Japan's latest trendy fashion comes from a place most high-end shoppers wouldn't go looking: a jailhouse.
The must-have apparel — cotton aprons, tote bags and pouches — is emblazoned with the character for “jail” inside a circle and are cut, sewn and assembled by inmates at Hakodate Juvenile Prison on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The items first went on sale in October 2006 as souvenirs for tourists and prison visitors, but didn't immediately catch on.
The line's popularity suddenly picked up last year when a government-backed corrections association began to carry the logo at its Tokyo outlet store, said Shoji Nakajima, an official at the Correctional Association for Prison Industry Cooperation.
With orders flooding in on the association's Internet shopping site, all items are currently sold out. The popularity has been so great it is planning to register the logo — designed by a prison official — with the patent office, Nakajima said.
“We thought the character for 'jail' would turn people off, but that turned out to be the big appeal," Nakajima said. "Especially, young people seem to like it.”
The association also sells hundreds of other items, ranging from furniture and portable shrines to tea cups and green tea, produced by more than 81,000 inmates at 70 Japanese prisons as part of compulsory prison labor.
Many inmates are assigned to unskilled labor such as assembling shopping bags and envelopes, but Nakajima said he hoped Hakodate's success can be a good lesson for other prisons to become more creative.
Under Japan's criminal law, the production is part of corrections and vocational training, not for profit, Nakajima said. The Hakodate inmates don't get any bonus from the booming sales of the jail brand and any profit will be used to fund the labor program, he added.
“Inmates are not allowed to work overtime,” Nakajima said. And the prison cannot hire additional staff.”
Aprons with the striking logo — which go for about 1,260 yen (U.S. $12) — have grabbed fans at a bar in Tokyo's bustling entertainment district of Shinjuku, where a manager and two waitresses regularly wear them.
Figures were not available all products, but 5,300 copies have been sold of the best-selling apron.
“Our customers have said the design is cool, despite what the logo means. They often ask where they can find them," said the bar manager Mariko Yoshida, 52. "It's good quality, too.”