Sudō Reiko - Contemporary Japanese Textile Designer

Reinventing Japan’s textile traditions

Video Production: Panoramatiks

Sudō Reiko is one of Japan’s most influential contemporary textile designers, renowned for creating innovative textiles, championing new sustainable manufacturing methods and working to highlight Japanese textile heritage. She is the Design Director of leading textile design firm Nuno, which was founded in 1984. Known for pushing the boundaries of textile production, Sudō and her team integrate Japanese dyeing and weaving traditions with cutting edge technology and experimental finishing methods, whilst combining diverse materials such as cotton, silk, metal and paper. The results are original and distinctive textiles which can be functional lifestyle items produced on an industrial scale or individual works of art in their own right.

Sudō has worked in fabric planning and development for Mujirushi Ryōhin (MUJI) and joined the Advisory Board in 2016. She is also a member of the prestigious Japan Design Committee and worked on a pioneering sustainability project with the Tsuruoka Textile Industry Cooperative in Yamagata Prefecture. Additionally, Sudō is an Emerita Professor at Tokyo Zokei University, an honorary MA graduate from the University for the Creative Arts (UK), and a recipient of the Mainichi Design Award, the ROSCOE Design Prize and the Japan Interior Design Association JID Award.

Co-founding Nuno

Sudō Reiko was born in Ishioka City in Ibaraki Prefecture. Her interest in textiles began in childhood when she was mesmerized by the colourful, patterned kimono fabrics unrolled for her grandparents by a visiting kimono merchant every spring and autumn. Inspired by kimono, Sudō studied at Musashino Art University and, after graduating, stayed on to work as a textile laboratory assistant. In the early 1980s, she met and studied under the textile planner Arai Jun’ichi (1932–2017), who was well-known for his innovative textiles amongst fashion designers such as Miyake Issei of Issey Miyake and Kawakubo Rei of Comme des Garçons. With a shared aim of pursuing textile innovation by combining Japanese craft traditions and modern technology, Sudō and Arai established Nuno (meaning ‘fabric’ in Japanese), a small textiles atelier in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, where it is still based. In 1987, Arai took a step back from the company and Sudō became Nuno’s Design Director.

Notable Projects

Sudō Reiko has lent her remarkable creativity and expertise to many projects throughout her long career. One of the most significant was a commission to design all textiles for the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo. All items were to be produced in Japan, which presented a unique opportunity to engage many regional craft producers simultaneously in one project. Between 2001 and 2005, Sudō worked with 50 craft studios across Japan, creating items of interior design. She received the Mainichi Design Prize in 2007 for this work. Another notable project was launched with MUJI in 2016. With direction from Sudō, craftspeople in Aichi Prefecture – a leading wool production area of Japan – used a 100-year-old method to restore wool yarn from offcuts and pre-owned wool fabrics. The result was MUJI’s Reclaimed Wool Collection. Sudō’s projects with MUJI and Mandarin Oriental’s refurbishment in 2019, sustained many regional craftspeople after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Working with regional craft makers

Although many of the textile manufacturers with whom Sudō Reiko first collaborated were accustomed to working on large orders from fashion designers, Sudō brought them onboard to work with her experimental methods and to jointly develop new techniques. Today, she has strong, symbiotic relationships with numerous craft producers throughout Japan, many of which are small, family-run workshops. The production of each textile design typically requires the cooperation of various organizations in different parts of Japan. From the sourcing of raw materials and the spinning of yarn, to dyeing and weaving, the individual stages of creating one fabric design are often handled separately in different locations by different specialists. This allows Sudō to shine a spotlight on Japanese regional craftspeople and textile traditions.

Sustainability in the textile industry

One of Sudō Reiko’s guiding principles can be summed up in the Japanese expression mottainai (roughly translated as ‘waste not’) as her work often addresses concerns with manufacturing waste and recycling. In 2007, on a visit to Matsuoka Silk Workshop in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, Sudō noticed a waste product called kibiso, the protective outer layer of silk cocoons typically discarded due to being too tough and crooked to weave on a loom. In 2008, she led a collaborative project between Nuno and the Tsuruoka Textile Makers Cooperative to establish creative uses for the waste material. Kibiso’s 5000 denier thickness proved too tough for high-speed automated looms; however, with a Japanese government grant, the project developed a machine for converting kibiso into finer 500 denier yarn, leading to exciting new developments.

Innovation: inspiration from daily life and experimental materials

Over the years, Sudō Reiko’s name has become synonymous with experimental and innovative textiles, yet her inspiration often comes from daily life. The idea for Paper Roll came from the uneven, curled spirals of stacked bolts of fabric and rolls of deckle-edged washi (Japanese paper). To replicate the effect in fabric form, Sudō used a large steering-wheel embroidery machine to stitch curls of ribbon onto a water-soluble base. This was then immersed in water, leaving a lace-like tracery of ‘paper roll’ patterns. She also enjoys experimenting with industrial materials to create new textiles. To create Jellyfish, Sudō worked with polyvinyl chloride fibre – typically used in fire-retardant automobile seats and which shrinks at 60°C – in combination with highly thermoplastic polyester taffeta. In partnership with the metal leaf and dye specialist, Nakanishi Dye Works in Shiga Prefecture, Sudō and the Nuno team honed the process to create a textile that resembles an organdy jellyfish.

Career Highlights and Exhibitions

Sudō Reiko has created more than 2,500 original textiles throughout her career. Several of them are held in the permanent collections of eminent institutions around the world, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The designer’s textiles have been the focus of various international exhibitions, including the major textile installation Koinobori Now! at the National Art Center in Tokyo in 2018 and the exhibition Sudō Reiko: Making NUNO Textiles at CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile) in Hong Kong in 2019. A version of this exhibition which expanded on the themes of sustainability of regional manufacturing, materials, traditions and craftsmanship – MAKING NUNO Japanese Textile Innovation from Sudō Reiko – was presented at Japan House London from 17 May to 11 July 2021. The virtual exhibition is available to view on the website.