"Our mission is to make something that people want. And by wanting to have that, the people who make it get pride and dignity."
While that sounds easy, The Inoue brother's approach to fashion has ensured that it was anything but. The brothers are Kiyoshi and Satoru Inoue, who hail from Denmark by way of Japan – or Scandi-asian as they call themselves.
They got their respective starts in two very different industries. Satoru got his start in graphic design. He worked his way up the ranks, eventually founding a graphic design company in their native Copenhagen. His first real breakthrough was a project with director Lars Von Trier. "We designed the identity for a trilogy he was doing. The first was called Dogville, the second Mandalay and the last one was going to be called Washington but it was never made". Von Trier's well known for being rather difficult to work with, but Satoru says this couldn't be any further from the truth. "It's quite the opposite. We were so inspired by working with him because he didn't care anything about what people think or what the critics would say he'd just do 700% what he feels he wants to do."
Meanwhile the other half of the duo, Kiyo, got his start in hair. "I was fortunate enough to discover that I was quite good at cutting hair" Kiyo says of his career path. Working with the likes of Vidal Sassoon and launching his own saloon, Environment (which now functions as the Inoue Brothers HQ), Kiyo notes that both he and his brother have been lucky to get to where they were in their separate industries. "We were at the forefront of our industries and were able to learn as much as we can at the very elite level," He said. So when they combined to create the Inoue Brothers, did they use what they'd learned from each industry?
"Oh, for sure" says Satoru. "I think we both looked for a way of expressing ourselves. In the early stages of our lives it was hard for us to fit into traditional 9-5 jobs." While the Inoue Brothers technically started out not too long ago, their first clothing project was a while before that. "The first project we ever did was a small graphic project while Kiyo was in high school. We did prints on sweatshirts and t-shirts and stuff like that from a very early stage. When we were teenagers we wanted to work with clothing but then Kiyo went the hair way and I did graphic design. While we were doing that we knew that it was only a stepping stone towards the final goal, which was to work together. It wasn't important what we were going to do, as long as I'm able to work with my brother and my family." It was this ambition that led them to launch their own label in 2005. Until a season or two ago, the label had been solely based on knitwear. The big question, for us at least, was why?
“We talk about this all the time” says Kiyoshi, stating that their discovery of Alpaca wool is what led to the brand being knitwear based. “Our ambition was not to be fashion designers. The reason for us to go into fashion was because we felt a great interest in clothes in general.” Despite this interest, they'd previously been put off by the way some sectors of fashion works. Satoru says that “The way that people produce and all the environmental issues that's been around the fashion industry. We've always loved clothing but the industry has always kept us away from fashion.”
It wasn't until they were introduced to Bolivian Alpaca wool that they truly became interested in launching a clothing line. A friend of theirs had recently done a MA degree in Bolivian political history and told them about the wool. “He was really passionate about this thing called Alpaca wool,” Kiyoshi says. “They used to buy stuff there and then bring it over. He introduced us to it, then my brother got really passionate about it and said that this would be a great project for us to do - to start something off with. And that was the beginning I guess. Then within the process it's been a really hard process, we've been doing it now for six years.”
“We weren't looking for knitwear opportunities or anything because we had no experience in it. But then again we really didn't have that much experience in fashion at all. And then when we heard about this opportunity, it was a big chance for us because we had the opportunity to start from scratch, to build up a new way of doing fashion, a new way of doing business with Bolivian artisans. Because of the change in Bolivia, we were able to start new relationships from zero. And that meant that we could experiment and also try out new business constellations that haven't been tested before.”
Working directly with Bolivian handknitters has also helped increase their knowledge of knitwear tremendously. “We've learned so much from them.” Satoru said. “Because, instead of trying to impose something on them, we learned a lot of their wisdom regarding knitwear because they've done this for thousands of years. So in that sense they have taught us how to work with the material.”
While the two careers of graphic design and hairdressing do help on the aesthetics, Satoru's wife Lula is another key part of the company. “Lula is our design chief , so to speak, who then manifests all of our thoughts into more technical terms. So without her we wouldn't be able to produce what we do. so it's a real family spirit in terms of the whole process and production of our garments.”
We get the feeling that this helps significantly on the more complicated pieces, such as the bobble cardigan made for autumn/winter 2010. Satoru says that “Lula is the qualified person on the technical part. For every cardigan, like the bubble knit you were talking about, there's one person responsible of finishing it and making sure it looks like the rest. But each of them has their own challenges and characteristics, so each cardigan needed personal attention. We feel like it's a piece of art made in collaboration with everybody involved. So we don't look at 100 cardigans and just see 100 cardigans, it's 100 unique cardigans.”
With the Bolivian side of the business being firmly established, the brothers started a spring/summer collection called the Ubuntu Project. We first saw this project at the showroom next door and was, for lack of a less subtle phrase, blown away by the attention to detail. Much like their Bolivian project, they worked directly with Ubuntu beaders on a set of beaded t-shirts and ties which make good use of their heritage whilst still being wearable.
“For my brother and I it was the impossible project” says Kiyoshi. “We went there in the beginning of February and managed to deliver in June and be able to sell it into the shops before that. So our accounts, who were selling them, didn't even see the product before they started to sell them. It also gives an idea of how much support we have from our accounts, which is so important. You know, our accounts really believe in us, we wouldn't be able to do what we do if it weren't for them. From february to deliver in June and now we're almost sold out in Dover Street (in July, when this interview took place).”
Despite this fast turnaround, The Ubuntu project is something that's been in the pipeline for three years before it materialised. “It's been a long time where it's just been a thought. But the first real connection we did, through the producers and to the township, was in Feburary. And it was only because we could tell our accounts half a year before 'we have this in our plan'. We are thinking about doing this, nothing is confirmed, it's all up the air but we really want to do it. Will you be able to help us launch it together? And we've established a strong connection to south Africa now. So now Bolivia's autumn/winter and South Africa's spring/summer.”
The other issue that crops up frequently with the Inoue Brothers is how directly politics affects the clothing business. For instance, the ability to work in Bolivia was directly affected, in a positive way, by a government change. “So many things have happened in the past six years in Bolivia itself,” Kiyoshi says. “It's really progressed, they had a change over in government. So, for the first time in 2004, Edward Morales got democratically elected and he's from the indigenous community [who make the Inoue knitwear]. And that's when real reform - totally fair to say a revolution for the indigenous - and a real outcry for equality happened. It's a country that's been suppressed and dominated by so-called colonial families for a long, long time. It's not until the 21st century that they started to get racial equality. It's been a really intense process and now it's really started to change. We were very fortunate to be able to see that and be engaged there in regards to business.”
However, their experience is South Africa hasn't been as easy. “The biggest difference we see in working with South Africa and Bolivia is that in Bolivia the government is going in the right direction [in Bolivia]. We work in a capitalist way and we live in a consumer society so we try to work within the system, we're not trying to be opposite that. We try to work within the system but with socialist values or humanistic values. In Bolivia that's our advantage because the whole governmental and political side is going in that direction as well. They have strong socialist values but they know they have to be good in doing business. Otherwise you won't survive.”
Kiyoshi explains the differences further. “A big role model for everyone in Latin America is Brazil. There are strong in business but at the same time trying to eradicate all the social differences between rich and poor. Whereas in Africa we really felt that the political side. A lot of the countries are so unstable because of corruption and also because of disharmony within the continent. We really felt that when it came to the shipping part. The production part we had direct connection to everybody producing our things so we didn't have to go through governments or organisations. Whereas when you have to ship or export, that's when you sense a bit of the chaos and the political corruption going on. And also always being afraid of your product being stolen and stuff like that. We've never had those problems and worries in Bolivia. We know it's a pride for them to export and they have trade agreements so you don't have to pay any tax so it's super smooth and really good. Whereas in South Africa, sometimes you have to bribe established well known companies to be able to get your stuff out in time.”
So, with this in mind, it's brings to mind why they've bothered getting into the ethical side of fashion in the first place. “It's been in the way of our thinking for a long time”, Satoru says. “We found out how hard it is to do fashion in a different way in such a fast moving and, in a sense, conservative industry. Everything was so locked. The way people were thinking, the way people were producing. It was so locked into systems and habits that when we tried to do something different, against the currents, it was really hard for us. And we felt that it would be almost financially impossible. But then the opportunity with our Bolivian partner came up. And we felt that this was the opportunity that we'd been waiting for and all the planning and preparation before that was all worth it. And then we found out later on that everything was connected in a way - and meant to be. We also found out that a lot of other brands have been thinking the same thing - and actually doing the same thing. And in the process we've discovered that - fortunately - we're not the only ones. And a lot of bigger brands, like Patagonia, have been our motivation and inspiration. We were at this stage where we thought that it's just impossible to do ethical and sustainable fashion but when you look at the bigger brands who are actually able to do it and we were inspired to keep on going and keep on trying.”
With Dover Street Market as one of their foremost supporters, The Inoue Brothers main plan is to slowly expand their stockists, ensuring that they don't overstretch themselves. “We feel the demand has grown a lot now so fortunately and finally we're in a position were we can expand our market to a broader audience. We've been focusing a lot on London and focusing a lot on Dover Street because of our fascination of Dover Street as a concept. But from next season, we're gonna expand our markets both to the states, Russia & Japan will be expanding into other European countries, so our brand will be more broadly available. It's a huge challenge for everybody involved. The exclusivity of our brand has been our advantage but now we're expanding, the demand is growing, more and more accounts want our brand so we need to live up to it.” They're also expanding the line itself, focusing on the fabrics found in South Africa.
“The backbone of our concept in South Africa is gonna be our organic hemp as a fabric. But the organic hemp can be produced in all sorts of ways like cotton. Like jersey, we can do canvas for pants, like chino pants, or do shirts or t-shirts or sweatshirts. We want to expand our collection into different styles and that's want we're gonna do from next collection on. Autumn/winter's gonna be mainly knitwear, focusing on alpaca and what's possible with alpaca. So there's almost no limitations. But we're also going to include leather. Africa has huge potential because it has so much culture and tradition and history in producing anything.
At the end of the day, from a traditional perspective, we're doing everything in reverse order. We find a place and then we find out what we can do. Usually you design the whole collection and then you find the cheapest place to produce it.” Their approach however was somewhat different. “We had a plan in our head and then we threw it all out. It's much less about us, it's about being as open as we can be to any environment that we enter.”
(Published in 2011)