Kimono, a traditional Japanese garment worn by men and women alike, is the biggest and one of the more surprising fashion trends of 2014. Although Asian-inspired fashions have been seen on the runways for years, kimonos have not enjoyed the same level of popularity as, say, harem pants – perhaps because we’re not quite sure how to incorporate this centuries-old tradition into our modern wardrobes. Meanwhile, recycling vintage kimonos is a growing trend around the world; giving a second lease of life to the outstanding craftsmanship of Japanese dressmakers that could well be on its way to oblivion.
First, let me set the record straight: Japan is a huge gap in an otherwise extensive list of countries I had a chance to visit over the years. So I am far from being an expert in Japanese fashion or textile tradition. I remember admiring a calendar with beautiful kimonos a relative brought from Japan as a child. In my teenage years, I was heartbroken by Madame Butterfly’s fate. As a young adult, I was mesmerized by Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Still, Japan is as much of a mystery to me today as it must have been to the first Europeans who landed on the island’s shores back in the 16th century.
The one thing that I do know about kimonos is that they are a work of art. To start with, the Japanese silk-weaving technique known as ‘yuki-tsumugi’ has been included in the list of intangible cultural heritage and thus placed under UNESCO’s protection. And the symbolism that goes with each kimono is incredible – its colours, patterns, styles… It comes as no surprise that the natural world provides the richest source for kimono motifs.
Recently I met a Swiss-Japanese lady who imports recycled and redesigned kimonos to Europe. The main reason for this, she told me, is that fewer and fewer people them these days in Japan. The fabric that is used for obi – the wide sash used to tie the kimono – is particularly popular due to its durability and can be transformed into bags, clutches and even toys. For example, Moniko is a Malaysia-based company that produces unique clutches from authentic vintage japanese fabric that made the kimono – some of them 100 years old! Each clutch is handmade by social enterprises and NGO groups.
If you are after a real East-meets-West product, Zillion Caps collection of baseball caps from kimono fabrics will keep your head covered in style. Tokyo-based, French designer david guarino revives old traditions with a stylish contemporary twist, adapting traditional japanese kimono patterns to these urban caps. Each hat is handmade in Tokyo using vintage kimonos, each with its own story.
At the couture end of the spectrum, vintage kimonos were the inspiration for Beautiful Soul’s “Miss Butterfly” collection. The eco-luxury label’s kimono-inspired modern-looking pieces are consciously manufactured in London with a registered women’s project.
Another designer experimenting with traditional kimono fabrics is Zurich-based Kazu Huggler, who apprenticed with Vivienne Westwood after her studies in Central Saint Martins in London. Her collections embody Japanese aesthetics and Swiss quality, making her creations a wearable symbiosis of both cultures. Born in Tokyo to a Swiss father and a Japanese mother, the designer is also involved in promoting the art of dressmaking, and has donated sewing machines to high schools in the tsunami-hit areas of north-eastern Japan.
Exquisite and ethereal, inimitable and impractical, will kimonos join the vanishing world of geishas in 21-century Japan? Or can their timeless appeal and exceptional craftsmanship hold the secret to a modern revival?
Here, I couldn’t agree more with Chie Hayakawa, communications director at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, who told The Telegraph in 2010: “Kimonos are exquisitely beautiful, made from the finest silks in the world. These handcrafted fabrics should be more widely used internationally, with more collaborations with high profile fashion designers. There is so much potential.”
And that’s why I salute the fashion industry’s newfound fascination with Japan. If the hottest trend of 2014 can help revive a centuries-old tradition, the impact will be anything but transient.