Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Current Obsession: MUJI

Japanese minimalism and perfect design meets sustainability
I’m currently obsessed with the minimalist eco-designs from MUJI, which translates from the Japanese into “No Brand.” I first discovered it in Sendai City on a food tour with a bunch of chefs. We’d been out to a super-homey yakitori (skewered meats roasted over an open charcoal grill) restaurant the night before, and our host had pointed out the groovy aprons that the yakitori chefs were wearing (in addition to dish towels wrapped around their heads, a standard here in Japan).Sho-san (our Japanese host, who lives and works in San Francisco) told us he’d take us to a place where we could get the same aprons for cheap, and the next day we went to MUJI, on the ground floor of a shopping mall (where it seems everything cool in Japan is located). MUJI is like a Japanese Ikea but with clothing: everything you could possibly need for home, body, and travel, but designed well, and it’s all made out of organic cotton and other sustainable fibers like bamboo.
At the end of the food tour, after our flight home from Tokyo to San Francisco was unexpectedly cancelled, we realized that we’d all brought just enough clothes to last us for an eight-day trip, not the nine-day trip we were suddenly faced with. Most of us had been wearing the same clothes juuuust enough to keep the funk at bay. The chefs didn't really care; a couple of them had bought a new pair of socks  or a new t-shirt (stinky boys!) but I couldn’t face the thought of wearing the same clothes for the (x) day in a row.

As the chefs were tucking into yet another fried meal in a mall (this time in Tokyo), I noticed another MUJI. We'd blown through the first store in a whirlwind, picking out aprons and chopsticks with a determined speed, and while I had bought my aprons with the intent of wearing them as modified dresses when getting back to San Francisco (they’re cute and well-designed, two hallmarks of Japanese culture that I’ve discovered, and fell in love with this week), I hadn’t really taken a look at all that MUJI had to offer.

I could have stayed in there for much longer than the hour it took for the chefs to come wondering where the hell it was I’d got to. The clean lines and lack of any distinguishing labels brought to mind the understaded chic of Yoji Yamamoto, and the amount of things available was mind-bogglingly typical of the quality of goods that the Japanese consume on a regular basis. What drew me in first was a series of well-cut striped shirts, and a linen shirtdress with a pintucked tuxedo front fit just right.
MUJI's prices are low: for $160 USD, I left there with the shirtdress and tights, a pair of grey leggings and a pair of striped socks, a striped longsleeve T, a pair of flat black booties with round toes and only four shoelace-holes that I don’t think we’d see the likes of outside of Japan, and those were only the clothes. 

MUJI also equipped me with a selection of travel accessories that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else and have been looking for in all one place for years. Sure, there’s the Eagle Creek packers and the Rick Steves luggage dividers and the racks of German-made ergo-design stuff that you’ll find in the outdoors-equipment stores, but MUJI’s toiletries bags and packing inserts are made of the finest, lightest-weight nylon that squeezes down into wispy little balls of nothing yet can zip tightly around six pounds of dirty laundry (I know, I squeezed all mine in the second I got my brown-paper recycled MUJI bags back to the hotel’s concierge, where all of my luggage had been in stasis since we returned from our futile journey to the airport the day before).

Maybe I’m just an organizational freak, but a frequent traveler often has their rituals and their weird little tics that they can’t live without: mine are an oversized pashmina scarf, a series of earphones, eye-masks, and writing materials and several little bottles of in-air moisturizing liquids that keep me from suffering and prevent jet-lag once I’m on the ground. All of these are now neatly arranged into easily accessible little corners of my purse in black-and-white checked bags that weigh under an ounce each and are designs worthy of the Comme des Garçons label.

There’s a few MUJI stores in New York City, but the across-the-pond prices have inflated and there was just something about buying it all in Japan that really satisfied that “I got something that’s completely utiliarian and that I can’t find anywhere else in the world” itch.
Wait, am I the only one who has that itch?

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