“We now have the opportunity to wax whole garments for the first time,” Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran, one of the designers behind fashion label DNJ Paper, tells Broadsheet. “We’ve never done that because, well, our little oven.” She intonates like she’s describing her firstborn, pointing to a toaster oven in the corner of the studio. The boxy machine (which lists cooking settings for “pizza” and “air fry”) is what she and DNJ Paper co-founder Jake Nakashima-Edwards use to bake their signature caps.

Why would you bake a hat? For Mohajer va Pesaran and Nakashima-Edwards, it’s the final step in making their surprisingly sturdy garments and accessories with washi, a traditional Japanese paper. “We wax the surface and bake it,” she says. The washi absorbs the beeswax and comes out feeling like papery leather: waterproof, dryclean-proof, and more resistant to wear and tear.

The duo has been finessing this process since meeting at RMIT’s School of Fashion and Textiles in 2019. Nakashima-Edwards, who is Japanese-Australian, was taking an honours degree and wanted to use paper as a textile. “One of the staff told me to talk to [Daphne] because she’s the world’s leading – and only – expert on paper clothing,” he says. From that fortuitous meeting, she became his supervisor, and they started experimental fashion label DNJ Paper the next year.

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Today, they work with sheets of washi sourced from papermaking houses in Japan (including a seventh-generation papermaker). There, the delicate material has been used to make clothes for more than 1000 years. “Paper used to be used for all kinds of everyday items like lanterns, toys, boxes, doors and windows,” says Mohajer va Pesaran, who’s Iranian- Canadian and lived in Japan for 10 years. “And so many people made it. It was winter work for farmers.”

The ancient material is created with the inner bark of the mulberry (or kozo) tree, as well as the mitsumata and gampi bushes. It’s stronger, more pliant and more absorbent than modern paper. And it’s incredibly diverse: a sheet can be thinner than a human hair, or layered with pulp and other materials like lace.

DNJ Paper’s latest project, the MPavilion 10 Uniform Commission, puts the practice on full display. For this, the pair has designed 35 clothing pieces for front-of-house staff to wear in Melbourne this summer. One is a pink washi paper vest – the first full garment baked at their studio in Hanover House, Southbank. The second – a collaboration with The Social Studio – is a cardamom-green linen jacket inspired by a Japanese work jacket called a samue.

“We work with a lot of Japanese archetypes,” Nakashima-Edwards says. That’s partly because the patterns on many Japanese garments, like the samue and kimono, start with rectangles. “The sheets of paper are rectangles, and we want to be efficient with how we use them. So, we minimise the waste and reuse the scraps.”

This low-waste approach permeates their projects, from pattern-cutting to dyes, and items in their colourful studio point to each stage. Nakashima-Edwards pulls out a glass box on wheels, which is full of confetti-like offcuts of washi paper. Under their workbench, an Ikea bag brims with blazing red polo shirts, which they found in Hanover House. “They were the uniforms for the Chinese TV station that used to be here,” Mohajer va Pesaran says.

The abandoned shirts have become the colourway for the MPavilion vests. Adapting a traditional Japanese technique, they mix konnyaku (a starch from the root of the devil’s tongue plant) with water to create a viscous gel. “We then apply the konnyaku with the polo shirt scraps so the dye comes out,” Mohajer va Pesaran says. The result is a crinkled yet firm washi paper in a light pink wash. The dyed sheets are then cut, sewn, coated in beeswax and baked in DNJ Paper’s new, wardrobe-like oven.

You can wear the paper vest like an everyday shirt, but the final product still dumbfounds people. “Some common questions we get are, ‘Can you wash it?’, ‘But what if it rains?’” Mohajer va Pesaran says. While the garment will survive in either scenario, it won’t last forever – and she says that’s kind of the idea. “It’s going to get absolutely thrashed as a uniform,” Nakashima-Edwards says. “Having a material that asks you to be mindful about how you’re interacting with it, but is also surprisingly durable, is a really beautiful tension.”

DNJ Paper works out of its studio at 158 City Road, Southbank, which is part of the Atelier Program at Beta Southbank and operated by the Beulah Foundation.

@dnj_paper

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.

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