“Any piece of black clothing next to our kurozome(“black dyeing”) looks grey, not black. Even back in the day, comparing our kimono to your average black kimono, the difference was noticeable in an instant.You would be embarrassed standing next to someone wearing our kimono...”
Yohji Yamamoto once said: "Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. It means that many things go together, yet it takes different aspects in many fabrics. You need black to have a silhouette. Black can swallow light, or make things look sharp. But above all black says this: 'I don't bother you — don't bother me!'”
Similarly, in a 1996 interview, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons also said: “I love black. I always considered black to be my color. Black is also a strong color in spirituality. I like black because it feels avant-garde.”
While ‘black’ was always a staple in fashion, Yohji Yamamoto or Rei Kawakubo redefined how black was celebrated and expressed in fashion. Just as black was traditionally worn by high-ranking samurai and court nobles, Japanese fashion designers of the 80s made black powerful again.
Today, black is still a powerful color in Japanese culture and fashion... but for kurozome artisan Maki Baba, the color is both her work and her passion. Her mission in life? To create a shade of black which is “blacker than black” using an ancient darkening technique called kurozome (“black dyeing”).
Baba’s mission was decided when she took over the family kurozome business, Baba Senkogyo, from her father eighteen years ago, making her the 5th president of the company. More notably, she’s the very first female president– a big feat for a traditional business founded back in 1870. According to the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, the kurozome technique itself dates back to the early 17th century.
“My family was always involved with kurozome, but I was never interested in the color black. In fact, I didn’t even like it. I studied fashion design, so I loved patterns, I loved color,” said Baba, ironically dressed in head to toe black for our interview at her Kyoto studio. “My father never asked me to take over the business. Actually, he didn’t really want me to, knowing how difficult the work was. However, he was becoming frail. He even said I wouldn’t be able do it... to become a kurozome artisan, that is. But that made me want to prove him wrong, so I said good-bye to my career in fashion design and made black my mission instead.”
Like other kurozome dyers in Japan, the Baba Senkogyo studio originally created black kuro montsuki (the most formal type of kimono decorated with one’s family crest). For a kuro montsuki to be considered well-made, it was important that the black was as dark as possible. The deeper the shade, the higher the quality. During her father’s generation, the Baba Senkogyo studio also worked on dyeing other kimono and traditional garments, becoming one of the most sought after kurozome businesses in Kyoto.
“Before my father’s leadership, the studio was doing alright, but not great. It was my father who said ‘our work is not good enough. What we are creating isn’t black enough. It’s grey. We need to do better.’ Doing ‘better’ meant that they had to analyze their past work, change techniques, and rethink the ingredients they were using. I don’t want to kill the image of kurozome, but we had to resort to using non-natural ingredients. But this allowed us to create a deeper black that wouldn’t fade.” According to Baba, fabrics are alternately treated with a plant-derived dye and a chemical agent.
Although Baba is very tight-lipped about what is in the black dye, one key ingredient is the water used when coloring the garments. The water in Kyoto is renowned for its purity, and the deliciousness of Kyoto’s sake, tofu, and cuisine is often attributed to the water quality. The water they use at Baba Senkogyo comes from a spring on their own grounds, and with the help of a tiny amount of iron in the water, the black dyes become even darker. The spring water is such high quality that the famous sixteenth century tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu is said to have used it for his tea ceremonies.
Ask Baba what the biggest difference between your average black cloth and her kurozome is, and she simply answers: “Any piece of black clothing next to our kurozome looks grey, not black. Even back in the day, comparing our kimono to your average black kimono, the difference was noticeable in an instant. You would be embarrassed standing next to someone wearing our kimono... Just because the color we achieved was so rich and deep, ‘blacker than black.’ People started to really seek out the shade of black we created. People were lining up to color their kimono with our kurozome technique.”
While you’ll still see plenty of women walking around the city of Kyoto in kimono, the kimono industry as a whole is declining due to most people favoring Western-style clothes. As a result, the kurozome industry has also taken a hit. Data from the dyers cooperative in Kyoto shows there were 106 registered members at their peak in 1974, but the number today has declined to no more than three. To help the industry survive, Baba decided in 2004 to take the kurozome technique... and use it to dye more than just kimono.
Walk into Baba’s studio and you will notice racks and racks of clothes. One side of the room is filled with garments which have been dipped in kurozome, and the other half of the room is filled with jackets, t-shirts, bags, and shirts all lined up and waiting to be dyed the sought-after black. “When we first started offering services to dye clothes, we were lucky to get one walk-in per day. After launching our website, that eventually grew to two per day, and after a famous comedian featured us on TV, we had around five people at the door. Through that television program, people were able to see that they can give clothes they haven’t worn in a long time a second chance at life.”
This sustainable approach to fashion caught on, and now people go to Baba for help to “save” their clothes or allow them to be reborn as black kurozome garments. “Some people bring in old jackets that were sitting in their closest, some even bring in their old, faded Comme de Garçon t-shirts to make them even more black,” Baba confides. But be warned... Because there are so many steps involved in achieving the perfect black, there is about a one month waiting list to get your clothes dyed.
The woman who grew up never really liking black now says the color has grown on her. “You know, now I look at black and I think it’s cool. I think the color is really suited to Japanese people, too. Traditionally, black has always been the most prestigious color in Japan. It makes me proud to work with something that people wear on special occasions such as weddings and funerals.” However, Baba adds that her new meaning of “black” is her customers’ smiles. “The look on people’s faces when I show them the finished product... They are like ‘wow, it’s so black! Such a beautiful black! Thank you!’ Just hearing this brings me so much joy.”
In a world where clothes and other items are easily disposed of, Baba hopes that more people will consider using the traditional kurozome technique to upcycle their clothing rather than just throwing them away. She’s also well aware of the need to switch to more natural substances in order to keep up with the times. Its something she is looking into developing, while still trying to preserve the original techniques at the same time. One of Baba’s dreams is to collaborate with an overseas brand so that people around the globe can experience kurozome. “They will be so surprised by the black,” she says. “They will have never seen this black before. It’s deep, its rich... its ‘blacker than black’.”