In Japan, kimonos are anything but a thing of the past.
By Manami Okazaki
Kimonos are the national dress of Japan and are known for being traditional, extravagant, and emblematic of Japanese culture. However, while researching my latest book, Kimono Now, I found that the kimono industry is also incredibly multifaceted. Rather than being solely about traditional costumes imbued with symbolic significance, the world of kimonos is dynamic, open to interpretation, and diverse. From the classic to the outlandish, here are nine designers I met who are ensuring that kimonos remain relevant to a new generation of enthusiasts.
This Kyoto company gives the familiar kimono format a contemporary twist by using shuttle-loomed denim from the Okayama region of southwestern Honshu. The looms were imported from the United States starting in the 1960s after they were replaced in American factories by faster and more efficient projectile looms. Despite being difficult to maintain and unsuitable for mass production, the shuttle looms turn out durable, top-quality selvedge denim. And it’s this that makes Denim Dosu’s chic, streety kimonos stand out. These have proven to be especially popular among young Japanese men, as they can be machine-washed and are easily paired with sneakers and hats.
Kyo-bingata kimonos are the specialty at this small atelier in northern Kyoto. They are gorgeous—laboriously hand-dyed with stencils in vivid hues and bold motifs. Each stencil is made of paper soaked in persimmon juice and is hand-cut by a master artisan. Even though the method of production is true to tradition, the garments are given a contemporary feel by utilizing colors such as a bright aqua.
A third-generation kimono designer, Jotaro Saito courts a young, progressive audience with dramatic themes like Gothic Camelia; celebrities such as visual-kei (glam rock) singer Gackt and enka singer Jero have donned Saito kimonos for their performances. He also experiments with unusual fabrics such as jersey and motifs like stars and roses. His is the only kimono brand to have taken part in Tokyo Fashion Week, with theatrical catwalk shows set to traditional music.
Angel Takuya is one of the best-known designers to come out of Tokyo’s Harajuku district, an area known for its flamboyant and individualistic street fashion. He uses kimono fabric that he finds at vintage sales to make incredible fluoro-colored ensembles lined with fake fur and PVC. His eclectic influences range from Sengoku-era warrior outfits to anime and have a decidedly cyber-punk aesthetic.
Maiwai-style kimonos are colorful, bold coats that were traditionally given to fishermen when there was a good catch. The custom is said to have started in Chiba prefecture during the Edo period (1603–1868) before spreading along the Pacific coastline. Yukihiro Suzuki is a third-generation maiwai maker, and his magnificent coats use motifs that are usually ocean related. His studio, Suzusen, is east of Tokyo on the Chiba coast, where Suzuki and his son work side-by-side to handcraft the textiles. While not commonly worn, the garments make for fantastic wall hangings.
One of the most exclusive kimono houses in Japan, Chiso is also among the oldest—the company was founded in Kyoto in 1555. Its silk kimonos are of the highest quality, utilizing highly skilled artisans who work for several months on a single item. The resulting kimonos display incredible attention to detail, and many also feature embroidered patterns to add volume to the finished product. Magnificent both as worn fabrics and items to hang and display in the home, these pieces embody the pinnacle of Japanese textile production.
Rumix Design Studio
This yukata (light summer kimono) studio based in downtown Tokyo is known for its rock ’n’ roll sensibility. The brand’s designer, Rumi Shibasaki, adorns her new-wave, top-quality yukatas with motifs inspired by a range of sources, including Alfred Hitchcock films and Yukio Mishima novels. Her credentials also include design commissions from international fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Michel Klein.
Specializing in Edo komon kimonos, this shop in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi neighborhood has a chic, accessible atmosphere. Edo komon is a dyeing method that uses motifs so minute that they are only visible when viewed up close. The process has its roots in the Edo period, when sumptuary laws prohibited extravagant fashion, hence people would show their individuality in subtle and playful ways. Ichiru’s in-house artisan gives visitors the chance to watch the dyeing process first hand (no website; look for the shop at Nihonbashi Horidome-cho 2-1-11).
When sales began to slump in the 1990s, Kazuaki Kameda decided to diversify the kimono company founded by his grandfather in Kyoto. He experimented initially with silk Hawaiian shirts—some of which incorporate motifs from kabuki theater—and when those sold well, he moved on to other clothing items, all made using the yuzen dyeing technique. The colors are incredibly vivid, and the brand is much loved by Kyotoites and visiting fashionistas; Yoko Ono was among Pagong’s earliest admirers.
For more insights into the evolution of Japan’s national dress, look for Manami Okazaki’s Kimono Now (Prestel; US$40), which explores both the evolution of this traditional garment and its current revival as a fashion statement.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Robe Nation”)