, I could do whatever I liked. They asked another company to take care of the management, and that’s how it started.
Did you decide from the beginning that you would make clothes?
No, we started with textiles because that was my main area of knowledge. After a while, somebody said maybe we should start doing clothes because it would make more money — which is true. So we started.
How was your textile work influenced by your experiences in Japan?
Before I came to Japan, I was quite interested in the country because there were many things foreign to what I was used to seeing in Europe — especially in graphic design and other fields. I was very interested in graphic design because that is what I actually wanted to do before I started to do textile design. But, when I first went to live in Paris there were no jobs available at any of the fashion magazines I wanted to work for. The first job I was offered was as an assistant to a textile designer, and that’s what I became. But, I continued to be interested in graphic design, and Japanese designers, such as Tadanori Yokoo, Kazumasa Nagai and Ikko Tanaka, did very interesting things.
What did you like about their designs?
They were very different to what one would see in Europe. Just very exotic, that’s all.
How did they, or Japanese textiles in general, influence your work?
In the beginning, they didn’t really. I didn’t know much about Japanese textiles. I started to look around quite a bit later and get to know about kimono textiles. But at the beginning, no. I was sort of the “European import” anyway, so what people were expecting from me was more of a European influence.
How long after you set up the company did you start designing the clothes?
After one and a half, or two years, I think.
Was it difficult?
No. I asked some of my friends in Europe in the beginning to help me. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that difficult either. We started very small. One can experiment as much as one likes if it is just for one shop.
Was it fun? This is the 1970s, right?
Yes, it was interesting because there wasn’t much ready-to-wear around in Tokyo. There weren’t many shops. Whatever you did sort of stood out — just because you were doing something. Whether it was good or bad didn’t matter so much, I think.
Do you think the market has become more international since then?
Oh, definitely. Everybody in the world seems to believe the Japanese are the biggest buyers around — that reputation is now also associated with Chinese and Russians. So many people have opened shops here. When I arrived in Japan, there were the department stores, which had some imported things. There were hardly any small ready-to-wear designers. There was Bigi, Nicole and Isao Kaneko and some bigger ready-to-wear companies like Jun-Rope and Van. That was about it.
How has Tokyo changed since then?
When I moved to Tokyo, there were all wooden houses along the street where I live in Roppongi. Now there are skyscrapers. That is the main difference. There is just more of everything. On the main street in Aoyama, Omotesando, there were three or four shops! It was quite different. Aoyama-dori street was filled with shops that had parking lots. It was like Los Angeles. One of the few foreign boutiques was Yves Saint Laurent, and they had a parking lot in front.
Did you have much interaction with Japanese designers, like Issey Miyake?
He came back to Japan from Paris in 1970, and I met him pretty soon after that. I designed some textiles that he used in his first shows. There was a grouping of designers called TD6, which was organized by fashion producer Yoshiro Yomo in order to make Tokyo a fashion capital that would be more attractive to foreign fashion buyers by organizing fashion-show schedules. There were regular meetings and parties. [TD6 stands for Top Designers 6 — the precursor to the Council of Fashion Designers, which in turn kicked off the Japan Fashion Weeks that are now held each season.]
Oh yes. We were all meeting.
And you were one of the six?
Not really, but I was asked to come to the meetings. I think I went three or four times and then I stopped.
Do you think Tokyo has become a fashion capital?
No. I don’t think it is on the fashion buyers’ circuit at all. They only go to Paris and Milan; maybe New York. But they don’t come here. So it is still very domestic. Designers who want to sell abroad go abroad. I don’t think anybody sells from here.
Are you disappointed?
No. I have no ambition to be sold worldwide. I’m not a very ambitious person in that way, or any way. And the fact that our designs are only sold in Japan makes them more interesting to people visiting here.
Do you hold fashion shows now?
No. I gave them up a long time ago because it’s not worth the effort and the time you have to put into that sort of thing. You have to make clothes in larger sizes — for the models. And you tend to design clothes that look nice in the context of a fashion show but not necessarily on normal people in everyday situations.
What kind of textiles do you like to make?
I like any kind of textile that is nice for making clothes, or to use otherwise in the house. I try not to have any particular prejudice about anything, because if you do you never design anything new, and if you don’t then customers will complain that you do the same thing all the time and they stop coming to the shop. I like to have change in my life. I’m not a very staid person. It is one of the pleasures in life to see and experience something new.
Tell me about your creative process.
It is not always the same. It’s hard to describe.
Do you draw?
Yes, but I do more than that. The creative process can be very fast or continue over months. It can be a sudden idea or the result of a long series of experiments and thoughts. It is like finding answers to questions or solutions to problems. It may start with a request or suggestion from a friend. As we are always using the same production facilities, machinery and looms, there are certain limitations to what I can do. I like to work within limitations and find a way to make the final product look like there were none. I will only design things that have a practical use, so that is another limitation that influences the creative process. Much thinking goes into what not to do — how to make things simpler, how to pare them down.
In India, I’ve been working with the same weavers for 35 years. They have evolved from being able to weave only flat fabrics to being able to weave many kinds of three-dimensional, or highly textured, textiles. Slowly the possibilities are increasing, and every year the things we are producing with them look different. With the clothing, the change is much more drastic. We may have slightly similar things but they are never exactly the same. In my 45 years of experience I have never used the same design twice. So when we moved our office from Takeshiba to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa around 12 years ago, I threw away all the original patterns we had done as it was just sort of useless documentation.
Did you keep photographs?
No, we didn’t keep many photographs either. Life is changing all the time, so what one is doing is changing all the time. I think it is useless to keep the past.
Part of your past lies in Germany. Do you go back there often?
Do you have family in Germany?
I have a sister, brother and my mother there, and some more distant relatives.
No relatives in Japan?
You never got married in Japan?
Do you get lonely?
No. Any more questions like that will get the same answer! (Said with a laugh — not in anger.)
I believe you now spend a third of each month at your farm in Okinawa. Does it provide an escape from the rapid pace of change in the fashion world?
No, not really. In Okinawa everything is always changing, too. Because of the weather, some plants will grow, some will not. Typhoons come and many plants get knocked over and you have to replant. The change is much wilder in Okinawa than in Tokyo. The natural cycle is more palpable. In Tokyo, everything is decided by people. Over there, everything is decided by nature, which is very different. You are much more helpless. That is one of the things I discovered by living there — that you have absolutely no control over nature whatsoever.
Is that what attracted you to Okinawa?
No, not at all. I thought it was a quiet paradise at first! If you go there for a holiday and you have a week of sunshine, then you are very lucky, because it is one of the rainiest spots I know. It has very extreme weather conditions and it is not easy at all to live there.
Why did you want to make a farm?
I wanted to see what it is like to grow your own food — how difficult it is. Normally you buy food somewhere and you eat it and don’t think much about how it is grown. I thought that was a bit too thoughtless. Other people in the world are producing their own food, building their own houses, making their own cloth, sewing their own clothes and making everything by themselves. I admire those people very much for their self- sufficiency. I thought I should at least try to do the food part.
Do you make clothes there, too?.
Yes I do, but not quite in the way that those people do.
I’ve heard you make enough food to be able to bring it up here.
Yes, I grow the rice we serve here in our staff cafeteria. And some vegetables. But it is still very disorganized. The rice part is working. The rest is working less well, with the weather and all it is not very easy.
But you seem to have reached a comfortable position in your life.
I find that a comfortable position is not necessarily interesting. Comfort can lead to laziness and boredom. Organic farming with the weather conditions in Okinawa is not comfortable, nor is the production of ecologically correct clothing. In both cases I have limited control over what I do, which does make it challenging and interesting. Anyway, I think that it is not necessary to have complete control.
Also, to be comfortable in the world these days you have to be able to ignore the commercial atrocities being committed worldwide under the guise of political necessities. We are told commercialism benefits ordinary people. But political and commercial systems have developed in such an unhealthy way that I think it will be difficult to get back to a reasonable and peaceful way of life. I believe what people call “progress” is mostly “regress.” It makes life more and more difficult everywhere. All things related to progress destroy the nature in their paths. That’s why I told you that I admire the people who are doing things in a self-sufficient way. They are much less destructive.
I have lots of qualms about what I’ve been doing most of my life — being in a situation where my designs are produced in large quantities. That’s always going to be destructive in some ways. I am now just working to cause as little damage as possible.
Watch out for the best of Japan Fashion Week in Timeout next week.