Author: Professor Zoran Dobric
Figure 1: Aoyama Kohaze. Various styles of kohaze. https://kohaze.net/toha_en/ Accessed on August 18, 2019.
Image description: Various embossed kohaze samples in brass and gold finishes.
Figure 2: Zoran Dobric, “Kohaze Dress”, 2019, Silk satin, silk crepe, brass kohaze and cotton embroidery thread. Photo by: Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Image description: A model wearing the Kohaze Dress. The black satin and crepe dress features brass kohaze and white thread embroidery on the right side.
On a cold January morning in Toronto, I was visited by the Aoyama Kohaze company Chairman Keiji Aoyama, his wife and company CEO Kayo Kubo, and Japan Market Entry Strategy Consultant from the International Trade Center Michiko Morimoto (Figure 3). The objective of the visit was to introduce their kohaze product and propose a collaboration that would investigate innovative ways of using the kohaze. They also came bearing gifts of Japanese souvenirs and sweets including green tea Kit Kat bars.
Figure 3: Zoran Dobric, Kayo Kubo and Keiji Aoyama at designer’s studio. Toronto, January 21, 2018. Photo: Zoran Dobric
Image description: From right to left, Z. Dobric, K. Kubo and K. Aoyama standing and smiling.
I was impressed by how proudly they spoke of their family history, which dates to a Sasayama castle built in 1609 (Aoyama, 2018); it was clear that keeping tradition and family business alive was very important to them. To demonstrate their product, Ms. Kubo wore a kimono with an obi and Mr. Aoyama wore knee-high black tabi shoes, both with kohaze as closure. Mr. Aoyama insisted on gifting me a pair of tabi shoes and was excited about the idea of a Canadian designer wearing them, which caught me by surprise.
They were equally excited by their cross-cultural proposal – to work with a non-Japanese designer – as they felt I might provide an innovative perspective on this traditional item. Although kohaze are quintessentially and traditionally Japanese, they did not see their use by other cultures as appropriation, rather they were here to promote them (Aoyama, Kubo, Morimoto, personal communication, January 21, 2018). I too was excited about the idea of collaboration, uniqueness, and innovation this would bring to my designs, and about learning something new about Japanese culture, which I have always admired. The result of this collaboration was the development of several dresses, including the Kohaze Dress introduced here (Figures 2, 6).
Kohaze are fingernail-shaped clasps for fastening the closure of kyahan (Japanese leggings), tekkou (Japanese hand and wrist covers), and most commonly, tabi (Japanese socks) (Figure 4). Although tabi were invented in the middle of the Heian era (794 -1192) and were worn to prevent slippage of a wooden clog worn at the time, tabi were not generally worn because common people could not wear them without permission from their feudal lord. It was not until the middle of the Meiji era (1868-1912), that kohaze came to be used to fasten tabi (Aoyama, 2019).
Figure 4: Kohaze closure on Tabi from Aoyama Kohaze, (2018) Catalogue. Higashibuki. Page 10.
Image description: Black and white checkered tabi with brass kohaze closure.
The Aoyama Kohaze factory, established in 1919 by the Aoyama family, devised a semi-automatic method of creating kohaze and became the first manufacturer of kohaze machinery in Japan. They manufacture plain or embossed kohaze in various sizes, and in materials ranging from aluminum, brass, nickel, gold-plated, enamel-coated and plastic. The kohaze can be embossed with traditional or custom designs, and are still used for tabi and shoes, although some of the company’s clients use kohaze as closures for other items such as corsets, jeans, jackets, bags, and small accessories. (Aoyama, 2018). Due to the decline of the modem Japanese population’s interest in wearing kimono and tabi, the company is looking for new ways of implementing kohaze to preserve their family business (Aoyama, Kubo, Morimoto, personal communication, January 21, 2018).
Inspiration: a 1920’s cultural exchange
I have always been fascinated by cross-cultural exchange between the West and Japan evident in Western Art History, specifically in the 1920s and 1930s. The revolutionary influence of Japanese Art first started in the late 19th century, and was apparent in movements such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and subsequently Art Deco. Similarly, Japan adopted the Western influences of Art Deco, Cubism, Jazz music and flapper fashion during the 1920s and 1930s (Hass, 2021). In my collaboration with Aoyama Kohaze, I wanted to pay tribute to this historic cross-cultural exchange.
My inspiration for the Kohaze Dress came from an Art Deco screen (Figure 5) designed by the French artist Jean Dunand, who is known for his art, furniture, book bindings, vases, and other decorative objects (Bénézit, 2006). His work incorporates Art Deco characteristics such as streamlined, sleek geometric lines, and luxurious elegance, often integrating abstract, cubist-influenced shapes (Trachtman, 1996). The Art Deco style first appeared just before the World War 1 and influenced art and design in the 1920s and 1930s (Hattstein, 2019, Bénézit, 2006).
Figure 5: Jean Dunand, Contraste de Formes, a folding lacquered double door, France, c.1925-1930. Originally designed for the private home of Robert Mallet-Stevens in Paris. Material lacquered wood and brass. / Sotheby’s
https://scandinaviancollectors.com/post/159642494925 Accessed on August 26, 2021.
Image description: Black and gold lacquered folding screen by Jean Dunand.
In 1912, Dunand was trained in the workshop of Seizo Sugawara where he learned the traditional Japanese technique of lacquer in exchange for teaching Sugawara Western techniques (Arwas, 1980, Trachtman, 1996). Dunand’s panels varied from figurative to cubist juxtapositions of colours and shapes (Arwas, 1980). Some of the lacquered screens created by Dunand were reminiscent of traditional Japanese black and gold screens, featuring motifs from nature such as birds and foliage (Bénézit, 2006). On the other hand, many of Dunand’s screens exhibit a more abstract, Cubist play of planes (Arwas, 1980, Trachtman, 1996), such as the screen in Figure 5, which is a Cubist-influenced abstract screen that still implements the traditional black and gold lacquered materials. To me, this screen is less derivative, while still embodying the Japanese influence. As such, this screen provided great inspiration for the Kohaze Dress design.
Design and Production
The angular asymmetrical lines and colour blocking of Dunand’s screen (Figure 5) influenced the seaming, hemline, and silhouette of the Kohaze Dress (Figure 6), while Dunand’s gold paneled geometric shapes inspired the kohaze embroidery. Long white threads were intentionally left hanging to reference the striped sections on Dunand’s screen, and to emphasize texture contrast and a deconstructed, hand-embroidered effect.
Figure 6: Zoran Dobric, Kohaze Dress, 2019, Silk satin, silk crepe, brass kohaze and cotton embroidery thread. Photo by: Zoran Dobric.
Image description: Kohaze dress shown on a dress form.
To focus on the surface design on the right front side (kohaze embroidery), the left side design features a simple batwing sleeve with chevron seams echoed in the hemline and accentuated with softly contrasting black satin and crepe. Silk satin was perfect to reference the cold, smooth surface of Dunand’s screen.
When reviewing their contemporary usages, I encountered many applications of kohaze for functional use, but none of kohaze as a decorative high fashion medium. I decided to experiment with kohaze as an embroidery medium and I began researching the history and types of kohaze, including the many ways they have been implemented recently in the past. As a part of the design research, aluminum, brass, plastic, nickel, enamel plated, and 24k gold plated kohaze were reviewed in various sizes and design variations. I tested out different hand embroidery and stitch options for attaching kohaze onto different types of fabric. Size, weight, cost, and visual appeal were considered and tested, along with different possible placements. In the end, 23mm brass kohaze were selected for the final designs, and multiple sketches explored different placements of kohaze, dress shapes, and cuts.
Urban Avatar, an embroidery contractor in Mumbai, India, executed the hand embroidery using the embroidery samples and sketches I developed. The company has provided the social compliance audit certificate performed by STR Responsible Sourcing, proving that no child or unethical labor was used. The embroidered fabric panel was then sent to Canada where I completed the patterning and sewing.
Aoyama Kohaze loved the Kohaze Dress and were very happy with the collaboration. The company use the dress for their promotional purposes as they continue to market their products internationally. The story about the Kohaze Dress collaboration was featured in a Japan Airline inflight video and on the JETRO Website (Japanese External Trade Organization https://www.jetro.go.jp/tv/internet/2020/02/c345f4cf7b0ca1e0.html). The designer showcased the dresses from the collaboration at Toronto Fashion Week at the Gardiner Museum in February 2019.
With all parties happy with the process and the outcome, the Kohaze Dress project is a strong example of cross-cultural curiosity, communication, and innovation. While scholars and popular media are examining the effects of cultural appropriation, this process illustrates a beautiful, culturally sensitive way to collaborate. Within fluid cultural and historic landscapes, designers and their collaborators must work together to preserve traditional techniques and materials, while innovating to maintain their relevance. The Kohaze Dress invites designers to investigate novel usages of traditional techniques and materials while engaging in mutually enriching cross-cultural learning and collaboration. Like a green tea Kit Kat bar, the Kohaze Dress explores how something unique to different cultures can combine in time, space, material, and design to form new, unexpected, and enriching experiences.
Aoyama Kohaze (2018). Catalogue. Higashibuki: Aoyama Kohaze.
Aoyama Kohaze (2021). Aoyama Kohaze. Retrieved on August 28, 2021
Aoyama, Kubo, Morimoto, Personal communication, January 21, 2018.
Arwas, V. (1980). Art Deco. New York: Harry N. Abbraws, Inc. Publishers
Bénézit E. (2006). Dictionary of Artists, Vol. 4, p. 1338-1339. Paris.
Hass, N. (2021). How Japonisme Forever Changed the Course of Western Design. The New
York Times Style Magazine. Retrieved on August 29, 2021
Hattstein, M. (2019). Art Deco. Paris: Konemann
Trachtman P. (1996). When cubism met the decorative arts in France. Washington: Smithsonian.
27 (4), 44-51. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from:
Toronto-based designer Zoran Dobric acquired his training at Instituto Marangoni in Milan, and London College of Fashion, University of the Arts in London where he earned his MA in 2013. His design work is noted for innovation and artisanal qualities. Zoran’s collections were featured on Fashion TV as well as numerous magazines from Canada, China, Germany, Kuwait, Japan, UK, USA and France.
Zoran’s work was exhibited in London UK at the prestigious Victoria House UAL Exhibition (2013), and at Sex and Death exhibition in Covent Garden (2012).
In 2009, Al Sabah Gallery in Kuwait City featured an exhibit of Zoran’s work as well as an exclusive collection commissioned by Sheikh Majed Al Sabah. In July of 2013 Zoran Dobric won the London-based Shaftesbury Award for emerging designers, and was featured in the Carnaby Street exhibition in London UK.
Zoran has taught fashion at Ryerson University, University of Hertfordshire and George Brown College. He currently works at Seneca College as a professor and Fashion Arts Program Coordinator.
www.zorandobric.com Instagram @zorandobric
This article provides an example of successful cross-cultural design collaboration between a Canadian fashion designer (the author of this paper) and Aoyama Kohaze, a Japanese producer of kohaze: a traditional Japanese button-like closure (Figure 1). The Kohaze Dress (Figure 2) was the final iteration of this collaboration. The following analysis will address the project realization process from initial contact and history of kohaze, to material and design research, including the Art Deco period’s inspiration, and subsequently, the final production process and evaluation.
Since there were cultural, creative, promotional, and financial benefits to both parties involved in this project, this case study offers an example of successful cross-cultural collaboration through extensive research and open communication: a considered and culturally sensitive design approach. Furthermore, The Kohaze Dress invites designers to investigate novel usages of traditional materials and techniques, while engaging in mutually enriching cross-cultural experiences.