Designer Yumi Katsura Creates $8 Million Wedding Dresses—and Even Dressed the Pope

Courtesy Yumi Katsura

At 87 years old, Japanese designer Yumi Katsura presents some of the most enthralling designs at Paris Couture Week twice a year.

She’s been creating some of the world’s most elevated (and expensive) wedding dresses for over five decades, and continues to present her museum-worthy gowns—think: decadent, vibrant orange kimono style robes with 20-plus-foot-long trains and ball gowns printed with intricate images of Mt. Fuji—twice a year in Paris, in July and January.

It all started in 1964, when Katsura decided to launch bridalwear in her native Tokyo. As a student at the Kyoritsu Women's University in Tokyo and the infamous Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de La Couture Parisienne in Paris, she always had an interest in bridalwear. “The first reason I worked on bridal fashion was that all the brides in Japan were unable to find beautiful wedding dress,” explains Katsura, from Tokyo. On January 1st, 1964, she opened her own bridal salon and marketed it using the word, “bridal” rather than “wedding,” which hadn’t previously been done in Japan. “At that time, wedding attire was still very much limited to kimonos. It made me curious and after checking, I came to know that only about three percent of couples who had wedding ceremonies wore Western-style wedding dresses at the time. Given that 97 percent of the people were not going for Western weddings, there was no room for business of the kind. But I kept thinking about those three percent—how were they managing? I felt that someone had to open a business and help this small minority,” she says.

Courtesy Yumi Katsura

When the legendary designer Pierre Balmain visited her Paris studio shortly after she opened, “He said, ‘Oh, my God, I am very, very jealous of you because you are working in weddings, in a person’s happiest moment,’ so I decided to proceed as a wedding dress designer and proud of it,” explains Katsura. Since then, according to the designer, over 700,000 brides have worn a Yumi Katsura dress down the aisle.

One of the most memorable wedding dresses she ever created, was valued at one billion Japanese yen (US $8.5 million) when she designed it in 2006. Made of silk-satin and embellished with zari-embroidery handiwork, the dress was covered in 1,000 pearls, an 8.8-carat diamond emblem, and a stunning 5-carat white gold diamond. “The four seasons of Japan give me the inspiration for my designs,” says Katsura. “It’s the colors and the patterns and the beauty and change of each season.” Some of her other most extravagant haute couture pieces include a dress from the 2010 Paris couture collection made of a half million pieces of sea bream’s scales (“Sea bream is believed to be a fish that brings good luck in Japan,” says Katsura), a gown from the 2012 Tokyo couture show, which had guipure lace embellished with 13,262 pieces of Mikimoto pearls, and a dress from the 2015 Tokyo collection that had 435,000 pieces of luminous beads attached, which shined like a rainbow when flashed with a black light.

Courtesy Yumi Katsura

However, dressing the pope may have been the proudest moment in her longstanding career. Always interested in opulent design, Katsura contacted the Vatican’s office to offer to make Pope John Paul II a vestment. “Having heard of the Pope’s aversion wearing heavy garments, I was at a loss at first because my original intention was to create a vestment made of thick gold textile,” she says. “Instead, I decided to use a gold jacquard, which would generate the same kind of effect but not weigh the body down, and Hakata-ori weaving, a traditional fabric renowned in Japan for its thin and lightweight splendor. Myself and craftsmen of Hakata-ori developed a special material with pure gold leaf in the weave and a motif of pansies, the national flower of Poland, the Pope’s homeland. “ The entire process took two years to complete. Three months after receiving the garment, he wore the vestment to Easter mass in 1993, broadcast worldwide. “This is the only religious vestment I have ever made, I do recall clearly the words the pope said to me after he saw the design, and they were simply, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it’ and that is the joy of my life,” she says.

Katsura, currently preparing for her latest couture show in Paris next month, is now looking for the next way to create groundbreaking couture fashion. One of her last remaining goals is to create a couture design that utilizes AI technology. If last season was any indication, with its Nishijin Ori weaving and traditional Yuzen silk dyeing techniques, she’ll continue to be the master of colors, patterns, and pieces that are full of references to her Japanese culture and traditional elements of the kimono.