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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #034 Eritate Hat, Inc.

#034 Eritate Hat, Inc.2015/06/18

Unique hats made by traditional techniques from the finest materials in the area

A hat maker from Kurashiki, Japan, that got their start making straw hats

Kurashiki, Japan, which prospered in the Edo period as an imperial fief. In the retro modern Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter (Kurashiki aesthetic area), where rows of old white grid-walled houses still stand and flat-bottomed boats once ferried up and down the Kurashiki River, a hat maker is getting a lot of attention. It's the flagship store of the Eritate Hat company, established in 1960.

In its #1 store, a renovated house situated along the highway on the south side of Mt. Tsurugata, unique hats are lined up along with old sewing machines and wooden hat molds, and tourists and hat-lovers in the local are casually trying on their wares.

"I want to make hats that people will cherish. I'm happy if they try them on one at a time so they can feel for themselves the quality of the designs and materials," created by hand crafting says Shigeki Eritate, the 2nd generation president of Eritate Hat, Inc..

"I want to make hats that build upon techniques honed over many years and that stay true to the modest Japanese sensibilities. I want to always listen to the voices of our clients and continue to make products that fulfill their needs," says company president Eritate.

The story of the Eritate Hat company began with the founder, Shigeru Eritate, father of the current president, who came up with the plan to revive the area's traditional industry and produce high-quality straw hats. The city of Asakuchi in the southwest of Okayama Prefecture has been producing good quality wheat since ancient times, and for many years, weaving the byproduct, flattened strands of straw, into straw plaits, called "Bakkan Sanada", had been a side job for the farmers there. Shigeru Eritate was working in a company that wholesaled those straw-plaits as building materials for making hats and bags to overseas manufacturers, but Okayama has long been a region with a rich tradition of craftsmanship. His belief that they could produce straw hats by hand themselves gradually grew stronger, so he imported special sewing machines and began his enterprise.

At the time, Japan was facing a period of rapid growth and the high-quality straw hats produced by the company sold well. For a time, they sold hats as quickly as they could make them. However, gradually the straw-plait production industry became injured by cheap imports and began to wane. For a time, the company moved almost its entire production center overseas, and though they did their best by taking subcontracting work from big supermarkets, they got caught up in a price war and work dwindled away.

Polishing their Strength with Carefully-Chosen Brand OEM

Braid hats made by taking cloth and natural grass woven into tapes and then finished by sewing into a coil. These hats could be called the root of the Eritate Hat, Inc..

The turning point came in 2004 when the current Eritate Hat president, Shigeki Eritate, decided to enter the family business. He had always liked fashion and, after graduating from university went straight to work for a local apparel maker, but what caused this man who said, "I had absolutely no intention to enter the family business," to change his mind and get into the hat making business?

"When I was a student, hat making was a declining business. Hats didn't have a very good image and people kept away from them because they thought they flattened your hair and didn't let your head breathe well. But starting about 15 years ago, specialty hat stores such as CA4LA (Kashila) began to get a lot of attention and the trend began to change. That's when I started to feel that among all the declining textile industries, perhaps hats were actually really interesting. When my father came to me and said he was thinking about closing up the business, I decided to quit my job and go all-out into the family business."

Mr. Eritate was 40 years old at the time. He was doing well in the apparel business, but he decided to take a risk and reach for the dream of "making his own company brand". He wanted to produce high-quality products domestically that only they were in a position to make.

The sewing machines that were used to manufacture straw hats when the company was founded are now used to make a variety of braid hats. Using just the feel of their fingertips to create a 3D shape exactly as designed is true craftsmanship!

"Our company's best weapon is the technical ability we gained in making straw hats. Just as in making straw hats, to create beautifully shaped braid hats by sewing up ribbons of materials into coils requires masterful craftsmanship and there are almost no domestic manufacturers who possess this kind of technical ability. However, "technique alone isn't enough," says Mr. Eritate.

"Technical ability is to be expected. So we put our efforts into softer areas such as creating interesting products that make the best use of the materials. Instead of adhering to the use of straw or braids, we instead put our efforts into cloth hats and gathering in-house designers, and we started our domestic brand as an OEM."

The president himself tried to sell to only big-name brands and well-established hat makers that were considered to be at the top of the domestic hat market. His fusion of fashion-sense gained from the apparel business and his traditional technical expertise helped to earn him high praise.

"Rather than making things just to satisfy ourselves, I wanted to learn what our capabilities were from an objective and advanced point of view. By experiencing this kind of OEM where we honed our sensitivities, we began to understand the proper criteria and we really learned a great deal. We participated in local Kurashiki events and department store events, explored the needs of the customers by listening to their opinions, and put our efforts into building a brand that focuses on quality."

Demanding "Interesting Materials" and "Easy Wearability"

The Eritate Hat Kurashiki Honmachi shop standing in the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter that's famous for its row of old houses. It's a concept shop renovated with the idea of turning an old Japanese house into a workshop.

Ever since opening its company store in 2010, fashionable clients have been visiting the famous Eritate Hat store, but underlying everything is always the concept of "wearability".

"Our general rule is 30% fashionability and 70% wearability. The reason for that is that, unlike the body, the head doesn't have much padding and the skin and bones are so close. In other words, there's no way to dodge the issue of comfort. A hat, where a difference of millimeter order can directly impact on wearability, is the extreme of all apparel, I think. That's why we of course offer order-made and semi order-made and can also make size adjustments to ready-made hats."

They're also very demanding about their materials, and the president routinely visits the areas where they are produced. His vision for using materials that have never before been used to make hats is enlarging the possibilities of the hat world.

 

All work is done carefully by hand. Since even a tiny difference can have an effect on comfort, a mold is used to make sure the size is perfect. Fashionable touches are made even to parts not visible from the outside, like the lining and tags, in order to create hats that will be cherished by their owners.

 

Braid hats sewn by hand from braided jute carefully woven in local textile factories. Made from braids of uniquely Japanese materials and colors, they are sturdy and match well with Japanese traditional clothes.

 

The ultimate hat made with high-quality leather and indigo dyes and using traditional weaving techniques. Leather ordered to Okayama's neighbor, Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture, is brought to Kurashiki and dyed indigo and then cut into the appropriate thickness and width to weave into a hat.

"Lighter, easier-to-use, easier-to-fold. Our braid hats aren't only made from straw, but also paper, leather, and other materials. We are always working to develop new materials to increase the functionality and improve the appeal of our hats. Recently we've introduced braid hats made from braided jute and leather."

The braid hat artisans that have worked with them for these long years are all over 80 years old. To pass this tradition on to the next generation, they are cultivating their own in-house artisans.

"Currently we have 8 hat artisans in the company, but only 2 of them are able to make braid hats. The technique is so difficult that if you test 100 people, you may find only one capable of doing it, and many people are unable to do it even if they have prior experience in denim sewing and the like. But on the other hand, it's interesting that even if they don't have experience with sewing machines, some people with dexterous fingers are able to do the work. I've heard stories that beauticians were able to succeed in it, and it just happened that my wife was able to do it as well. She's really great now and I'm very thankful. We think it's our duty to the community and our role as a company to find people with that kind of finesse and to provide them with careful training.

Communicating the Appeal of Hats and Opening New Markets

The #2 store is an attic hat shop situated along the Kurashiki River. It's a new type of experimental hat shop that sells original Eritate hats alongside select domestic brand hats and famous designer's hats.

In June of last year, the 2nd store, a select shop, was opened in the same Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter alongside the Kurashiki River. They're trying various approaches to communicate the appeal of hats such as holding parties for semi-order and workshops where customers can try their hand at making their own hats.

"I'd like us to be seen as a company that makes things properly. Our products may be more expensive than mass-produced ones, but I hope that people will see that the price is reasonable considering the careful selection of materials, the meticulous design of even the small parts, and the skillful work of the artisans. Our hats have a certain aura or presence, and it's for that reason that I think people cherish them so highly."

This commitment to the principles of craftsmanship has attracted people from a wide range of ages, and the number of repeat customers has increased. Starting two years ago, they began to exhibit in large-scale expositions such as "gift shows" and the like. Now they've begun to set their eye on expanding into the overseas market.

"We have confidence in our craftsmanship. The next question is where do we sell our products. Domestically, we are now receiving requests from the shops and buyers that we were aiming for when we first established. Our enquiries from overseas are also increasing each year, but we are still finding it difficult to establish adequate communications and delivery related procedure of goods there. With the support of Rin Crossing for our overseas operations, we hope that we can open the path to new markets for our "Kurashiki-made" hats!"

Eritate Hat, Inc.

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