Established in 1935, Japanese bag makers Porter / Yoshida & Co. have a long history in luggage design and craftsmanship which is upheld by their commitment to making products exclusively in Japan following the motto, ‘heart and soul into every stitch’.
Two early experiences taught Yoshida the value of a well-made bag: during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated much of Tokyo, he salvaged his family’s belongings by hoisting them over his shoulders using just a rope. It was then that Yoshida articulated his goal of creating a bag that functioned as a tool, ‘a bag that fits to the owner as time passes and becomes a regular part of their lives’. Yoshida was called to serve in the military not once, but twice, during the Second World War and it was thanks to his wife, Chika, who hid their sewing machine and fabric under a railway arch, that their business survived the air-raid attacks. Yoshida continued production post-War relatively uninterrupted having acquired an acute appreciation of the craftsman’s workshop as well as a working knowledge of functional military baggage.
Yoshida adopted a design philosophy that prioritised function and craftsmanship above all else, and began developing bags and accessories for the local Japanese market that transcended passing fashions and trends. His 1953 Elegant Bag was just such a design: a sleek and minimalist black leather satchel with a zipped gusset that transformed from a slim briefcase to a roomy carry bag as required. It was Yoshida’s response to the limited size of compact inner city apartments that were being constructed in Tokyo post-War and, like much of his work, it won esteemed admirers including Empress Michiko, Japan’s answer to Jackie Kennedy.
At the time, luggage, including Yoshida’s own, went unbranded; brand power was considered the domain of the department stores who traded on the prestige of their own names and marks. So it was a radical move that Yoshida made in 1962 to launch Porter, his own in-house brand of luggage, bags and accessories. The brand was so-called after railway and hotel porters who, by nature of their profession, know quality when they carry it. Yoshida wanted customers to understand more about the provenance of his products and to help them recognise Yoshida-made luggage. It is testament to the strong reputation Yoshida built the Porter brand upon that models of Porter bags from the 1960s are still in production to this day.
Yoshida’s other definitive move was to restrict manufacturing to Japan. Rather than increase production and sales by outsourcing it, or restricting the brand’s range to the limits of in-house expertise, Yoshida set up a model that allowed him to oversee multiple craft workshops, each with their own specialism. Porter / Yoshida & Co. now oversee more than 50 specialist workshops, run by craftsmen who have decades of experience in a single element of production including leather work, canvas construction, sewing synthetics, leather stamping, leather treatment, fabric development and patch label making. This unique set up has allowed Porter / Yoshida & Co. not only to refine their expertise but also to innovate while retaining a tight control on quality.
In the 1980s, Porter / Yoshida & Co. collaborated with their own fabric suppliers to develop a proprietary fabric in the form of a polyester/cotton blend bonded with nylon. This fabric formed the basis of the ‘Tanker’ range of duffle bags and tote bags that took their inspiration from US Air Force flying jackets, being at once imminently practical, hard-wearing and elegant without being formal. The soft and slippery nature of the proprietary fabric was particularly challenging to work with. Craftsman Matsurou Ikeda describes the emotional attachment he has to the Tanker series, which he has been sewing since its release in 1983: ‘It is hard to sew it while keeping the right shape … [but] I feel honoured to be able to sew the long seller bags’.
Kichizo Yoshida sadly passed away at the age of 88 in the same year Yoshida & Co. opened its first retail shop in the well-known shopping district of Shibuya in Tokyo. In keeping with Yoshida’s long-term commitment to producing products that endured for a person’s lifetime, space was created within the store for craftsmen to attend to repairs, and demonstrate the precision and skill of their work to loyal and prospective customers. Having upheld such a high regard for craftsmanship and such a disciplined approach to design, it is no wonder that Porter / Yoshida & Co. have been developing products to suit their customers’ needs for over eighty years, putting ‘heart and soul into every stitch’.