It’s a summer afternoon at the Kyoto train station. Two Japanese women in their 60s step onto a futuristic bullet train in traditional silk kimonos, gets sandals, and split-toe tabi socks. Two Japanese women in their 20s notice.
Suki, a fashion publicist, loves wearing her kimono on special occasions. She has one given to her by her grandmother and wears it to weddings. “It’s uplifting,” she says. Haru, her friend and coworker, has worn one only once. She says putting on a kimono is akin to donning a bustle and corset. “You can’t even put it on by yourself,” she says. “It’s so restricting.” As they’re talking, a group of Americans walk by in brightly colored, polyester-looking kimonos, accessorized with cherry-blossom paper parasols and Nikes. “I don’t even know how to put one on,” Haru continues. “I never took a kimono class.” That 45-second exchange sums up the state of Japan’s kimono industry.
The word kimono simply means “a thing to wear.” But beginning in 1615, during the Edo period, the silk garment became a form of opulent dress to signify one’s societal status. In the late 1800s, Japan’s ports opened to the West—and to Western clothing. The emperor decreed that civil servants and schoolboys had to dress in the Western style. The meaning of kimono changed, referring specifically to the genderless, T-shaped, wraparound garment fastened with an obi. The kimono began its decline.
From 1980 to 2015, the industry shrank from around $20 billion a year in sales to $3 billion. There are fewer customers and fewer suppliers. Artisans who hand-paint the textiles are aging, and as with haute couture technicians in Paris, few young people are taking their place. The industry isn’t quite flatlining, but the pulse is slowing. Says Vogue Japan fashion director Gene Krell: “The kimono represents all that is pure and magical in the nation. Never has a garment been so intertwined with a country’s culture. The kimono is Japan’s heartbeat.”
Today, young Japanese designers are championing the garment. Jotaro Saito and Hiromi Asai show kimonos on the runway, offering them in washable denim and, in Asai’s case, using both the fabrication and the T shape to create fashionable incarnations. Asai first wore a kimono when she was 33 days old. “It was for my first trip to a shrine,” she says. The designer, who shows her kimono-based women’s ready-to-wear at New York Fashion Week, has a simple conceit for her collection: “If kimono is accepted as fashion, many people in the world, men and women of all ages, will wear kimono for various occasions.”
Rie Nii, curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute, appreciates young designers wanting to save the kimono, but she sees the kimono, in some ways, as saving us. “Flexibility, gender neutrality, size-free, sustainability—the kimono is a piece of clothing which is able to present a few solutions to problems in the fashion world today.”
Where to Buy a Kimono in Kyoto
The Nishijin Textile Center (414 Tatemonzen-cho, Nishi-horikawa-dori, Moteseiganji-Agaru, Kamigyo-ku; nishijin.or.jp) offers simple cotton yukata robes ($60) and custom silk kimonos that take 30 days to be made. Prices start at around $2,500 and can reach $9,950.