TOKYO, Aug. 2, 2011— -- As far as summer fashion goes, clothes with built-in electric fans leave a little something to be desired.
But Hiroshi Ichigaya has managed to turn his breezy invention into the must-have item of the summer, thanks to sweltering temperatures and a power shortage stemming from the triple disasters that hit Japan in March. The founder of Kuchofuku, or "air-conditioned clothing" in Japanese, says sales for his clothes have increased 10-fold. Phones at his office haven't stopped ringing.
"People ask me, why would I want to wear a jacket when it's so hot," Ichigaya, a former Sony engineer, said. "I tell them, because it's cooler than being naked."
Kuchofuku jackets come equipped with a pair of battery-operated fans on the sides, which draw air in. Ichigaya says the constant breeze running inside the jacket helps evaporate all the sweat and creates a personal cooling system in the process. The goal is not to lower temperatures outside the body but expand the body's comfort zone, and eliminate the need for energy-consuming air conditioners, Ichigaya said.
Case in point: at Kuchofuku headquarters in Toda, outside of Tokyo, a thermometer shows the room temperature clocking in at a stuffy 88 degrees, with 59 percent humidity. Yet workers sit at their desks wearing Kuchofuku jackets without a bead of sweat in sight, the hum from the fans echoing in the background.
Akiko Tanaka looks more like an astronaut than an office worker, in her white, puffy jacket, but, she said, she has gotten over the quirky look. "I wear this at home, when I'm doing chores," she said. "I like how the temperature stays the same wherever I go."
Kuchofuku first launched in 2004, after a trip to Southeast Asia inspired Ichigaya to come up with more energy-efficient alternatives to traditional air conditioners.
"I saw so many buildings being constructed throughout the region and thought, if all those buildings installed air conditioners, it would seriously add to global warming," Ichigaya said. "When I started research, I realized there was no need to cool the entire room."
Ichigaya's first collection only featured the standard air-conditioned jacket, selling for roughly $140 online. But his collection has slowly expanded, along with the company. The Kuchofuku catalog features an air-conditioned, button-up shirt, a hooded jacket, short-sleeved shirt for women, and cargo pants, with fans installed in each pocket.
There's an air-conditioned, anti-bee sting suit equipped with four fans, as well as a cooling mattress and cushion. Each comes with a controller, allowing the user to adjust the fan's speed, depending on preference.
Nearly 1,000 companies in Japan, including Toyota, use Kuchofuku. Construction companies, carmakers and steelmakers make up a large part of that customer base, but the list has grown since the March 11 disasters crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daichi Power plant and triggered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. More than half of the country's nuclear plants have gone idle or shut down because of safety concerns, severely limiting Japan's power supply.
With the energy grid strained, the Japanese have been asked to cut power usage by 15 percent and reduce reliance on air conditioners, an uncomfortable move in the sweltering summer months.
Overwhelming Orders for Air-Conditioned Jackets
Ichigaya says he noticed an uptick in sales a few weeks after the disasters hit, a traditionally slow time of the year. He started to get calls from individual customers looking to buy button-up shirts to wear under their suits, an unusual request for a company that was used to dealing with medium- to large-sized manufacturers. Ichigaya got a call from the prime minister's office last month, requesting half a million air-conditioned jackets.
"The reality is, our company is not big enough to take on such orders," Ichigaya said. "Unfortunately, we had to turn that request down."
Kuchofuku employs 10 people in Japan, although the clothes are manufactured in China. The company expects to sell at least 40,000 air-conditioned products this year, and Ichigaya is hoping to take his cool invention beyond Japan.
He says he has already fielded calls from companies in China, India and the United States.