Firms push ‘digital’ kimono to stay alive, in step


A few years ago, illustrator Yuko Iwakuma asked an acquaintance, an executive at kimono wholesaler Miyazaki Orimono Co., to come up with an inexpensive line of the traditional garb featuring simple Western-style patterns.

The Kyoto-based firm’s solution: custom-made “digital kimono,” whose patterns are designed using a personal computer and dyed onto the silk by ink-jet printer.

Last December, after spending three years developing the unconventional process, Miyazaki Orimono began selling digitally created kimono over the Internet. Then in late July, it opened an outlet called Okinu-ya-san in Minato Ward, Tokyo, to showcase its products.

One of its custom-made digitally printed kimono costs about 63,000 yen, less than one-third of the average price for a traditionally hand-dyed casual kimono.

Miyazaki Orimono is not alone in adopting the ink-jet approach. In the past decade, several other kimono makers have resorted to this method, which has been used by apparel makers to print patterns on cloth samples. Not only can kimono makers offer lower prices, but there is a shortage of traditional hand-dyers.

Traditionally, kimono are designed by expert pattern artists. Dye experts transfer the pattern onto the silk by using paper stencils unique to each pattern. The process is costly and time-consuming, especially if intricate, multicolored patterns are involved.

“I was looking for kimono and obi with patterns that are not much different from those in Western-style clothing,” said Iwakuma, who now serves as director of Okinu-ya-san and designs kimono patterns on her Macintosh computer.

Patterns she has designed include playing-card kings and queens, apples and roses for kimono and a cityscape for obi. Traditional kimono patterns often sport flamboyant images of flowers and birds.

“I was so excited when I wore an obi with a keyboard and musical note pattern when I went to my friend’s music performance,” Iwakuma said.

Tokyo-based kimono retailer Kururi Inc. started marketing its own digitally designed outfits in April at one of its three shops in Shibuya Ward, with prices starting at about 39,000 yen.

Kururi President Izuru Miura said the digital method enables the firm to produce custom-made kimono with unique patterns at low cost.

“Kimono dye houses usually accept orders to dye one pattern onto 10 rolls of cloth, but refuse to dye onto just one roll,” he said. “If we made 10 kimono with the same pattern, sometimes it would be difficult to sell them all.”

By using the digital method, the firm can produce as little as one kimono with a specific pattern. This gives the product added value and helps the company reduce inventory costs, Miura said.

In addition, with less labor costs, the firm can offer low prices for custom-made garments, Miura said, noting that the firm’s system of manufacturing and selling directly to customers helps lower retail prices.

The conventional kimono distribution system with several wholesale layers is a major reason traditional kimono have remained so expensive.

Both Miyazaki Orimono and Kururi said however that making digital kimono is no easy task.

Kururi’s Miura admitted his firm is still in the trial and error stage in terms of ink-jet printing on cloth.

“When we dye kimono cloth with our ink-jet printer, five out of 10 attempts fail,” he said, noting the finish can differ depending on the temperature, and the cloth sometimes gets twisted when it goes through the printer.

Iwakuma said Miyazaki Orimono took three years to find a suitable ink-jet printer for the silk it uses and to gain the experience to successfully produce digital kimono.

Although several kimono makers now use the digital printing method, some do not publicize this fact, fearing they would be pressured to reduce prices, according to industry experts.

Shoichi Takahashi, an industry analyst at Yano Intelligence Ltd., said some kimono manufacturers have no choice but to opt for the digital printing method due to the shortage of dye experts.

“The kimono market is shrinking and the number of dye experts is decreasing. Kimono makers thus have no choice but to take advantage of ink-jet printing, which can reduce costs,” he said.

According to the think tank, the domestic market, not including used kimono, shrank to 590 billion yen in fiscal 2003 from 787.7 billion yen in fiscal 1999. There is still a market, however, as many Japanese females are attracted to used and “yukata” summer kimono.

To revive overall sales, however, the industry must streamline its notoriously cumbersome distribution system, said Yoshitaka Kitao, a director at Kyoto Municipal Industrial Research Institute Textile Technology Center.

“I think people would buy digital kimono for casual occasions and hand-dyed kimono for formal ones,” he said. “I hope the spread of low-cost digital kimono pushes the industry to make more efforts to change the distribution system and lower retail prices.”