Crafting a close-knit community
Restoring a family business through simple, authentic, quality clothing in rural Japan

Words: Megumi Yamashita

Photography: Credits below

Yamanobe, in the southern part of Yamagata prefecture, is about three hours northwest of Tokyo by bullet train. Surrounded by mountains and blessed with fertile soil, the area is renowned for fresh produce such as fruit and rice. There is also a long history of textile dyeing, and silk farming – with sheep farming introduced a little later. During and after World War II, hand-knitted wool garments were exchanged for money and food, supporting the livelihoods of the region. Later, mechanical knitting machines were introduced, and the area became a thriving centre for knitted textiles.

“I had no intention of taking over the family business”, confesses Ken Oe, walking amongst rows of shelves stocked with colourful jackets and jumpers. As CEO of ‘Yonetomi Seni’, a knitted-textile company founded by his grandfather, Ken has created unique collections with a flagship store located next to its factory.

Ken’s grandfather founded Yonetomi Seni in 1952, and at its height it was the largest knitting factory in the Yamagata region with 300 employees. For many decades the majority of Yamanobe’s townspeople worked in the textile industry, however, in the 1990s, the industry experienced gradual decline and today operates at about one-eighth of its heyday capacity, as cheaper products (from countries such as China) have entered the market.

Following university, Ken worked for TOMORROWLAND, a well-known fashion company in Tokyo. “Many of the high-quality products sold there were manufactured overseas. I started to wonder why Japanese factories were closing down even though they can manufacture equally good products. Some long-established firms – John Smedley in the UK for example – manufacture for other brands alongside their own labels. With our factory, I felt it important to develop our own products in-house to maintain and improve our skills and craftsmanship. After discussing the future of the family business with my father, who was the CEO at the time, we decided to start our own brand.”

In 2007 Ken returned to his home town to restore the family business Ken’s first original brand, COOHEM was launched in 2010. After experimenting with a combination of various types of yarns on computerised knitting machines (and the capabilities of their skilled in-house craftsmen), COOHEM’s collection of jackets and jumpers appear more as though they are made of a woven tweed, than knitted fabric.

Their products are sold online, wholesale, and at pop-up events, and have gradually gained widespread popularity. In 2016, COOHEM won the Tokyo Fashion Award, which has supported the expansion and promotion of the company’s collections. During the pandemic, when business was quiet, Ken launched two additional sister brands, THISISASWEATER, which produces more minimalist high-quality unisex sweaters, and YONETOMI, a more affordable, casual unisex brand.

Following this, Ken’s next goal was to open a store that could sell all three brands with other curated items that exemplifies their ethos. “When I held a pop-up sale in the local area, a lot more people came than I expected, perhaps finding out about it through Instagram.” Before the pandemic, most young people were eager to move to urban centres. Post-Covid, this has shifted, with people increasingly returning to their home towns or moving out of cities to rural areas. When Ken returned to Yamagata, there were hardly any young people living in the area, but gradually the local demographic has changed. Now, one-third of the population in this area are in their 20s and 30s.

“Even though there are more young people now, there are no department stores in Yamagata and few places to buy fashionable clothes. I realised there was less competition to set up a shop here than in Tokyo. It also made sense to have a store near the factory where I can frequently serve customers myself.

“Based on my experience at TOMORROWLAND, the priority for me was to have a space where I can display items flexibly. I commissioned architect Teppei Nomoto to design the interior of the store, and he suggested that I use Vitsœ’s 606 Universal Shelving System. It was a perfect solution both functionally and aesthetically. It’s so simple to rearrange the display according to the designs or colours of the collection.”

The shop spans two floors, with a bold bespoke gilded sign, written in traditional Japanese calligraphy, hung on the wall stating, “Fashion is Life”. These are the words of Ken’s grandfather and company founder, Ryoichi Oe, who recounted being impressed by factory workers in Europe on his first visit to the continent, proudly wearing knitwear made in their factory. He realised that fashion was deeply meaningful for daily life.

Ken continues, “At my previous job in Tokyo, the staff were mostly young and loved current fashions. In contrast, our workers are much older, working here because it is close to their home. They don’t necessarily have a strong interest in clothes. I wanted everyone here to take pride in the products they make and wear: our products. I believe that fashion is not something exclusive, but something that is common in everyone’s lives. I thought that it was vital to inspire our workers to keep the ethos of the founder alive.”

“As I was introduced to the Vitsœ’s shelving, I also learned about its designer, Dieter Rams. The core concept of THISISASWEATER, one of our brands, is ‘everyday items that are authentic, simple, and of the highest quality.’ Our aim is to produce timeless products. We offer to repair all of our products free of charge. I can see a similarity with Rams’s ‘less but better’ mantra.”

Many customers travel from Tokyo to visit Ken’s store, and a tour of the factory is also very popular. The archive holds an impressive display of tens of thousands of knitted products collected since the company’s foundation. Ken also organises an outdoor market in front of the store with other local businesses, such as well-known wooden-furniture maker Tendo Mokko, “It’s part of a growing movement to regenerate the area”, he says. Many are led by second or third generation of the business owners, like myself”.

Ken does not see his revitalisation of Yonetomi Seni, as unique “It’s not just in Yamagata, but we can see more cases of second-and third-generation business owners taking on the challenge of revitalising family-run factories in rural regions. Creators are also moving in from the cities to work for those projects. I think a new movement has started to emerge outside of urban areas.”

Beyond the knitting industry, Yamagata has a rich history of traditional craft and contemporary design. The craft of hand-weaving rice-straw has deep roots in the area. In years gone by – when the region’s fields were covered with snow – rice farmers would traditionally make items such as winter boots and food packaging with straw.

But the rural way of life has changed a lot in recent decades, and these traditional crafts are in danger of disappearing. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see the emerging generation of creatives that see new value in their heritage and are paving the way for regeneration.

Yonetomi Store
1136 Oazayamabe Yamabe-cho Higashimurayama-gun,
Yamagata 990-0301 Japan
Open 11:00 – 18:00
Closed: Tuesday, Wednesday

Image credits
Akaoni and Studio Xxingham; ©Isao Negishi; ©Ko Tsuchiya; Megumi Yamashita