The Inoue Brothers: The Ubuntu Project

Japanese brothers Satoru and Kiyoshi Inoue are a pair that like to get personally involved in

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Japanese brothers Satoru and Kiyoshi Inoue are a pair that like to get personally involved in the projects they undertake. Their collection of knitwear preaches sustainability and conscious design, and their outlook goes well beyond their products too. They take comfort in the fact that their garments undergo a more human journey; one that touches people pre- and post-development and in much more than just a physical sense. The brothers now have found themselves in South Africa, where they’ve enlisted the skills possessed by the craftsmen and women of Khayelitsha to help foster in the idea of a more altruistic approach to clothes making . Gazelle and the Creol Brothers help with this creative process of intangible human encounter and cultural learning, an experience not many get the privilege of partaking in. Style Salvage has the interview.

Style Salvage: What was the driving catalyst behind the Ubuntu Project?

Saturo Inoue: At first, our main objective was to source a local cotton production as to expand our product line. Naturally it was important to us to work in the same ethical manner as our established alpaca production in Bolivia. But as we explored our possibilities in South Africa, we learned more about cotton production. Not only are the scars of slavery still apparent in the production of cotton yarn – cotton picking is still considered one of the most labor-intense processes, but also growing and harvesting cotton takes immense amounts of chemicals to ensure harvest. As such, when it comes to sustainable productions and environmental accountability cotton has significant negative impact. Therefore we changed our focus to hemp fabric. Hemp fabric is not only more durable while offering the same qualities as cotton – it is also close to 100% naturally grown. With hemp we found a fabric that could progress and expand our product line and at the same time act in accordance with our values and beliefs.

SS: What does the Ubuntu Project mean to you?

Saturo Inoue: “Ubuntu” originates from the Bantu languages of Southern Africa and has many meanings, one of which translates to “I am because we are”. Although it has different meanings all the various expressions resonate from the same philosophy of being one because of a community. In the same sense, the Ubuntu Project was a way for us to pay homage to the skilled craftsmen and women of South Africa by expressing their heritage, and incorporating the spirit of these people in the project. On a more general level, The Ubuntu Project encapsulates the way we wish to keep designing collections; only by the skills and craftsmanships of cultures – of our extended community – are we able to produce what we do. This is something we are very aware of and deeply grateful for.

SS: The project sees you progress from your collaboration with the indigenous Andean knitters of Bolivia and venture to the continent of Africa. What was it that attracted you to the township of Khayelitsha in particular?

Saturo Inoue: When we went to South Africa we didn’t know what to expect in emotional and creative terms. We hadn’t established a contingency plan or a specific influential style we were searching for in regards to production. All we had with us was our A/W ‘10 collection we were going to shoot for our own press purposes… Whenever we venture out into the unknown we prepare ourselves as much as we can to develop a spirit to absorb and interpret the energy we encounter without any preconceived ideas and endeavor to uphold an open mind regardless. It is no secret that to start a new production in an unfamiliar environment can be close to impossible. In our case we are fortunate to have a close friendship with the music and arts duo “Gazelle” who live in Cape Town. They share our values and mindset, and when the opportunity came along for us to make a move, we seized the moment and went to South Africa to explore our opportunities. Our connection with them has been priceless for the Ubuntu Project. We knew South Africa had hidden treasures and we wanted to explore and experience this first hand, they had inside knowledge and goodwill in the community of Khayelitsha. As we visited this township with Gazelle, we found many amazing craftsmanships – many that we hope to be able to present to you in seasons to come. For now, we have focused primarily on the ancient art of beading – which is very visible in The Ubuntu collection.

SS: The people of Khayelitsha are integral to the project. What can you tell us?

Saturo Inoue: This is very true! What we hoped for when we started our venture to South Africa was to discover indigenous crafts, which we found in Khayelitsha and we based the main part of the collection on this craft. The community of beading women is the Ubuntu collection – without them the project would never have been.

SS: How did the collaborations with Gazelle and Creol Brothers arise and how did they evolve throughout the project?

Saturo Inoue: Both Gazelle and the Créol Brothers are good personal friends to my brother and I, and we have long talked about collaborating on a collection together. So when the opportunity came along to start a new venture, we thought it only natural to team up and actually do it. As the process evolved and the end result began to take shape we wanted to present a collection where the overall theme was the same, but also allowed each of us to express ourselves creatively. The hemp canvas served this purpose with Gazelle boasting pictures from Khayelitsha and Creol Brothers going back to their roots and manifesting an African vibe in the collection.

SS: How was Scandinasian design aesthetic enhanced by the collaborations?

Saturo Inoue: Scandinasian design is a concept originating from aspects in our cultural roots of Japan and Denmark. The elements mutual and very apparent in those are; reasoning, rationality and discipline. Past projects we have been engaged in with graphics in particular has esthetic manifestations of this concept, however this collection is 100% Ubuntu! Our endeavor is always to learn and share, we have tried our utmost to learn from our collaborations and aim for uncompromised originality in both design and production processes.

SS: Sustainability, craftsmanship and local manufacture are key to everything you do. What can you tell us about some of the features and processes involved in the creation of these garments?

Saturo Inoue: The beading used for a great part of the collection has great profound heritage with colour combinations, patterns and shapes. This heritage is much greater than our comprehension, however, we are determined to learn more about the culture of this magnificent continent and share it to our best capabilities.

SS: Looking back over the project now, what did you learn?

Saturo Inoue: As said the starting point for exploring South Africa was cotton. And ending up with a beaded hemp collection is far from what we initially imagined. Every new start takes its tolls and in the process of this project we have had many ups and downs. Our overall approach to whatever we do is trust. Despite all the stereotyping we were challenged with – when we said we would take on this venture – the end product speaks for itself and is all due to personal relationships we have grown with the local people of Khayelitsha and the great effort of everyone involved. We feel extremely privileged and have also reinforced our belief that nothing is impossible as long as you set your heart and intention to it and work hard!

SS: The SS10 release date coincides with the World Cup. What are your thoughts on this years tournament? I’m intrigued at to who you’ll be supporting more in Group E, Japan or Denmark?

Saturo Inoue: Both my brother and I have always loved football and the world cup is the biggest ongoing event; biggest in the sense of amount of people worldwide who watch the tournament. To us the tournament is a celebration of the global community. It is a fiesta on a global scale that has the power to make people forget their differences and focus on one thing and one thing only – football. Also we are stoked that the tournament for the first time is being hosted by an African nation. It is hard to say which team we support most. Our love for both nations is great but for this tournament our heart is with the people of Africa!

SS: Finally, what’s next for the Inoue Brothers?

Saturo Inoue: Well, as things look now we have taken the first small steps to ensure seasonal collections with these wonderful people of Khayelitsha. But we have only just scratched the surface of what crafts and skills lie beneath. We will continue to work hard to ensure the dignity and empowerment of all people that sincerely need it. And as such we plan to continue to work with this community and at the same time keep expanding our reach as far as we can – all in the true spirit of Ubuntu.

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