Kimonos—fabric and dress—are evocative of a romantic Japan. For some, they speak of the feudal past, for others, the tradition today. A kimono is steep in ritual, beauty and art, yet few of us are aware of the kimono in the shadows—a dress unworn due to tarnish and tear, relegated to storage unseen by light. A geisha can live forever in the okiya, but even with age she need not be hidden. A kimono, however, when no longer perfectly resplendent is folded and denied its full splendour, confined in a closet or chest, threatened with disposal or destruction as space for unworn clothes is rarely expandable.
Such is the fate of the kimono in much of Japan today. A kimono is to be worn, but wearing a well-worn piece is not the thing to do. Like all clothes, a kimono is susceptible to the rigours of use, yet no matter how unnoticeable the signs of wear, a blemished kimono’s fate is set: it will not be worn. Bereft of a wearer, the kimono often sits languishing among the unworn or the unwearable. The tragic end is almost certain unless there is someone to salvage it. Fortunately for some of the condemned kimonos, there is Noriko Collins.
Ms Collins, a Japanese married to a New Zealander, and living in Singapore, is a rescuer committed to liberating many kimonos from certain doom. As she told it, “I was stricken by the tragedy of all these beautiful kimonos collecting dust in warehouses. I couldn’t bear the thought of them being tossed away like worthless trash. I had to do something.” That something is to revive the kimonos by bringing the garments outside the country that accepts their sad destiny to a place that might see these barely scratched and stained clothes as something that can be re-purposed. That place is our little island.
“I was pregnant with this project for three years,” Ms Collins revealed, unable to contain her excitement that what she had in mind has finally culminated into the Kimono Kollab, an initiative that pairs the kimonos with Singapore designers keen on working with these robes. The result can be seen from tomorrow in a pop-up store erected in Takashimaya Department Store, which adopted Kimono Kollab as part of their 21st Anniversary in Singapore celebrations.
What will be seen—one-offs that cover a gamut of product categories and styles—belie the amount of kimonos that made their way here. In June, more than 100 kilos of vintage kimonos and obis were flown in from Osaka, where, through a friend, Yumiko Teraoka, a dealer and collector of “high-end vintage kimonos”, Ms Collins was able to acquire her bounty. Although what she eventually got are “castoffs”, they do not reveal their imperfections until upon very close inspection. “In the old days,” Ms Collins elaborated, “kimonos were worn every day, so some stains were inevitable. But nowadays, the kimono is worn only on special occasions, so a blot or a tear is not good.” In fact, all the kimonos that arrived were so intrinsically beautiful that any blotch, if immediately visible, seemed insignificant: a reminder of human use and living culture than smeared artistry.
In the hands of the selected Singapore designers—presently, nine of them—the outcome were, as expected, different, yet two broad groups can be discerned. There are the clothes that showed tremendous restraint and respect for the kimono, allowing the textile to regain its undiminished glory, and there are those that leaned on an anything-goes starting point. The designers were not restricted in what they could do, and this freedom yielded a motley selection of styles and, regrettably, finishes. A thing of beauty, such as the kimono, reborn does not necessarily beget its original loveliness.
The standouts are those by Thomas Wee and stylist/designer Vik Lim, as well as stylist/fashion all-rounder Lionnel Lim. Each of them took a measured approach to their designs, allowing the kimono’s inherent grace and exquisiteness to shine through, all the while shaping finished products that are in keeping with what is current and, more importantly, elegant. In a kimono, surface treatment of the garment is more important than the cut, and these designers have allowed it to shine through rather than limit its decorative function.
Thomas Wee, a master of the tailleur and the flou, constructed pieces that hark back to an era of time-consuming dressmaking. While his recent styles have moved away from the tailoring that characterised his designs, the pieces for Kimono Kollab have more than a whiff of the past Thomas Wee. This has to do with the in-built limitations of the kimono. As he explained to SOTD, “The kimonos come in such narrow panels (typically 14-inch wide). I cannot do sumptuous, loose cuts. I have to be very careful about the lines and seam joints. You work with the limitation of the fabric.” But limitation has never constricted Thomas Wee, and the results have the refinement and delicacy that are akin to the original kimonos. In a cropped, round-neck jacket (above), virtually no clues are present with regards to how narrow the panels of fabric the pattern had to be applied to. “The original kimono looked mumsy,” he pointed out, “but I was able to do a fully tailored jacket with it, including attractive placement of the flowers. The fabric was used up almost entirely (a pair of shorts goes with the jacket); there’s less than 18-inch remnant”.
The challenge that comes with working a fabric woven specifically for a traditional Japanese robe and not a Western dress is also what attracted Vik Lim to the project. “The entire kimono is made up of rectangles,” he explained to SOTD. “So you don’t have a length of your choice to work with. When I laid out the kimono for the first time, it was sacrilegious, I thought, to dissect it!” Yet, cut apart the kimonos he did, and what emerged are clothes in minimalist, modern shapes that wouldn’t be out of place in a wardrobe of similar staples. What is especially fascinating is how, despite the traditional prints, Vik Lim’s designs do not appear as pastiche from the past. “With traditional fabrics and motifs, I do the opposite: make the designs less traditional,” he elucidated. “But if the fabric is modern, I’d make the designs more traditional.”
To Vik Lim, the kimono has the hallmarks of haute couture (or “Asian couture”). And it is not hard to see why such a conclusion can be drawn. The kimono has a rather prosaic meaning—“the thing worn”, yet it reflects Japan’s rich textile history more than the nation’s way of wearing (it). Silks, linens, and cottons are used in the making of kimonos, and regardless of the fabric, once they’re destined to be used for the robe, are woven for its specific use and, in some economically-advantaged circumstances, also for the wearer. The choice of yarn employed, how it’s dyed, as well as the weave influence the tactile quality, heaviness, and drape of the kimono. Kimonos also show uniquely Japanese textile techniques such as shibori (a way of tie-dyeing) and kasuri (a way of weaving). Embroidery, often designed in tandem with dyeing, is so sophisticated; embroiderers enjoy the same elevated status as painters and calligraphers. The adornments are crucial indicators of wealth and status of the wearer, and hence important elements in kimono design. Kimonos are sewn by hand (photo left) with silk threads, and while the straight seams may appear mechanical and merely practical, they do make complete sense for a garment that is essentially linear and, as Vik Lim rightly pointed out, quadrilateral. Hand sewing also allows the kimono to be taken apart since, in the old days, the kimono was rarely washed as a whole garment.
The kimono’s offering of multifarious traditions in a dress is compelling. It is, therefore, understandable why some of our designers are drawn to it. Throughout the history of modern fashion, the kimono has constantly enticed those mostly clad in Western dress to explore its sartorial potential in a modern-day urban setting sans a Nippon cityscape. Pop artistes have often lead the way: Madonna’s punk kimono in the video of Nothing Really Matters designed by Jean Paul Gaultier or Bjork’s Naboo-esque kimono on the album cover of Homogenic designed by Alexander McQueen (who also directed her in the music video of Alarm Call)—these have exploited the kimono’s lean silhouette and simple shapes to dazzling effects, debunking the belief that traditional designs should not be tampered with.
In tampering with the construction of the kimono, exploration is the prelude to deconstruction. And the potential of discovery and learning is extremely appealing to the designers. Said Vik Lim, “How many designers can truly have such a chance: to study the kimono inside out?” Lionnel Lim shares the same sentiment: “These are clothes that we rarely get to see so closely. No one goes to a geisha, for example, and ask, ‘May I see the inside of your kimono?’.”
Lionnel Lim’s reinterpretation of the kimono has a Harajuku-esque pop flavour, yet it respects the kimono’s simplicity and blockish form. In one blouse with contrast sleeves of vibrantly-coloured check (above), the kimono’s standard fold-over front is moved to the back, and cut away at the hemline to reveal a little skin—shifting cheekily downwards the Japanese woman’s preference of exposing the nape. Pleased with the result, he said, “I hate the idea of these gorgeous kimonos going to waste. I relish the chance to make a difference: call it recycle, call it re-engineer, I want my designs to showcase the original fabrics in something contemporary so that the kimonos can be given a new lease of life.”
Kimono Kollab The Pop-Up Store is at L2, Takashimaya Department Store from 3 to 12 October. Photos: Jim Sim