The first thing I notice when meeting Kenta Watanabe is the color of his hands: blue. My naïve impression is that this is a style choice, one to match his jeans, apron, jacket, even his watch. It quickly becomes apparent during an hour-long workshop at the Brooklyn outpost of Buaisou, a traditional indigo-dyeing collective cofounded by Watanabe in Japan, that Watanabe’s hands are symbolic of a decision much more profound. Call it a long-term life choice.
Born in Yamagata, Japan, the 29-year-old Watanabe still considers himself young as far as traditional indigo craftsmen are concerned. Four years ago, he was a “salaryman,” a member of Japan’s corporate working class; the job itself, he suggests, is irrelevant. Searching for a hobby, he went to an indigo workshop, a practice, originating in India, that has been cultivated in Japan since the 10th century and that was once used to color kimonos. He was taken with the transformation of fabrics. “I was fascinated by the way the indigo changes the color when you take it out of the vat,” he says. He’s describing the oxidation that happens when a garment, dipped in natural indigo dye called sukumo (a compost made from Polygonum leaves), spontaneously changes from green to blue when exposed to air.
Watanabe decided to pursue the craft professionally, but quickly realized there was a limited number of jobs available for newcomers to traditional methods of indigo dyeing; the economic importance for this kind of folk craft has dwindled considerably under industrialization. “Two-hundred years ago, there around 1,800 sukumo farmers in Japan,” mostly in the Tokushima Prefecture of Shikoku, Japan’s historical center of indigo farming, says Watanabe. “Today, there are only six.”
Buaisou is the sixth. It exists because, culturally, the craft still holds some weight. Japan’s Ministry of Education, the country’s most important patronage of the arts, considers indigo dyeing “intangible cultural property.” In 2014, a public-sanctioned project in Kamiita-cho, Tokushima, was searching for two young individuals willing to relocate to Tokushima and carry on the craft. Watanabe applied, along with his future partner Kakuo Kaji, who has a history in textile design in Tokyo. Together, the pair founded Buaisou, and both Watanbae and Kaji began studying indigo farming under a sixth-generation sukumo farmer named Osamu Nii.
The idea for a Brooklyn outpost of Buaisou came shortly after their home base was settled in Japan. Watanabe and Kaji came to New York in 2014 to host a workshop in a friend’s living room. It was huge success, says Watanabe, with close to 100 attendees over the course of two days. “We thought, ‘maybe this could be something more permanent.’” In May of 2015, Buaisou nestled into a small, first-floor studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, several blocks from the Morgan L stop, where the collective hosts a series of indigo-dying workshops and also distributes its handmade goods, from homewares to hemp bracelets, which can now be found in the gift shops of both the Noguchi Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. Bauisou is also commissioned by fashion labels, such as Left Field and the Hill-Side, to dye fabric that makes its way into high-end menswear.
“Traditionally in Japan, the sukumo farmer and indigo dyer are separate from one another,” explains Watanabe. “The farmer sells sukumo to the dyer, who mounts the vat, dyes the fabric and sells fabric to the designer.” Buaisou, on the other hand, oversees the whole process. The collective grows indigo leaves at its two-acre farm in Kamiita-cho. The leaves, harvested in the summer, are separated from their stems and left to compost throughout the winter, with small amounts of water added daily. After four months, the sukumo is ready, and a part of the yield is shipped overseas.
My hands match Watanabe’s. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It will wash off in two to three days.”
To make the dye, the compost is combined with wheat bran, ash lye and calcium hydroxide, which is then left to ferment with water in a clay vat for several months. The end result is a living culture of thermophilic, anaerobic bacteria. “The vat is like a baby,” says Watanabe. “You have to take care of it every day.”
Here in Brooklyn, he lifts the lid to the clay pot, and the small studio is filled with the putrid smell of rotten organic matter. Watanabe says he doesn’t even notice anymore. He scrapes a thick collection of foam from the top of the vat, which he calls the “indigo flower,” explaining that it’s indicative of a healthy dye — the larger the “flower,” the healthier one’s dye. This particular batch is at its peak, young in its three- to six-month lifespan. “It will only get weaker from here,” says Watanabe.
I am here for a private, appointment-only workshop, one Buaisou calls their “Kouya Service,” which it hosts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; alternatively, interested parties can schedule group workshops via Buaisou’s website, which cost around $50 per person. In my hand is a white Oxford button-down from Uniqlo that I purchased several years ago; there are yellow pit stains. The goal of these workshops, says Watanabe, is to use indigo to “up-cycle” fabric, a term he borrows from vintage collectors who refurbish old furniture. Not only will the indigo disguise the stains, but it will also make the fabric stronger, giving it a second life, Watanabe says.
He soaks the shirt in warm water for three minutes, and then I slowly dip it into the vat and proceed to massage the dye into the fabric. Watanabe advises against gloves, which make it harder to feel the places that need most attention, like the stitching, the creases. We lift it out, careful not to splash the dye across the room, and twist out as much liquid as possible. The shirt is green. “Again,” says Watanabe. We do this twice more. By the end, the shirt has transformed into a luminous shade of dark blue. My hands match Watanabe’s. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It will wash off in two to three days.”
In several months, Watanabe will return to Japan to tend the farm and next year’s batch of sukumo, with one of his partners taking over the Brooklyn operation. Baisou, it would seem, is here to stay. “Brooklyn is full of young craftsmen,” says Watanabe. “There are people here that appreciate making things with their hands. I really feel like this is the right place to be.”