Sun, May 06, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Japanese kimono makers seek to revive declining industry with modern twist

By Natsuko Fukue  /  AFP, TOKYO

At a century-old workshop in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, craftsman Yuichi Hirose brushes dye across meticulously hand-cut stencils laid on fabric, using a traditional technique to produce contemporary kimono patterns.

Demand for the elaborate, elegant centerpiece of the Japanese wardrobe is in decline, but a handful of artisans and entrepreneurs, such as Hirose, 39, are trying to revive it.

“The kimono has become something that is very far removed from our daily lives,” said Hirose, who joined his family business after university.

He specializes in “Edo Komon” — a kimono pattern hand-dyed with a Japanese washi paper stencil, which dates back to the Edo period between the 17th and late 19th centuries.

It is a deeply traditional craft that requires great skill to master, “but we need to create something that is accepted in this modern time,” he said.

Hirose’s innovations include developing new designs to adorn the kimono, including tiny sharks or even skull motifs.

Once a standard of the Japanese wardrobe, the kimono is now often a garment reserved for special occasions, such as weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies, and is mostly worn by women.

They can be hugely expensive and women often hire experts to dress them because the outfit requires seemingly endless nipping, tucking and strapping.

The modern kimono industry peaked in 1975 with a market size of ¥1.8 trillion (US$17 billion), according to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

However, by 2008 it had shrunk to ¥406.5 billion and further to just ¥278.5 billion in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Yano Research Institute.

“There are many hurdles” to buying a kimono, said Takatoshi Yajima, vice chairman of the Japan kimono promotion association, and a kimono manufacturer.

“It’s expensive. It’s difficult to wear. It’s too delicate to wash at home,” he said. “We need to make kimonos that are affordable and wearable. If we do that, I believe more young consumers will buy kimonos.”

Yajima has nearly doubled his number of customers in the past 15 years by selling more kimonos under the ¥100,000 price tag, well below the many thousands of US dollars a high-end piece can cost.

“The industry will grow if we can create a market in which as many people as possible will buy a kimono,” he said.

A complete kimono outfit starts with an undergarment known as a nagajuban, over which the kimono is layered, held in place with a thick obi belt and string.

The outfit is completed with tabi, ankle-high white socks divided at the big toe to allow feet to slip into thick-soled sandals called zori.

However, beyond the basic framework, designer Jotaro Saito said there should be room for experimentation.

“What’s fabulous, what’s unfashionable and what’s cool change every year. It’s wrong that kimonos don’t change even if everything else is changing,” said the Kyoto-based designer, whose work has been worn by US singer Lady Gaga. “Kimonos are not something old. Wearing a kimono is the coolest and the most fun thing.”

At Tokyo fashion week in March, Saito, who calls himself “a risk taker,” showcased kimonos for men and women, mixing traditional and unconventional motifs and colors.

“I want to present kimonos as a wardrobe in which people can truly feel joy,” he said.

And while demand for kimonos is falling among Japanese, services renting the garments to foreign visitors are booming.

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