The kimono has always been an object of fascination. Even in Japan, where it is considered an intangible cultural treasure, designers can’t help but put their hands on it to reinvent it and challenge traditional perception.
Yoshiki Hayashi, an influential composer and musician-turned-designer, did just that during the latest week of runway shows in Tokyo. As of today, the best-selling artist – who prominently runs the Japanese visual kei rock band X Japan as a pianist, drummer, and main songwriter – is not only famous in Japan and abroad for his musical talent, but has also recently made a name for himself by rejuvenating the traditional kimono cuts and patterns.
Based between Tokyo and Los Angeles, Yoshiki has put his very own spin on the Japanese garment and mingles his influences from both the Far East and the West. His recent runway show unveiled eye-popping numbers with bold comic-book prints, glamorous fabric treatments including lavish sequin embellishments, and a deconstructed approach to the pattern itself, which led many models to wear the traditional Yukata (woman’s kimono) wrapped and knotted around the body like a sensual cocktail dress.
“I aim to show to the youth in Japan, but also to the youth in the rest of the world, that our traditional Japanese kimono can still be a desirable and fashion-forward piece of clothing,” Yoshiki stated after his show. The rockstar-turned-designer has been naturally drawn to the kimono from an early age, having grown up with a father that owned a kimono trade in Tokyo. “Whether it’s making music or designing kimonos, it’s the same to me, really,” he continued. “I see both as my personal take on contemporary expression.”
In fact, in recent years, the kimono has come back to the forefront not only in Japan but also around the world as an elegant garment that can also be worn in everyday life, not just for traditional purposes. And the fact that a rockstar like Yoshiki celebrates the kimono on Tokyo’s runways, or that an institution like the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo will provide each of the 196 countries of the world with a traditional Japanese kimono to represent them, only emphasizes the importance of the kimono’s renewed place under the sun.
When it comes to Western fashion, the industry’s top designers have put their very own spin on the kimono – and judging by many fashion collections from these past decades, the kimono has served as a constant source of inspiration for many non-Japanese designers. Runway pieces by John Galliano (both for Maison Christian Dior and for Maison Margiela), Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thom Browne, as well as costumes from the Oscar-winning film Memoirs of a Geisha have caused much ink to flow – and also some controversies, when it comes to what we call “cultural appropriation.”
“Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk,” an exhibit which opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on February 29th, 2020, tackles precisely that and aims to challenge the widely accepted perception in which fashion designs born in the industry’s main capitals (Paris, Milan, London, New York) have been considered as a global measurement for luxury and style, while traditional and contemporary fashion from non-western designers are often still regarded as “exotic.” This renewed discourse around the kimono just once again proves its cultural relevance – in fact, very few traditional clothes have played such an important role in fashion as the kimono. However, despite the international interest, Japanese kimono manufacturers seem worried, even if they keep up a good front.
“The kimono is still very much respected in Japan and abroad. However, we find it increasingly difficult to capture the interest of the younger generation,” Japanese kimono manufacturer Kago Kano explained while providing NOWFASHION with a guided tour through his atelier in Kyoto. “Our challenge today is twofold: we need to make the kimono relevant to a younger generation, both to ensure that the craftsmanship itself doesn’t die out and to make sure that Japan’s youth continue the conversation around the kimono,” he added, noting that today the kimono is often reduced solely to formal occasions such as weddings, the celebration of reaching majority, or the traditional tea ceremony.
Kago Kano runs his own namesake kimono manufacturing company in Kyoto, following in the footsteps of a long family tradition of Kimono masters. Kano has maintained a fascination with the heritage of the Japanese kimono having grown up surrounded by craftsmen – his grandfather and father included – from whom he learned the art of kimono making, which includes several elaborate steps, such as natural dyeing, silk-weaving, and sewing techniques. Ever since Yoshiki launched his eponymous brand three years ago, Kago Kano has been working with the rockstar to make sure that traditional kimono-making is still accessible to a younger generation.
“What you can see here (editor’s note: the dyeing process in the atelier) is something that our youth only rarely comes to see, which is why it is so important for us kimono manufacturers to have someone to speak to the younger generation. Someone who will make the kimono relevant again.” This “someone” being Yoshiki himself. And indeed, Yoshiki’s success and impact on Japanese pop-culture are valuable sales and communication assets when it comes to reinitiating the millennials’ interest in traditional Japanese garments.
“The next step, once we have the interest from the younger generation, is to not only make them want to buy a kimono, but also to keep the craftsmanship alive,” Kago Kano added, noting that a more consistent collaboration between Kyoto’s traditional manufacturers and Tokyo’s design schools could help to boost the youth’s interest in traditional craftsmanship. Yoshiki, for his part, is equally optimistic regarding the kimono’s present and future potential. “I brought rock music to Japan at a time (editor’s note: the 1980s) where it was not accepted by society. And today, I want to do the same as a fashion designer: I want to push the boundaries of our traditional kimono designs and show them to the world.”