The word ‘kimono’ originally meant ‘something to wear.’ But today, it immediately conjures images of the famous Japanese garment, an icon of Asian fashion and a symbol of Japan, with an enduring appeal the world over.
The kimono as we know it dates back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1192) and came into its own during the Edo period between 1603 and 1868. With many samurai to dress, kimono makers improved their craft to such an extent that it became an art form. As kimonos became more valuable and more collectable as pieces of art and not simply as apparel, families preserved them as heirlooms to hand down to future generations.
That’s not to say that an appreciation of the kimono today has to be all about historical artefacts. Today, the kimono is back in vogue.
The comeback kit
This was evident on the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, where the garment made a comeback on the glamorous event’s famous red carpet, around the same time as a runway show for Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 2018 collection took place in a museum in Kyoto, the home of the kimono.
Wandering around the former Japanese capital’s romantic wooden lanes today, like the one where Louis Vuitton showed accessories decorated in Kabuki theatre masks, visitors can see real-life geishas wearing kimonos.
“The beauty of the kimono has fascinated people in the United States and Europe, since it was introduced to the West at the time of the Japonism movement during the late 19th Century,” says leading Japanese fashion curator Akiko Fukai. Her previous exhibitions, which have toured the globe, include the landmark show Future Beauty, that launched at London’s Barbican, and looked at the influence of avant-garde Japanese designers, like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo.
Fukai is best known for running, for several decades, the Kyoto Costume Institute, Japan’s leading fashion museum. KCI is dedicated to western fashion, reflecting a trend towards wearing western, rather than traditional Japanese clothing, that emerged in Japan after WWII. But Ms Akiko has worked tirelessly to make a connection between the two sartorial worlds.
Her gaze rests currently on the trend towards updating the classic kimono. This traditional dress is having a modern-day makeover from multiple parties, both at home and overseas.
A lasting fascination
The most notable surge of interest in kimono-style fashion in recent history, was during the 1920s, when designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Vionnet brought the draping lines of this style into contemporary fashion. As they did then, the luxurious and flowing lines of the kimono are identifiable on today’s catwalks, as well as on the high street.
“What is really interesting is foreign designers seeing or re-imagining the kimono, or Japanese kimono textile, with fresh eyes,” says the curator. “It is not new,” she says. “It could often be seen in 1920s Paris fashion, with designers like Vionnet, Paul Poiret, Chanel, Molyneux and many others. But recently, I have seen its influence more than before.”
Examples include the use of traditional woven textiles, used to make the Obi, or the belt that holds a kimono in place, for a recent shoe collection by Christian Louboutin.
“Louboutin was inspired by the kosode, a typical kimono from the 19th Century,” says Rie Nii, curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute. “It was a typical kimono/kosode for Bushi and Samuri women of the era,” she adds.
Designer Bertrand Guyon created a kimono for the Schiaparelli haute-couture spring/summer 2017 season. The piece was made from a flower-petal moulded silk organza gauze, embellished with striped silk twill. Elsa Schiaparelli, the house’s founder, often wore kimonos at home.
Other overseas designers looking to Japan, according to Ms Rie, include Iris Van Herpen, who looked to Japan as inspiration for her autumn/winter 2016 collection. Of particular note was a tie-dye dress that was influenced by the Japanese tie-dye art of Shibori. It was shown inside a Paris church.
A number of recent runway collections from Western designers have also celebrated the kimono. These include the Japanese designer Mihara Yasuhiro’s spring/summer 2018 show. The menswear designer, who has been a frequent collaborator with Hosoo, designed patchwork kimonos for spring/summer 2018. British brand Marchesa drew on the kimono using obi-style sashes and kimono sleeves, also for sspring/summer 2018, while Visvim reimagined World War Two jackets as kimonos.
“Many designers all over the world are looking at the kimono textile, at its technique and design, which is reflected in their designs,” Akiko says.
While recent exhibitions like Kimono: A Modern History, 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have taken a fresh look at the classic clothing, in the New Year, Akiko is planning an exhibition that will explore the relationship between the kimono and fashion.
“The exhibition will consider the stimulus that the kimono has provided to the world of fashion and the creators that belong to it since the late 19th Century,” she says.
There are plenty of designers to choose from who have adapted the apparel, from Vionnet to young French designers like A.guery who has created interesting interpretations of Japanese design, or the Wasoukan shop in London’s Notting Hill, where the in-house designer Noriyuki Ikeda has worked to make the garmentpopular with Londoners. Yohji Yamamoto has also worked with Chiso to develop textiles, while British label Holland Street has adapted the shape to be worn as loungewear.
“With increasing globalisation, changes are taking place in the way that traditional culture is perceived,” Akiko adds. “One example is this growing interest in the Japanese kimono.”
“Decoration, including gorgeous textiles, is now one of the main themes of fashion, therefore the Kimono’s decorative and rich fabrics are very much in focus,” she says. And her favourite kimono interpretation? “Louboutin’s Obi shoes,” she says