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As the amount of traditional kimono producers – and wearers – wanes in Japan, there is a growing number of designers and artisans catering to a new generation of devotees. These people are the subject of Kimono Now, a study in the ancient techniques of this national costume and also a paean to the next wave of designers and artists.
Like many other forms of traditional dress, kimonos are both simple and complex; despite their uniform t-shape, kimonos lend themselves to a multitude of permutations, rituals and painstaking construction techniques. They act to both conceal and reveal the wearer and are open to as many different interpretations as there are people who want to play with them.
Some designers specialise in traditional pieces commissioned for Japanese royalty, taking a year to construct; others make trippy, casual yukata kimonos featuring enchanted mushroom forests and Japanese ghosts. As one designer profiled explains, “There is the world of formal kimonos and then there is the flipside…they are what is known as the iki, ‘cool’ culture – these dark motifs are like the B-side of a record.” Japanese club kids, antique kimono collectors, manga fans, Harajuku girls, princes and prostitutes are among the kimono wearers all paid homage to in this 105-page tome.
As a result, interview subjects range from Kyoto’s oldest kimono makers – including one company which has been in business for 460 years – to a downtown Tokyo studio creating work for clients including Uniqlo and Disney. Kimono Now is thankfully thick with the photography needed to celebrate such a visual art, which makes it easy to follow the tactile nature of the text. From descriptions of Shibori tie-dying, as documented in 8th-century poetry anthology the Manyoshu, to kimono fabrics – all silk-satin damask, and “chirimen, a crêpe weave with a wrinkled texture,” the techniques and inks, threads and ties involved make for a sensory, evocative read.
Kimono Now is a book to sink into for designers, artists, Japanophiles or anyone simply interested in a dying art. There is something inspirational in its documentation of an archaic tradition which is also demonstrating its capacity for reinvention. As author Manami Okazaki puts it, “While the kimono industry is struggling, times of adversity can create brilliance. There is a frenetic energy in the industry, and the determination of the people in the scene is exhilarating.” Warning: it may also make you want to hop on the next available flight to Kyoto.
Words by Olivia Gagan
Images by © Sebastien Lebegue / Prestel
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