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Misaki Tanaka (SOLIT, Inc.)

April 1, 2024

The CEO of SOLIT, an inclusive design solution company combining sustainability with D&I in its bid to “democratize fashion” by making brands and clothing something that people choose rather than have chosen for them, spoke with us about the company’s characteristics such as inclusive design and the differences and common issues between the fashion industry in Japan and overseas.

Please tell us about yourself and your career background.

I was born in the city of Nara and lived there until the end of high school. I relocated to Yokohama when enrolling in university, and after graduating I joined a company called Cyber Agent based in Shibuya. I joined that company in 2011, right around the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
After the disaster, I felt an urgent need to assist with the recovery of the affected areas, and I searched for a way I could contribute to society. However, as a recent graduate I lacked skills and experience, and I wasn’t able to engage with social issues at that time. So instead, I continued working at Cyber Agent for one year to gain basic skills, and then I became a supervisor in a recovery support project for Fukushima Prefecture linked to the Reconstruction Agency.
Since then, I have been going to various scenes of social issues, working with the government, establishing start-ups, and trying to find solutions to social issues in different situations. I have launched three companies, one of which is SOLIT. I launched my first start-up when I was 23 years old, and it was a social start-up in the form of a non-profit organization for disaster preparedness.
While there were many NPOs working in reconstruction support and disaster support, there were hardly any organizations aiming to solve the root causes and prevent such disasters from occurring. In Japan, these tasks were typically handled by the fire departments, neighborhood associations, or the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, all of which are male-dominated and have a high average age, and there was no market for young twenty-somethings to join in. I worked for about eight years to change this.
Those efforts were recognized by WOMEN IN BUSINESSES FOR GOOD. The idea of young women storming into areas that had previously been kept off-limits, due to vested interests and other factors, was praised for being innovative because it would solve major social issues. Paris-based Sparknews focused on several female entrepreneurs from around the world, including myself. I was the only entry from Japan and ultimately I won first prize and was invited to Paris, which brings us to today.
However, the more active I became, the more I sensed my own lack of skill and shortsightedness, and during my 20s I felt a constant unease because society wasn’t changing despite me investing my full energy to such an extent that I never had time to relax. So at that point I quit everything and went to graduate school for two years to relearn things. I was studying there until two years ago, but I decided that studying alone would change nothing and that I needed to get back out there, which is why I launched SOLIT.

Please tell us a little about the activities and vision of SOLIT and who your main users are.

I learned about things like natural disasters and climate change, so I was aware of what a difficult situation the global environment was in, but I didn’t know where to begin with making a change. Around that time, I noticed that one of my graduate school classmates couldn’t wear certain clothes for faith-related reasons while another was a wheelchair user whose paralysis prevented her from putting on the clothing she wanted to wear.
Similarly, as someone whose body is plus-sized on the Japanese scale, I had often experienced an inability to wear the clothes I wanted to wear.Until recently, clothing was something that was discarded in huge volumes, and yet these classmates had nothing to wear. I was disillusioned by this discrepancy, and I started to think that unless this situation could be changed, people’s unhappiness would be perpetuated, and the environmental impact would only become worse. I launched SOLIT with the idea that perhaps society would change if I could just establish at least a small precedent and then have that copied by major companies.
Finally, I decided that we should do what the apparel industry was singularly failing to do, namely combining sustainability with D&I, and while I would only bring onboard people who agreed with this decision, I decided that we would not choose the people who buy from us; rather, we would aim to democratize fashion by making brands and clothing something that people choose rather than have chosen for them.
Let me categorize to make things clear: at present, around 20 to 30% of the entire customer base purchasing SOLIT products is made up of people who face some kind of physical difficulty, while the rest of our customers are non-disabled persons, but there are also some people who buy our clothes because they have no other choices if they want to avoid buying clothes that contribute to environmental problems and human rights violations. There are perhaps also some customers who buy our clothes because their choices are limited due to size-related issues or pregnancy.We can’t describe our customers as having a single user persona because they are simply too diverse. But it’s true that many of the people who buy our clothes have endured some kind of difficult experience.

How do you develop products for such a diverse user base? 

I think the structure itself is also one of the points that we have been praised for, but there is a technique called inclusive design. In the world of production and apparel companies, products are mass-produced based on colors and materials determined according to the season by trading companies and designers, but SOLIT brings in as team members from the planning stage related parties who have sensed certain issues. Development with these related parties is what we mean by inclusive design.
There might be wishes such as a person without fingers wanting to wear clothing that has buttons, or someone who cannot reveal her shoulders for faith-related reasons wanting to try fashion that reveals the shoulders, and that’s where designers and healthcare professionals participate.
For example, considering the movable range of the shoulders for a person who has a disability in that area, we might suggest rethinking the concept of the shoulder position itself or ask how a jacket ought to be designed for someone with a shoulder disability. Healthcare and welfare workers give advice regarding the body’s structure or state of mind, designers give form to these ideas, and we make products while prototyping until all of the related parties who were unable to wear what they wanted to are satisfied with the results. 

Going forward, what things do you intend to focus on at SOLIT and what is your vision?

I’ll split this into three areas: products, business, and social impact. Unlike typical apparel items, the products we are making now are not updated every season. The clothing itself is an issue-resolving solution, so our stance is to only produce new items when new issues arise. I believe that our current lineup provides clothing that most people can wear, but we are still lacking products for people has gigantism, severe disabilities, sensitive skin, dementia, and other conditions, so we want to continue improving our products to increase the number of people who can wear our clothing.
In terms of business, we are looking at overseas expansion. In Japan, it’s difficult for the kind of clothing we produce to gain a positive reception. There are many stores selling fast fashion that is cheap and easy to wear, so it’s very difficult to sell clothing that is kind to the environment and does not violate human rights, or in other words, clothing that has an emotional rather than functional significance.
For example, sustainable products are common in Europe, and there are customers who will not buy from fashion brands lacking B-Corp status, but that’s not yet the case in Japan. Although we are based in Japan, we are looking at how we can become active internationally with the aim of delivering to people in need outside of Japan.
At the moment we are focused on the UK and Hong Kong. The typical physique in Hong Kong is similar to that of Japan, which makes development easy, and after New York, it has the greatest disparity, so many people who are affected by various issues have no choices. The UK, on the other hand, bases its judgments of good products on artistic and design-oriented value, and there are also universities cooperating in these areas locally, but we don’t yet know how to approach expansion there and what kind of stories we should be telling, so right now we’re conducting field work.
As for social impact, we will be appearing at next year’s Vancouver Fashion Week, and rather than presenting a no-choice of new pieces, well, I’m not sure if I should be telling you this, but we want to hold a kind of demo appealing for the fashion industry to finally change its ways. Ideally, we’d like to turn up with placards. [Laughs]
We also want to recruit models including refugees, persons with hearing impairments, and victims of child abuse. The fashion world is based on white supremacy, but there should be not only beautiful white models but also more diverse models. In fact, it’s not even the case that white females are most common in terms of population distribution. We want to do some kind of lobbying on the runway.

So if Japan’s fashion industry is still tougher than the fashion industries of other countries in a sense, what are the positive things about Japan that you want to communicate to the rest of the world? 

Recently, I’ve been feeling a strong urge to communicate Eastern ideology and Japan’s unique points. These are the things that many of Japanese major brands have forgotten. Japan has its own unique OS as seen in things like wabi-sabi and the notion of unity for the greater good, but Japan’s culture of making something beautiful out of a vague state is very important in fashion.
Western thinking separates sellers and buyers, but in Japan the person selling is also making, and the person making is also buying, so it’s easy to have complexity understood with common language. There is also kimono culture and the culture of not letting things go to waste. In the context of sustainable fashion, this can imply the use of materials that are easy to recycle, but for example in the West, there is a uniformity of materials, and there is a tendency to use materials such as wool and cotton that are easy to collect and recycle. There are also factors such as laws against disposal.
However, once such clothing is collected, it gets sent to countries that don’t recycle and is simply disposed of there. Clothing is finished beautifully in Europe, but the long supply chain means that there is no recycling at all. And when faced with this fact, they simply close their eyes and say that the company is only responsible up to this point.
On the other hand, Japan understands that this is no good, so recycling partners are found, or planning goes all the way through to the recycling stage. Also, there is a culture in Japan of using good-quality items for a long time, with kimono used across three generations, and even scraps of material are put to use. Repairing and remaking is also a common practice that most old women are capable of. Even if there are different types of material, the culture is such that clothes are worn for a long time and are unlikely to end up in the trash.Overseas, it’s accepted that clothing will be thrown away even if the supply chain covers a long distance, while in Japan clothing is circulated for a long time on the basis that it will not be disposed of. The underlying OS is different, so the meaning of sustainability is different. 

Using high-quality things with care has perhaps been Japan’s OS since ancient times…

Japan has many wonders such as its silk and traditional crafts, but Japanese people don’t see this, and it takes outsiders to come in and notice these wonders. In Japan, there’s also a long and difficult road to be walked before people can enter the world of traditional crafts. I think this process will become a lot smoother if there are people in the middle to translate things both linguistically and culturally.

Do you have any advice for international investors looking at Japan?

In Japan, there are awards that make it easier to work if you win them. This is a uniquely Japanese evaluation criterion that wouldn’t be understood in other countries. It’s strange, but there’s a kind of internalization going on. Last year we won a gold at the iF DESIGN AWARD, which is one of the world’s three main design awards, yet in Japan the local Good Design Award is held in higher regard.
I think it will become easier for people from other countries to work in Japan if this fact is strategically adopted. It’s also important to determine whether there is a precedent, and if the first company is contracted even if it isn’t receiving money, the second company can carry out business.
Also, everything is checked in such fine detail in Japan. Too much so, from an overseas perspective, but the quality provided by creators from Japan is extremely high and their work is economical. There are also issues in terms of pricing, and there are many skilled creators in provincial areas who lack work, so I think it can be very easy to add Japanese quality when selling overseas.  

Does SOLIT intend to sell any non-apparel products?

We would like to design products other than apparel, yes. At the moment, our background is strictly in making clothes, but we have inclusive design techniques, so we are gradually moving beyond apparel. We work with other industries while communicating our designs and ways of doing things. I aim to maximise social and business values by requesting resources and power from relevant manufacturers, whether they be stationery producers or furniture makers or whatever.

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