An anonymous white factory building on a country lane in rural Japan seems a world away from the glamorous fashion houses of Europe.
Yet while the modest home of Japanese company Daiichi Orimono is indeed thousands of miles from France and Italy, representatives from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Gucci are regular and enthusiastic visitors.
This is because inside the facility 100 textile looms drum noisily, weaving unique – and much in demand – synthetic fabrics that look and feel like cotton and linen.
Polyester and nylon may have a bad historic reputation for producing cheap and uncomfortable clothes, but such is the quality of Daiichi Orimono’s textiles that they are now extensively used by many of the world’s most expensive fashion brands.
From the coats of Italy’s Moncler, to the sleek jackets of Prada and Celine, much of the fabric is made in Daiichi Orimono’s factory in Fukui prefecture, on the northern cost of Japan’s main island, Honshu.
But how did a small 70-year-old Japanese company that started out making sails reinvent itself as a key supplier to many of the world’s most coveted luxury fashion brands? And how did it become a business with annual sales of 23bn yen ($210m; £148m) despite still only employing 60 people?
It is a success story based on acute attention to detail, Japanese “omotenashi” or hospitality, and a rather driven and determined boss.
Daiichi Orimono’s chief executive Ryuji Yoshioka took over the reigns of the company from his father 35 years ago, when it was just a humble sports fabric manufacturer.
In the early 1990s he built the then new factory in Fukui, a region of Japan famous for its synthetic fabric manufacturing, and invested heavily in first class loom machinery.
Mr Yoshioka’s timing could not have been worse.
“As soon as we built the factory the [synthetic fabric] bubble burst, and we lost clients [in Japan],” he says. “I had to be courageous because I had a great responsibility to feed my employees.”
Mr Yoshioka knew the company would fail if it relied upon the fickle Japanese market, so there was was only one thing to do – he needed to attract overseas buyers.
“Back then there was no one who could speak foreign languages in the company, and no employees who were good at international sales, and so as the head of the company I had to go by myself,” he says.
“It was very stressful, but the responsibility and the sense of duty drove me forward.”
He started by targeting South Korea and Italy because those countries didn’t have a negative impression of synthetic materials.
At the time no other Japanese textile manufacturers were looking to sell overseas, and the industries that did export their merchandise used trading companies.
Mr Yoshioka decided that he’d cut out the middle man and try to sell direct to clients. He said this was vital so that he could properly explain about the fabrics his company could make.
So embracing omotenashi he decided to take potential clients out for dinner.
“I love delicious food, there’s nothing I cannot eat, and I love to drink, and anywhere I go I wouldn’t stop drinking before the client did.”
Soon Daiichi Orimono started to win overseas orders, and it hasn’t looked back.
Today, 70% of the company’s sales are to overseas customers – 30% to Europe, 30% to Asia, and 10% to North America. Its fabric is delivered to customers giant rolls.
But what exactly makes Daiichi Orimono’s synthetic fabrics so special? There are numerous factors including the fact that its polyester and nylon is more densely woven than any others on the market.
Also vital is Japanese attention to detail and quality control, with Daiichi Orimono employees checking the yarns by hand and eye to make sure that the tensions and weaves are entirely correct.
- This is the latest story in a series called Connected Commerce, which every week highlights companies around the world that are successfully exporting, and trading beyond their home market.
Mr Yoshioka says he remembers very clearly the first day that Louis Vuitton and Moncler put in bulk orders.
“It was so surprising that I visited their companies and asked – is this really the fabric you want to use?
“I remember thinking repeatedly – do they think they are talking to a CEO of a different company?”
But the two fashion houses knew exactly who they were taking to.
While Daiichi Orimono currently does all its deals face to face, Mr Yoshioka says that in the future it is inevitable that the company will move into ecommerce, and so it is revamping its website.
Loic Bizel, a fashion consultant from France who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years says that Daiichi Orimono has managed to be so successful because “they are so unique, and so specific in their material”.
While Mr Yoshioka inherited Daiichi Orimono from his father, he doesn’t have any children to pass the company onto.
Instead he says that his staff are like his sons and daughters.
“I have very talented employees, and I believe these employees will support and improve the company even better than I did.”