With only 2 locations in all of Japan, LOOPWHEELER's Harajuku flagship acts as the showroom floor and headquarters for the small operation.
Despite collaborations with Nike on the iconic AW77 scuba-hooded sweatshirt, Loopwheeler still remains an elusive brand for their non co-branded fleeces on this side of the Atlantic. Known for a number of years throughout Japan with the help of an ongoing successful partnership with Beams (for over a decade now) Loopwheeler continues to innovate on home soil at a very, very steady pace. Though having recently evolved into homewares in the form of pillows and experimenting with some water repellent fleeces, they remain in stark contrast to founder Satoshi Suzuki's admission of his companies' deliberately, slow process.
The Savile: You're known for producing very small quantities, how big of an operation is LOOPWHEELER?
We’re a small company with just 6 people. As president, I handle the creation of materials on the loopwheel along with product design and production management. In addition, there are several pattern makers, shop staff, and others who contribute to the company above and beyond their respective job titles.
Everything has to start somewhere, so how did LOOPWHEELER get its start?
I started LOOPWHEELER in 1999. It all began with a sweatshirt (made with a loopwheel) that I wore as a child. The texture and softness of clothing made on a loopwheel has long remained in my memory. After graduating from college, I began working in textiles. Through working with fabrics made on a loopwheel, I came to realize that the loopwheel machine was truly a piece of Japan’s culture. To carry on this tradition without any compromise in craftsmanship, I started the brand.
The 1920's looms LOOPWHEELER is using, are a very long way from home, Germany, to be exact. Do you have any idea how these found their way all the way to Japan?
According to a specialized textbook from Wakayama, the loopwheel was first brought to Japan around 1890 during the middle of the Meiji era. At the time it was called a Switzer, with most being made in Switzerland or Germany. In the Taisho and Showa era, these machines were slowly replaced with Japanese-made counterparts. Today, only the Japanese machines remain in existence. However, another theory asserts that the machines came to Japan aboard ships from Holland in the last years of the Edo period. So, the historical account remains divided. If a machine breaks, usually a craftsman will repair and adjust it. The sewing needles in the machines are exclusively from the German company Groz-Beckert. In addition, we carefully keep additional non-functioning loopwheel machines on hand to use for replacement parts.
Demand in the West for materials and items from Japan continues to grow, and LOOPWHEELER has obviously been able to benefit along with other brands, but to what do you attribute this demand to?
In Japanese, there is a word, enbai, which describes standards, conditions, and adjustments. This idea of enbai is at the root of Japanese craftsmanship. Its origin lies in the careful balance of salt and plum vinegar used when making the traditional preserved food umeboshi. Whether it is the plums, the salt or the choice between emphasizing sweetness or acidity, it is the environment where it is made and the feeling of those who make it that influence the process. This is a word that reflects the delicate spirit of Japan’s food culture. In a broader sense, it embodies the craftsman’s five senses and soul. Okayama denim is perhaps the most representative “MADE IN JAPAN” material. However, it is just one example of American materials being elevated further through the spirit of enbai and Japanese craftsmanship. It makes us very happy to knowing that this culture of reinvention is known around the world. (This is not to say, however, that all Japan-made materials are excellent!)
You've managed to stay true to your roots in terms of your manufacturing process, but the industry and market has changed considerably since you began in 1999. Have you noticed a difference between then and now in terms of keeping up with higher demand now, given your popularity?
There aren’t any differences, really. Indeed, it is not easy keeping up manufacturing. To sew on a loopwheel, the craftsman must keep constant, careful eye on the machine, watching the thread and maintaining just the right amount of tension in order to produce a quality fabric. In addition, our raw materials are hand-selected to ensure quality year after year. The whole process depends on skilled hands and their years of experience. Of course, we always put our effort into maintaining our precision and our manufacturing environment. We do this to advance the development loopwheel-made fabrics, rather than to raise production capacity. Updates to an item’s pattern, sewing, color and design can be as important as how it feels to be worn. Also important are using the newest materials and fittings (fasteners, strings, etc.). We think clothing should be enjoyed, both by the customer who wears it and by the people who make it.
You've touched on the raw materials, where are they being sourced? There's a common misconception that the cotton LOOPWHEELER is using is from Japan...
Unfortunately, the climate in Japan is not suited for cultivating high-quality cotton. We use a mixture of American and Egyptian cotton.
Your craft is very much a part of the Japanese heritage and culture. Do you see yourself upholding a Japanese tradition? How are you going about preserving it for future generations?
We’re a small company, but we at LOOPWHEELER have still managed to spread awareness of the loopwheel and what it stands for. We have, and will continue to put careful thought into our clothing and the messages it leaves for the future. Creating the special feel of fabric made on a loopwheel, bringing LOOPWHEELER originality and quality to each item, continuing a tradition of craftsmanship… whether this counts as “heritage” or not, we believe it will continue to live on through the coming generations.