Dressed in a gray suit, a model stops at the end of the runway and strikes a pose before taking off his jacket. Still standing at the end of the runway, instead of throwing the jacket over his shoulder, he begins to casually flip and fold it. Then he holds it up. What had appeared at first glance to be a plain, unassuming suit jacket had been swiftly transformed into a smart little bag.

This unusual garment was being presented as the Grand Prize-winning design of 2014 Super Cool Biz, a student fashion-design contest that celebrated its winners on May 30 in the atrium of the Kitte building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. It was one of several designs that were showcased to commemorate 10 years of Japan’s Cool Biz initiative.

In 2005, Yuriko Koike, then-environment minister of Japan, announced a plan to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 6 percent to nudge Japanese society toward a more sustainable future. To further this aim, she spearheaded “Cool Biz,” a movement that encouraged wearing lighter, more casual work wear to reduce the use of electricity via air conditioning and similar devices. The campaign was so pervasive that by 2010, “Cool Biz” was a catchphrase that 88 percent of Japanese people were aware of — and it had reportedly decreased greenhouse-gas emissions by around 2 million tons.

Not that you would visibly notice, however. In central Tokyo, you would be hard-pressed to go five minutes without seeing a man wearing that classic symbol of masculinity and power — the full business suit of gray pants and matching jacket over a plain shirt and tie. Even after Cool Biz was introduced, changes in silhouette and proportion of suits were slight. So where had the innovation in work wear taken place?

Re-thought from its fibers to fabric construction, it’s the textiles that are making headway in Cool Biz design. A modern-day Japanese suit, despite appearances, is in fact radically different to its predecessor. Synthetic-textile manufacturing giants such as Teijin, which has 17,000 employees worldwide, and Toray, makers of the trade-marked and aptly-named Anti-Pollen fabric, are collaborating with designers at the forefront of functional apparel design.

Last week’s Super Cool Biz 2014 event introduced some of the younger generation’s more daring takes on the business suit, alongside various other consumer lifestyle goods that ran the gamut from cooling spritzers to high-performance workwear vests complete with cooling water systems.

The fashion show highlight was a collaboration between leading Japanese textile makers and Tokyo’s oldest fashion school, Bunka Gakuen University. Students were asked to apply their design skills to innovative fabrics and create cooling clothing for a competition that ended up attracting more than 800 entries. The winners’ outfits took to the runway, while designers joined former minister Koike, fashion designer Hiroko Koshino, creative director Takeo Kikuchi and stylist Yumiko Hara on stage for the award ceremony.

“The contest was not intended to create products for the market,” said Yoichiro Ide, senior managing director of The Japan Department Stores Association, who attended the event to showcase Cool Biz items already available in stores. “It was to express the creative potential of high-performance fabrics and Super Cool Biz style.”

He explained that the adoption and evolution of the Cool Biz lifestyle allows for the further development of high-spec textiles: “We design for summer-specific needs, like sweat and odor absorption and UV blocking. This development is happening in stockings and textiles and also stretching to beauty products.”

Mai Fusegi, the creative design student whose two-way jacket won the Grand Prize, said when she was offered the opportunity to work with high-tech textiles, she envisioned a suit that could be versatile and worn in many situations. Her jacket was designed to be folded into a bag when it became too warm to wear, and her carefully placed pleats made it easy to remember where to fold it properly.

“I usually think of what technique I want to use, then design with that in mind, so this was a great challenge. Designers need to think about their work being wearable, not only as art,” she said. “It was thanks to the Teijin textiles this design was capable of being applied to suits. (I used) Teijin’s Trixion R Feathertype, a breathable and an extremely thin lightweight polyester that doesn’t wrinkle.”

One of the runnesr-up, Shahnoza Rizkiyeva, a Uzbekistan-native and MA graduate, chose a fabric made by Tokyo-based Toray Industries. Using the company’s absorbent, quick-dry four-way stretch FlexSkin fabric, she cleverly joined a suit jacket, dress and shirt together to create a loose-fitting yet flattering silhouette for women. Adding some space between the fabric and the body, she said, lessens the chance of sweat marks appearing on the outside of the garment.

“The basic principle of design is functionality, but usually design contests are quite a performance, like art pieces,” Rizkiyeva said commenting on how fashion students are trained to take on design problems creatively, but often think about the runway rather than end-use feasibility when designing for competitions.

Yet there is something to be said about less practical but artistic runway clothing. Ultimately, the Cool Biz lifestyle sells better when related products or garments are exciting. Consumer goods need to embody both meanings of the word “cool,” especially in such a strict market as fashion. While the designs that went on show for Super Cool Biz 2014 were not intended to be manufactured as products, organizers believe that providing a platform for fresh ideas will inspire the industry and apparel makers to innovate even further.

Daphne Mohajer-Va-Pesaran is a guest lecturer at the Graduate School of Clothing Studies, Global Fashion Concentration at Bunka Gakuen University

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