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Updated: Mar 25, 2016
When Tokyo's Kabukiza theater reopened in 2013, thousands of people cheered the renovation of the temple of the Kabuki art form that was originally built in 1889. Inside, another feat of reconstruction commemorated the event. Donning the stage were several new "doncho," or drop curtains based on Japanese-style paintings made by Kawashima Selkon Textiles, which refined the way the threads were twisted together to faithfully express the artwork.
Today, Kawashima Selkon is one of the world's leading makers of high-end textiles, a pioneer in decorative fabrics sustaining more than 170 years of Japanese craftsmanship. Acquired in 2011 by Japanese housing and building conglomerate LIXIL, the company creates stage curtains, traditional Japanese clothing and interior decorations for homes including the Japanese Imperial Household.
Kawashima Selkon has been revitalized under LIXIL. When LIXIL chairman Yoichiro Ushioda met the former president of Kawashima in 2010 to discuss the state of the company, the textile maker was facing a difficult environment and seeking a business partner.
Ushioda wanted to preserve this national treasure. He also saw that Kawashima's expertise could fill the missing piece of its interior fabrics business. That realization led to a minority investment in 2010 and a full acquisition the following year. With the greater investment, management support and market reach provided by LIXIL, Kawashima could restore and strengthen its competitiveness.
In 2011, Pentagram partner Abbott Miller was commissioned to design a 37-foot stage curtain for the Miho Institute of Aesthetics in Japan. To make the curtain, the Institute enlisted Kawashima Selkon. When Miller visited the company's factory outside of Kyoto, he watched a team of more than a dozen weavers meticulously string dozens of varying shades of red threads on a loom the length of the tapestry. The finished product, said Miller, was the most lovingly and expensively produced object he's ever designed.
"Their product really elevated what we designed to such a degree that it was breathtaking," said Miller.
Kawashima's old-world craftsmanship has existed since Jimbei Kawashima opened his first fabric store in Kyoto in 1843. When his son, Jimbei Kawashima Jr., inherited the family business, he used his knowledge of several traditional Japanese weaving techniques to create the unique aesthetic of the company's handiwork. He acquired new skills during a trip to Europe, which included a memorable visit to the Gobelins factories, a royal textile manufacturer that is now run by the French Ministry of Culture.
The company's reputation for perfection was crystallized in 1921, when Jimbei Kawashima III was asked to create a wall hanging for the Meiji Palace. Kinuko Kawashima, his wife, took over the project after his death. After one third of the weaving project had been completed, the fabric began to fade. The team moved ahead despite the blemish.
But Kinuko Kawashima decided that was not good enough for the Emperor. So she sneaked into the factory during the night and cut the faded threads. Now company lore, the tale became known as the "Lesson of the Broken Loom Thread." The surviving tapestry is kept on display as a valuable treasure and reminder of the company's uncompromising nature.
These days, Kawashima's craftsmanship is being applied to many unique projects. In 2004, Kawashima completed a decade-long job to restore 1,300-year-old royal textiles that were kept in the Shosoin Treasure House in Nara, Japan. The restoration required researching original textiles, testing materials and modifying its handlooms and weaving machinery to reproduce the textile patterns. Kawashima has also been demonstrating its innovative potential in applications beyond traditional textiles. In 2014,Kawashima delivered a wall of airy, white curtains flowing down from the towering ceilings of a luxury lounge in Doha's Hamad International Airport, a project done in partnership with LIXIL's architectural engineering subsidiary, the Permasteelisa Group.
"We have to keep trying new things. Our history is always keeping up with new technology," says Susumu Yamaguchi, President of Kawashima Selkon. "It's a key point as to why we have lasted more than a century."