Just the Flax: Fog Linen
Words by Saer Richards Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald
Inspired by the materials that filled her childhood home, Yumiko Sekine has created Fog Linen, a global empire of simple, durable and classic linen products to wear and use. We asked her a few questions to find out how it all came to be.
Some of us fall into our life’s vocation by chance; others enter the family business. And there are a few who identify a need and address it with gusto. Yumiko Sekine falls into the latter category. She found her calling through a nostalgia-fueled desire to re-create the linens that filled the family home of her youth. A chance trip to Lithuania more than 10 years ago made that desire a reality.
Yumiko’s Fog Linen brand offers a prolific selection of essentials that make a house a home—all created from 100 percent linen. Inspired by the linens her mother used on a daily basis, her collection brims with table napkins in neutral shades and duvets in ginghams reminiscent of summertime school uniforms. It’s not surprising to learn that this designer’s one-time goal was to be a “happy housewife” since each of her items feels like home.
At our initial encounter, I’m intrigued that such a quiet and mild spirit as Yumiko could create this exhaustive body of work. Her voice is so gentle, each word seems to be carried on the wind. But her tenacity and courage quickly emerge through her temperateness. And it shows in her work. Every item is flawlessly created and thoughtfully designed to be a part of one’s home for decades.
As we chat, I can’t help but be enamored by her stories—how determination took her halfway around the world in search of used books, her family’s traditions that aren’t typically Japanese and how she grew her brand.
Tell us about your background.
I didn’t expect to start my own company. When I was in college, I wanted to be a happy housewife. But when I started working for a housewares store with a cute little café, I really liked it. In time, I was cooking in the café most of the time instead of going to school, and I even helped with the merchandising for the store. That’s how I developed an interest in the gift business. However, after finishing college, I worked for a furniture company for two years. They sent me to the Philippines to oversee their furniture manufacturing process, to visit furniture design fairs in Europe, as well as gift fairs in the Philippines.
Then I quit my job and worked for a little foreign bookstore for half a year. The store was really small and needed something to attract customers, so I suggested we buy foreign used books to offer something different from the big bookstores. The owners said they didn’t want to pay for me to go to other countries to buy books, but that I could do it by myself if I used my own money. I had $3,000 in savings, so bought a ticket to New York and visited various used bookstores. I took my purchases back to Japan and they sold immediately. After that experience I traveled to Portland, Boston, Seattle and other cities to buy books. In time, I got tired of carrying heavy books and my suitcase often broke because they were heavy!
I met someone in San Francisco who was selling wire baskets made in Mexico, and I started to import them. They sold very well in Japan, and I still carry them in my catalog today. From then my business switched to importing gifts instead of books—it was much easier. I could order by fax instead of having to actually go to a store! I started to expand my gift wholesale business to include other items. And then my great-aunt started a Japanese restaurant in Lithuania with her friends.
In Lithuania. She had some exchange students from Lithuania stay at her house, but while they were in Japan, Lithuania gained independence from Russia, so they had a difficult time trying to go back to their country. They stayed in Japan for a few years and got to talking about what they could do when they got back home, and somehow started a Japanese restaurant together.
I was curious about Lithuania. However, I didn’t find any linen towels at housewares stores when I was there the first time, as people in Lithuania were not using linen products for their daily life; it was more for export.
So even thought they had a strong history of manufacturing linen, it was now gone?
They only had linen mostly for export. I could find linen wedding dresses but couldn’t find any kitchen towels or aprons at all. Then they told me I could hire the old women to sew things for me, but they didn’t have any experience with exporting to Japan, so I was worried. I looked in the phone book and called 10 factories. Most of them didn’t understand English and just hung up, but two of them understood. I originally thought I could buy something from them, but then I realized that they didn’t have any actual product samples they could show me, but just fabric. I needed to sketch designs and they would make them. That’s really how I got started.
Your products are almost all 100 percent linen. Why linen?
When I was a child, my mother would use linen tablecloths, napkins and pillowcases at home so it was normal for me to use it. But when I moved to Tokyo for college and was living by myself, I realized linen items were so expensive. I started looking for affordable linen products I could use when I met with the factory in Lithuania and thought I could design them myself.
Do you have any personal traditions, or ones that have been passed down?
My family likes to welcome foreign friends and guests, like my great-aunt who had the foreign students stay at her house. My parents often did a house exchange with other retirees from France, and my grandmother would also have foreign students stay at her house. Many Japanese people are not so open to having strangers stay in their home, but in my family, we really like it. All these experiences made me feel at ease to travel and work in other countries.
Your work has a timeless quality. What are three key elements of Fog Linen?
Useful, simple and durable.
What three things currently inspire you?
I got inspired by many customers and stores who carry Fog Linen items, especially Julie (my business partner and the owner of the Shop Fog Linen website). She knows how to translate Fog Linen for the US market. I’m inspired when I see how other people use my products. Also, many of my customers inspire me when they tell me what they want and need.
Memories from my childhood: I like the way my mother kept my house. Also, the clothes I wore when I was a child; I still have them and often look at them for inspiration for fabric patterns.
My everyday life: I find ideas from the needs in my life.
Parker Fitzgerald shot this story using a Leica M3 and Kodak Professional Portra 160 Film.