The Inoue Brothers
Touch a piece of clothing by fashion label The Inoue Brothers and you will find yourself hooked on the haptic sensation: their fabrics feel enticingly soft, warm and light to the touch. My own first-hand experience with these tactile delights took place during Men’s Fashion in Paris where the two brothers and designers presented their impressive Autumn/Winter 2013 collection to international press and buyers in a showroom at the city’s Bastille Design Center. When asked about their choice of material, their eyes immediately lit up. They have, after all, chosen to work with one of the world’s finest fabrics, vicuña wool, otherwise known as hair of the gods to Peru’s indigenous population.
Although Satoru and Kiyoshi caught the fashion bug when they were still in their teens, the savvy duo only took the professional plunge in 2005 when a friend introduced them to South America’s indigenous culture and craftsmanship and they subsequently decided to take a tour of Bolivia. Here, and for the first time, they saw an opportunity to produce their designs under conditions they consider paramount and inviolable: sustainability, traditional craftsmanship, transparency and exclusivity.
In their quest to unearth the best possible fibre, they eventually found a suitable manufactory in southern Peru. The cooperation with the local research institute Pacomarca as well as indigenous producers has enabled them to develop a sustainable business model, and to produce their collections – sold mainly in Japan and Europe – using the finest Supreme Royal Alpaca and vicuña wool. Simultaneously, the label’s standards, requirements and production volumes allow the local population to produce this high-quality material at a profit, boosting the traditional method’s financial viability and thus ensuring its continuance.
To this end, the two brothers – raised by Japanese parents in Copenhagen – work together, albeit in separate locations: while Satoru continues to enjoy Copenhagen’s creative comforts and moonlights as a graphic designer, Kiyoshi lives in London where he also works as a hair stylist. The Paris show saw the release of their seventh knit collection, their most focused work to date, according to the siblings themselves. At the same time, an intriguing variety of knitting techniques also reflects the sheer diversity of the craft on display. After all, the Inoues’ mission and message goes far beyond the products themselves. It is all about the story behind their eclectic range; a key message they would like to convey to consumers and industry alike.
One recent afternoon in Paris, I had the chance to ask the two brothers about their creative approach, what it is like to work together as brothers and what the future might hold for their label:
What fascinates you about fashion?
Satoru: It’s the correlation to the philosophical concept of beauty. And fashion is not just clothing: it’s the passion of wanting to make things beautiful.
Kiyoshi: You know, both our parents practice Buddhism, so we grew up being very aware of action and consequence – and I think that was the key reason why we chose to keep our distance from the fashion industry at first. But at the same time I’ve wanted to make fashion since I was a child. I don’t know why. Satoru was the one who was forever buying expensive clothes and always looked really good (laughs).
What is your creative approach?
Satoru: Unfortunately, it feels like creativity has become quite intellectualised, and creative people are separated into two boxes: if you draw you are perceived as being creative, if you sing you are creative – but if you work in a bakery, for instance, you are not. For us creativity is about being human. If we weren’t creative, we would die.
But of course our creative approach has evolved over time. At the beginning we were obsessed with doing everything perfectly, right down to the last detail, and we would bring the finished “package” to the manufactory in Peru and say “here you go, please make this”. Now we understand it as being a magical moment that takes place between us and the local craftspeople in Peru. We produce only 60 to 70 percent beforehand, go to Peru, present our ideas and then brainstorm together. And that’s when the actual creative process starts: because we think about colours, shapes and silhouettes and they ask “How tight do you want the knit? How thick do you want to have the thread? How tight do you want the twist?” And we just say “You decide” (laughs).
Tell me about the production of your current collection, which is made using Vicuña and Supreme Royal Alpaca.
Kiyoshi: We collaborated with local philanthropist Alonso Burgos and when we saw the social projects he has initiated, as well as the engaging communities we immediately saw that they really live in symbiosis with their animals – it’s part of their soul, their identity. But modern society is disrupting this harmony; the need to earn a living to support their families leads to a lot of young people preferring to work in the mining industry. But when we told the people in this facility that we want to produce the best Alpaca and Vicuña and that there are no production limits, we kind of ignited their old passion and they were excited about working together. As a result we had the opportunity to work with the most skilled craftspeople of the company.
Thanks to our relationship with Alonso, we have had the opportunity to collaborate with his research facility Pacomarca, which breeds pedigree Alpaca – they have the finest fibre in the world – and was created in order to teach the indigenous people how to improve the quality of their Alpaca herds so they can get more money out of it. It’s a big social initiative, the goal of which is to transform this business into a sustainable one, so that hopefully the people can keep working with Alpaca.
You describe your style as Scandinasian. Can you explain?
Satoru: There are many similarities between Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetics: simple, functional and clean. We think of it as Scandinavian simplicity and Japanese sensibility – and together it’s Scandinasian. But it also represents borderlessness. We grew up in Denmark, but no matter how good our Danish was, how well we did in school, we still looked like foreigners and were treated as such – no matter how hard we tried. Then when we are in Japan we may look Japanese, but as soon as we start talking everyone says “you think differently, you are not Japanese”. That’s what we have always been confronted with. And that’s why nationality was never part of our identity. We have never felt Danish or Japanese, we just always felt… ”We are the Inoue Brothers”.
You are running a family business. What are the pros/cons of working together as brothers?
Satoru: One pro is that I’m the older brother (laughs).
Kiyoshi: The biggest pro is that we trust each other. And the emotional benefit of living this experience together… But we don’t feel that there are any cons.
So you never fight?
Kiyoshi: Of course, but that’s actually also an advantage, because we can talk about things you wouldn’t be able to talk about in any other business constellation. If one of us does something stupid, we can forgive each other.
Satoru: This sounds really romantic but because we have been known to fight a lot – so much so that our friends were worried (laughs) – conflict helped create the unity that we’ve now established. We weren’t ever afraid of letting each other know what we thought.
And now you live in different cities, London and Copenhagen.
Kiyoshi: Yes, we do. Maybe that’s why it works so well between us (laughs).
Are you commuting a lot between these two cities?
Kiyoshi: No, we’ve probably spent more time together in Peru than in London or Copenhagen.
But how do you work together then?
Kiyoshi: We talk to each other all the time via Face Time.
Satoru: We spend hours talking to each other. Kiyo’s existence is more coupled to the smartphone than his actual, physical self. My children see the smartphone and to them it signifies their Uncle Kiyo, and he gets passed around from one hand to the next.
What are your plans for your future?
Kiyoshi: We want to travel and explore more, because there are so many cultures that have very unique skills but which haven’t yet been introduced to the world. And we want to be that bridge, finding these unique crafts and then bringing them to the global market. We are definitely looking to go to Indonesia next.
Watch this space for a personal peek into their Peruvian expedition and the multi-step processing of vicuña wool here – coming soon to mb! as part of a very special film and guest feature by The Inoue Brothers!