Refreshing ideas breathing new life into the traditional kimono

August 09, 2012

By MIKAKO ABE/ Staff Writer

Elegant, elaborate and expensive, the kimono ranks alongside Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms as one of Japan's most recognizable symbols. Yet despite its fame overseas, the traditional robe-and-sash ensemble has all but vanished from everyday life in its native land, largely displaced by modern, Western-style fashion.

Once a part of daily attire, the kimono has been relegated to the realm of weddings, graduation ceremonies and other once-in-a-lifetime events.

Not everyone is content to let the kimono fade from view, however. Artists Yoko Omori and Hiroko Takahashi are putting their own take on both the traditional kimono and its lightweight summer counterpart, the yukata, in hopes of breathing new life into the tradition.

Yoko Omori, 52, launched her Double Maison line in fall 2011 to “create a bridge between Western fashion and Japanese traditional dress.” The line is full of playful, genre-crossing kimonos, such as a silk kimono printed with a bold gingham pattern, and an all-lace, white linen kimono. Omori, a well-known popular fashion stylist, says her criteria is clear-cut--everything must be cute. In achieving that end, she confidently bends rules and defies expectations.

She stays away from bold contrasting color combinations, characteristic of Japanese-style dress. Instead, Omori favors the more accessible “same-color scheme” reminiscent of 1950s fashion.

For those worried about tying the elaborate "obi," or traditional kimono sash, Omori has a solution: the simplified “sash belt,” which can be paired with a cover-up cape or gown.

Omori made her name as a fashion stylist for pop-fashion magazine Olive, which was discontinued in 2003, and then went on to work on Kimono-Hime, a fashion publication by Shodensa. In 2008, she made waves in the world of kimono when she designed kimono for the television drama “Osen,” set in a traditional inn located in Tokyo’s Shitamachi. She dressed young lead actress Yu Aoi in antique kimonos, drawing rave reviews.

Omori’s kimono rules are simple.

“Don’t try dressing down and always make sure your kimono is ironed. As long as you stick to these basics, you can be pretty flexible and make up your own rules," she says. "Match your favorite items; feel free to follow your heart."

Takatoshi Yajima is the chairman of Yamato Co., the kimono manufacturer collaborating with Omori on Double Maison.

"In prewar times, there was more freedom in the way kimonos were worn,” he says.

According to Yajima, it was the kimono industry that pushed for more expensive and formal kimono, as a means of survival in post-war Japan, when they were competing against the influx of Western fashion.

Now, Yajima says, Yamato is on a mission to “break down old conventions with the help of Ms. Omori’s special ‘girl power.’ ”

Prices in the Double Maison line run about 30,000 ($383) yen for a yukata and 50,000 to 100,000 yen for kimono.

Hiroko Takahashi, 34, an artist whose work ranges from building interiors and exteriors to textile design, takes a slightly different approach. For her kimono, Takahashi likes to use white and black, geometric patterns based on circles and straight lines, creating a tight, clean and modern feel.

For her “HIROKOLEDGE” project, she collaborates with artisans across the country to produce kimono in winter and lightweight yukata in the summer. Her yukata feature small, repeating patterns dyed in the traditional way, and large-pattern designs across the shoulders and arms, which are dyed with an ink-jet system. The summer kimono are tailor-made. She meets customers at her studio in Taito Ward, Tokyo, for measurements, and the yukata are finished by craftsmen.

She doesn’t mind the time and effort that goes into the craft. For Takahashi the project is part of her artistic struggle to "be free of fixed conceptions for the betterment of the world."

"The goal is not to sell in bulk," she says. "I want to talk to each customer before making a sale and answer their questions. 'How did the kimono, which used to be an everyday garment, become a special-occasion item? What’s the difference between male and female patterns?' I want people to be curious and use their imagination.”

Initially, Takahashi planned to become a fashion designer. But while she was studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts, she became drawn to kimonos, especially the practical way the kimono is structured, how it doesn't waste any fabric.

In the world of Japanese kimono, with its focus on traditional patterns, Takahashi continues to break new ground with her beautiful yet exciting new patterns.

This year, Takahashi is lending a hand to the “Light Up Nippon” fireworks project, which will host fireworks performances on Aug. 11 along the Pacific coast in the Tohoku region, in support of the earthquake and tsunami victims. For each yukata purchased (52,500 yen), 10,000 yen will be donated for a firework designed by Takahashi.

Despite their jaw-dropping beauty, there is no denying that donning a kimono is a long, complex process governed by an intricate set of rules and etiquette. For novices daunted by the prospect diving into the deep end of traditional wear, the comparatively simple yukata is proving a popular alternative, especially during Japan's season of fireworks festivals.

At the Matsuya Ginza department store, located in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district, yukata sales are up 25 percent over the previous year.

“Last year, in the aftermath of the earthquake disaster, a lot of fireworks displays were cancelled. A lot of people may be looking forward to wearing a yukata this summer,” an official with the store said.

According to department stores in the area, this year’s yukata trend is a white or light-colored background with traditional patterns. Matsuya says that this look gives a casual impression, choosing quality textured material can create a cool, sophisticated look.

At the Printemps Ginza department store, the seasonal “Yukata Boutique” is now open with some 500 yukata in stock. The trend is to keep the look simple, maybe adding an "obijime," a thin, decorative rope worn over the obi, for flair. Traditional motifs such as dragonflies or hollyhock leaves and linen obi sashes are in. The prices range from 10,000 yen to 40,000 yen for a yukata, and 5,000 yen to 15,000 yen for the sash.

* * *

Information:

Double Maison

For information and outlets visit the official website at http://www.doublemaison.com.

HIROKOLEDGE

For information visit the official website at http://takahashihiroko.com/.

By MIKAKO ABE/ Staff Writer
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Yuko Omori shows off a white linen lace kimono from her Double Maison line. (Ken Aso)

Yuko Omori shows off a white linen lace kimono from her Double Maison line. (Ken Aso)

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  • Yuko Omori shows off a white linen lace kimono from her Double Maison line. (Ken Aso)
  • A Gingham check kimono by Double Maison pairs traditional design with a non-traditional motif. (Provided by Double Maison)
  • Hiroko Takahashi's yukata feature bold, geometric-inspired designs. (Provided by HIROKOLEDGE)
  • A portion of sales from yukata in the HIROKOLODGE line will be donated to the Light Up Nippon fireworks project. (Provided by HIROKOLEDGE)
  • Yukatas with white or light color backgrounds are popular this season at the Matsuya Ginza department store. (Mikako Abe)

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