Handsewn In Hokkaido

Located within a former bank in old Otaru town, M.J. Bale’s newest tailoring workshop creates hand-crafted and bankable sartorial style.

We’ve often called our tailoring ‘bankable style,’ but this time, we mean it — figuratively and literally. Figuratively, because this April, after a five-year hiatus, M.J. Bale is back working with Kaneko “The Godfather” Kenichi on world-class made-to-measure and ready-to-wear suits and coats. Nobody knows classic, peak men’s elegance quite like Kaneko-san. And literally? Well, Kaneko’s tailoring lair — his atelier — is in a former bank in Otaru. Built in the 1920s and designed in the Italian Futurist style, the building was the former Hokkaido HQ of Dai-Ichi Bank. It’s a grand relic from when Otaru was considered the Wall Street of the North due to the concentration of bankers here charged with financing Japan’s rapid modernisation. Once filled with coins, bills and booty, now the bank’s jail-like steel vaults function as Kaneko’s made-to-measure appointment rooms. The phrase ‘looking the money’ has never felt so apt.

“The workshop may be old fashioned,” Kaneko observed on an M.J. Bale visit last November. “However, I think it retains the vestiges of the Japanese tailoring industry of the past. I’m sure there are many tailoring workshops that evolved faster than our one here in Otaru. But I think that in the process of modernisation, many of them have lost their unique characteristics. In that respect, our workshop still has its own unique character.”

The atelier has character in spades. When you peer down to the ground floor from the wooden balustrades, you see a dozen female tailors sitting at benches, hand-stitching the finishing touches to jacket shoulders, armholes and cuffs. The patient but deliberate movement of needle and thread is mesmerising.

Sartorial art writ large. “It’s like watching the theatre or the ballet,” quips Matt Jensen. “Are these your best tailors?” Kaneko asks his head seamstress, then translating her answer: “She says, ‘Everyone that works here is the best!’”

There are about 75 tailors here under the watch of Kaneko and Mr. Kawamura, the workshop manager. The most senior tailors on the ground floor each have an average 40 years of experience. M.J. Bale garments are machine-sewn before components such as the shoulders and armholes are finished by hand. Almost all M.J. Bale jackets — unless requested otherwise — are full-canvas construction. Cutting of the cloth is done at the company’s fabric finishing factory in Yokkaichi in the Mie prefecture, roughly halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto. “We aim to deliver products with the warmth of the craftsperson’s hand, combining new technology with the best of old ones,” says Kaneko.

“In Japan, the apparel business is shrinking,” Kaneko admits, in reference to the higher cost of our Otaru-made tailoring pieces. “Many sewing factories have closed. We believe that there are many skilful craftspeople in Japan, so we want to protect their jobs, and we need to transfer the skills to younger people. We believe that the relation between the M.J. Bale brand and the workshop is equal, so we need to pay proper wages to all our employees.”

Later, we head to the bank’s rooftop and gaze down on the canal and warehouse district. Soon, these streets will be covered in snow. Kaneko points to the Tenguyama ski slopes on the horizon behind the bank. “Here is one of the only places in the world where you can ski looking at the ocean in front of you. Young Japanese Olympic skiers practise here. Black runs only. Tell M.J. Bale customers they can do an MTM suit fitting in the bank vaults in the morning, then, if they are good, ski in the afternoon, followed by Japan’s freshest sashimi and best sake for dinner.” Try to get those types of return from any other bank visit.