Overlooked no more: Junichi Arai, innovative textile designer
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Overlooked no more: Junichi Arai, innovative textile designer
Junichi Arai with some of his textile designs in New York, April 6, 1990. Arai, who died at 85 in 2017, experimented with different materials and technology that earned him widespread recognition as well as patents and awards. Angel Franco/The New York Times

by Elaine Louie

NEW YORK, NY.- Junichi Arai was born in Japan into a family of weavers who made elegant obis of silk — sashes to wrap around the waist of kimonos. So when he, following tradition, took up the craft as well, at age 13, it didn’t take long for him to establish himself.

It was 1945, toward the end of World War II. The family’s steel looms had been melted down for the war effort, and the family had rented its factories to the imperial army for use as warehouses. Arai’s grandfather Wakijiro Arai found a wooden loom and gave his grandson some recycled threads of silk and rayon to work with.

He started by weaving rags. “It was something the farmer would use, a practical thing,” Arai once said.

After the war, as Japan began rebuilding itself, the family was able to weave on new steel looms. At 17, Arai started incorporating gold and silver threads into his rags, and, he said, “I discovered they could be sold for more money.”

By 1950, the Japanese were watching American television. “I made an obi design of television waves,” Arai said, “and I was considered the enfant terrible in the obi world.”

Later, he used innovative materials to create fabrics that resembled spider webs, or shimmered like the fractures in cracked ice, or hung like delicate strands of hair.

Arai, who died at 85 in 2017, experimented with a nylon-coated polyester that looked like the gossamer wings of a butterfly; he said it could be made into raincoats weighing less than 4 ounces. He designed a four-layered jacquard with squares on one side and triangles on the other. He mastered the art of blending manual skills, like tie-dyeing, with the tools of computers and other high technology.

“There are several things that made him one of the most important innovative thinkers in textile design,” Matilda McQuaid, a co-curator of the 1998 exhibit “Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote in an email. “The first is his passion for experimentation, from destroying the surface, shrinking the fabric, to using traditional methods with new materials, like weaving with stainless steel.”

Beginning in the 1970s, fashion designers like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo gave Arai global recognition within the fashion and textile industries by using his wearable, yet wildly inventive, fabrics in their own creations.

“He is the greatest influence on textile design in the world today,” Jack Lenor Larsen, an American textile designer, said in introducing Arai at a lecture in 2004 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Arai’s textiles are in the permanent collections of many museums, including MoMA, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Junichi Arai was born March 13, 1932, in Kiryu, Japan, the eldest of six children of Kinzo and Naka Arai. Kinzo Arai started the family’s weaving company, Arakin Textile (also called Arakin Orimono), in the 1920s, making obis. It was based in Kiryu, about 80 miles northwest of Tokyo.

Junichi Arai dismantled his father’s company in 1966, became an independent textile planner and started his own company, ARS, which went bankrupt in 1978. That same year, he established Anthology, which also went bankrupt, in 1987. Still, he was endlessly inventive.

Arai co-founded the Nuno Corp. with textile designer Reiko Sudo, and when Arai left Nuno, Sudo became its design director. She said Arai had stood out for seemingly giving fabrics “spontaneous expression,” uniting high technology and the appearance of the handmade. The company, based in Tokyo, continues to sell Arai’s designs, created from 1984 to 1987.

Arai was best known for giving new twists to traditional weaving processes. “He loved to collaborate with industry and learn techniques that could be applied to textiles in novel ways,” McQuaid said.

But he was a weaver first, one who understood the characteristics of fiber so much that he could challenge the idea of what a textile is. He worked with Bridgestone Tire, where he learned to develop stainless steel yarn. He taught textile design in Japan, China and the United States, and was a mentor to other textile designers, like Sudo.

In 1983, Arai won Tokyo’s Mainichi Fashion Award. In 1987, the Royal Society of Arts in London designated him an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry. He held 36 patents or intellectual rights to fabric manufacturing innovations.

One of his most famous designs, the spider’s web, was not his idea; it was his wife’s.

It was 1984. “He came home with a net structure, like a fisherman’s net,” Riko Arai said through an interpreter in a 2004 interview at Gallery Gen in New York, which exhibited Arai’s work and sold $10,000 worth of his designs on the first night. The net fabric was silk, but Riko Arai said that it couldn’t just be a net; it needed a pattern.

“A spider’s web,” she said. “The morning dew of a spider’s web.”

Junichi Arai hired local weavers to make the spider's web, which was sold mostly as shawls.

His death, on Sept. 25, 2017, at Kiryu Kosei General Hospital, was not widely reported. The cause was myocardial infarction, although he had also been treated for lung and stomach cancer since 2002.

At the lecture in 2004, Arai was visibly fragile but still strong enough to be theatrical. He wore a long-sleeved gray tunic of stainless steel threads. He had designed it not to be worn as a practical garment — he removed it after 10 minutes during the lecture — but as proof that aluminum, stainless steel and titanium could be made into textiles as extraordinary as silks and cashmere.

“I’m the one that asks industries to make the threads that don’t exist,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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