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Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008


A rebel with style

Jurgen Lehl has been infusing Japan with his sensibilities since 1971

Staff writer

First-time visitors to Japanese department stores are likely to be surprised by the brand Jurgen Lehl. Chances are they haven't heard of it although it sounds international and its quiet chic suggests they should have. As well, Jurgen Lehl outlets generally occupy large chunks of prime in-store real estate — at Matsuya's flagship branch in Tokyo's glitzy Ginza, for example, where the label's trademark earth-toned boutique stands proudly alongside Valentino, Stella McCartney and Celine.

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Stylemeister: Jurgen Lehl pictured during his recent JT interview YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Jurgen Lehl, this wide-eyed first-timer may think, could be something like Asics or Olympus — local brands that disguise their Japaneseness behind a foreign- sounding moniker. And it almost is, having been launched and bankrolled by man-made-fiber and textile giant Asahi Kasei Corporation.

But Jurgen Lehl is also a very real person — a 64-year-old German, in fact, who has lived in Japan since 1971. With the help of those at Asahi Kasei and a number of "accidents" along the way, this quietly spoken gent with a passionate concern for environmental issues has become an eponymous presence in fashion circles nationwide.

The first "accident" in Lehl's career occurred in the early 1960s when, having left then-West Germany to avoid compulsory military service, he arrived in Paris. He was 18, had no university education, and was looking to make a start as a graphic designer. But things did not work out that way and, having been turned away by several magazines, he had no choice but to accept a job offer at a textile-design company — eventually becoming well enough known to be scouted by a firm in New York. His sojourn in the Big Apple was followed by a brief stint in Berkeley, California, and then an invitation from a friend to work in Hong Kong — but with one fateful stopover in Tokyo on the way.

It is tempting to suspect that Lehl's concerns with ecological sustainability are in part a reaction to his own past. Having walked into a job as an adviser on fabric design at Asahi Kasei on arrival in Japan, he found himself dealing mostly with man-made fabrics for use in industry. Not surprisingly, given his "green" outlook, that work only lasted a year.

From the very outset, his Jurgen Lehl brand flaunted its ecological credentials with a series of jackets, blouses and pants for women and men with flowing, ethnic- inspired silhouettes and an earth-conscious palette of browns, beiges, creams and muted reds and greens. That work has now metamorphosed into his current passion — the spinoff label Babaghuri — all of whose products, ranging from homewares to clothes, are made using the most ecologically sound methods.

Jurgen Lehl sat down with The Japan Times early last month at his studio in Tokyo's Kiyosumi-Shirakawa district to discuss Babaghuri, his work and his life. He also revealed a second consuming passion: a small organic farm he has on the Okinawan island of Ishigakijima.

With the Babaghuri brand you are experimenting with clothes-making that

has minimal impact on the environment. What methods have you tried and have they succeeded?

Three years ago, I started the Babaghuri brand focusing on products for the home like furniture, tableware, sheets, towels and rugs. Clothing was only one part of the project. The basic ideas for the brand were to use renewable, natural or recycled materials, to use hand-spun yarn or handlooms for the textiles, to use natural dyes or the inherent colors of the materials themselves, and to ensure that all the products were biodegradable or would create no environmental problems when disposed of. I am now experimenting with chemical dyes that are biodegradable to get a wider range of colors, because the colors of the fast (permanent) natural dyes are limited.

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Class warrior: Jurgen Lehl, who has built his career on making beautiful things in ways that buck the system, sits in his Tokyo studio. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

I would love to use organically grown fibers exclusively, but even with the small production lots we do it is complicated to organize and ultimately increases the costs of the products, which are already high compared to conventionally made items and are difficult to comprehend for the unsuspecting consumers. [Jackets and pants from the Jurgen Lehl brand tend to hover around ¥30,000 or ¥40,000.]

My convictions are very strong about environmental concerns — most people's are less so, I believe. I am considered very hardheaded.

Some people look at Japan and they think it is the most consumption-mad society in the world. As a hardheaded environmentalist, are you not uncomfortable here?

I'm uncomfortable with the state of the whole world, not just Japan. I have no right to vote in this country, so I have no influence over government policies. Voting in Germany would be useless because I don't know who is who, and I don't believe in the present political systems anyway. All I can do is to suggest different possibilities for lifestyles through my work and behavior.

Why did you decide to come to Japan?

I came on a holiday. At that point I was not really settled anywhere, because I had left France and ended up in Berkeley after working for a while in New York. A friend of mine asked if I would come to Hong Kong with a stopover in Tokyo. I had some friends here, whom I had met in France, and I contacted them here. I asked them whether it would be a good idea to stay for three or four months — do something, maybe help out in some office — to get to meet local people. It ended up being 37 years. I signed a three-year contract that just went on and on.

Was that with a textile company?

Yes, Asahi Kasei.

What kind of work did you do?

It was more consulting work than anything else. I did some designing, but mostly consulting about textile design.

When did you decide you wanted to go it alone and make your own label?

I didn't decide. They decided for me! I wanted to quit — thinking that I was not worthy of the salary I was receiving from them. But they said, "Nobody in our company has ever quit, so we have to do something about that." They asked me whether I wanted to start a company, and that's what I did.

What was the name of that company?

That was my present company, Jurgen Lehl. It was 1972.

Were you completely free to run it as you pleased?

Yes, I could do whatever I liked. They asked another company to take care of the management, and that's how it started.

Did you decide from the beginning that you would make clothes?

No, we started with textiles because that was my main area of knowledge. After a while, somebody said maybe we should start doing clothes because it would make more money — which is true. So we started.


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