Fight to keep kimono alive

Japan's iconic robe is being reinvented for an increasingly westernised millennial market

It is an uncomfortable truth but one which Japanese fashion designer Tomihiro Kameda has accepted — the kimono is dying. 

A cultural icon of Japan, this elegant robe has been worn by Japanese men and women for more than 1,300 years. It has long been admired by foreigners and is one of the most common souvenirs purchased by international tourists.

But the Japanese people themselves are falling out of love with it. It has lost its cache with younger generations as Western trends have influenced Japanese fashion tastes. This is a significant issue in a country which for so long has pushed back against outside forces. 

Japan only opened itself up to the world in the mid-1800s and since then has gone to great efforts to safeguard its cultural heritage. But where once the kimono was widely worn by people from every age group and strata of society, nowadays it is reserved mainly for ceremonial occasions. Young Japanese people prefer more casual Western-style clothes.

I travelled to Kyoto, long a hub of kimono design and production, to find out how kimono businesses were adapting to this altered landscape. Mr Kameda invited me into the Kyoto showroom and factory of his family’s fashion label, Pagong. When I ask him how he feels about the gradual downfall of the kimono, he takes a long pause. Expressing the most mixed of emotions, he says it simultaneously saddens and excites him. As the director of Pagong, the young man feels the weight of 100 years on his shoulders. 

This year marks the centenary of the formation of Kamedatomi, his family’s company, which for many decades was at the forefront of Kyoto’s kimono industry.

Kamedatomi, for more than 80 years, was a leading producer of traditional kimono fabric, supplying many of the city’s top designers. Honouring tradition, they used the historic yuzen dyeing process, which involves creating patterns by hand and then stencilling these original designs on to the fabric. But this is a shrinking business, with more than 70 per cent of Japanese cloth weaving and dyeing companies going out of business in the past 30 years, according to Mr Kameda.

His family were fortunate that they spotted this writing on the wall. In 2002, Kamedatomi company stopped producing kimono fabric and began creating Western-style clothing. To stay afloat, many other kimono companies have had to abandon traditional style roles in favour of more modern, unique kimonos which appeal to millennials.

The team at Pagong don’t make kimonos at all. But they haven’t abandoned their heritage entirely.

Instead, they have dug into their enormous collection of kimono fabric patterns, built up over a century, and used those traditional motifs to decorate their new casual clothing. The inspiration for this pivot in the company’s approach was entirely accidental. 

Almost 20 years ago, at a public event, Mr Kameda’s father wore a regular Western-style button-up shirt. What made it different was its eye-catching design, a colourful mix of circles and ocean waves. 

He was inundated with compliments for his garment, which was very unusual by Japanese standards of dress at the time, and got the idea to move the company in a new direction.

Pagong’s trademark product became a Japanese version of the Hawaiian shirt, with their traditional kimono patterns emblazoned across these garments.

They’ve also branched into other styles of women’s and men’s clothes. Mr Kameda is wearing one such brash creation when he greets me on the street outside Pagong’s big headquarters.

It is a mix between a bomber jacket, made popular by European air forces in the 1950s, and the American letterman jacket, worn by high school and college athletes in the US. What makes it uniquely Japanese, and distinctively a Pagong garment, is its traditional floral kimono pattern. 

This piece of clothing represents the synthesis of Japanese and Western fashion his father envisaged.

“It is modern but we also have old Japanese style in it, too,” Mr Kameda says, looking at his jacket. “This is the best way for our company to keep our old style alive”.

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