You might not expect to see a mention of James Bond in the promotion materials of a traditional Japanese apron company, but there it is: 007 in a leaflet for Anything Co. Ltd.
Company president Kazuhiro Nishimura chuckles when asked about it.
Three years ago, Nishimura received an email from home goods store Labour and Wait, where his company’s maekake aprons were being sold in the United Kingdom, asking if he could give permission to the James Bond production team to feature an apron in the franchise’s upcoming film, “No Time to Die.”
“They wanted to use a maekake with a Mount Fuji print design and ‘Representative of Japan’ written above it. I even bought an advance ticket to see the film,” Nishimura says, laughing about how excited he was. “But it was delayed so many times, I still haven’t seen it. I did find a report by a Japanese film writer who went on set at Pinewood Studios, though, and he wrote that he saw Ben Whishaw as Q wearing it in a scene in which he is cooking.”
When the movie is finally released later this year, the featured apron will be an additional achievement to Nishimura’s 16 years of effort to make maekake an internationally known cultural asset of Japan.
Once the standard workwear for tradespeople and craftsmen, the maekake dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). A heavy-duty indigo blue sailcloth apron with a fringed bottom, its distinctive red and white braided straps double-wrap around the waist to tie at the front, a feature that puts pressure on the lower back to help wearers improve their posture.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the production of the aprons boomed when they became popular seasonal gifts from companies to clients.
“They were printed with company logos and were essentially a sales promotion freebie,” Nishimura says. “There wasn’t even a retail price for them back then.”
Facing competition with mass producers in China, and declining interest in the apron, the industry began to suffer in the ’90s, after Japan’s economic boom. Now, Anything is one of just a handful of remaining maekake makers in Japan, and the only one to produce them in a specific thick weave dating back to the Edo Period.
Nishimura explains that his interest in maekake began when, as head of a T-shirt design company, he was looking for a new product to print on.
“T-shirts first became popular because they were used as campaign tools, printed with slogans,” he says. “They were a communication tool, and I realized that maekake served the same purpose.”
In 2005, he collaborated with Masato Haga, a craftsman in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, the center of maekake production, to create aprons to be sold as products. It was in 2009, when he took some of the aprons to New York for an event at the Kinokuniya bookstore that Nishimura realized how much potential they had overseas.
“We had a NASA doctor drop by who loved hearing the history and function of the maekake, and she ended up buying five, one for herself and others for friends,” he recalls. “I brought 40 maekake to the event and we sold out in one day.”
In Japan, the custom-made aprons were already becoming popular with restaurants, hairdressers and other small businesses as a new kind of uniform. Part of the appeal was the ability to print original designs on the quintessentially Japanese aprons. But Nishimura believes it is the history, functionality and textile of maekake that impress customers the most.
“There’s really only one standard width and shape, and we use a very specific thicker yarn that produces a texture close to historical maekake,” he says, explaining that each apron is individually woven and hand finished. “Our shuttle looms are also over 100 years old, some were made by Toyota before it started focusing on automobiles.”
When Haga decided to retire eight years ago, Anything took over his factory and its nine looms, each still using hand-crafted wooden shuttles. At the time, Haga’s income was 10% that of its peak years.
“In 2006 to 2007, we sold around 10 maekake per month,” Nishimura says. “By 2015, it was up to 1,000, and in 2018 to 2019, up to 10,000.”
Collaborations, Nishimura says, have been important in the revitalization of the industry. Anything’s maekake have featured contemporary graphic designs, interpretations of iconic ukiyo-e prints, manga characters and sports team logos. They have also been silk screen printed, basen (discharge) printed, indigo dyed, even shibori tie dyed by other Japanese craftspeople. The basic shape of the apron, however, always remained the same.
When Anything worked with Eisuke Tachikawa of design unit Nosigner in 2011, Nishimura says, “Tachikawa agreed that the fact maekake are so traditional was its appeal, so there was no need to change its form or design.” Instead, they designed unusual packaging, wrapping each in a brown paper bag, with a label neatly tied on like an apron.
This month, Anything rolls out its first collaboration with international artists, a limited-edition series of three aprons designed by Swede Micke Lindebergh, Stephane Casier of Yeaaah! Studio in France and Ming Lui of Whosming in Taiwan. Chosen for differing aesthetics and their popularity on Instagram, to help maekake reach a wider audience, the artists were given free rein to use the maekake as a canvas.
“We gave them a theme — connecting the past with the future,” Nishimura says. “But we didn’t give them any artistic direction.”
It’s an unusual trio. Casier channels his own admiration of Japanese culture with a retro-style faux company logo featuring Japan’s mythical kappa creature. Ming’s signature coffee shop-themed line art manifests as a young man holding a cup of coffee and wearing nothing but a maekake and baseball cap. Lindebergh’s colorful abstract entry is a vibrant design of orange, yellow and blue shapes on an undyed, off-white maekake.
Nishimura says that attracting the attention of a younger trendsetting audience is particularly important for the longevity of the tradition — and it is individuals like these he feels are particularly important to reach.
“Obviously, our business customers are important because they order in bulk, but individual customers are the ones who really enjoy and identify with the culture of maekake,” he says. “I’m hoping that maekake will become a popular culture overseas the same way sake has recently become one.”
In the meantime, Nishimura only has a few more months to go before his company’s Mount Fuji maekake gets its moment in the spotlight … hopefully at a movie theater near you.
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