Opening the kimono to everyone

by Karen A. Foster

Maia Maniglier fell in love with kimono in 2001, when she was convinced to let a Tokyo kimono stylist dress her for a reception at the French Embassy. Kanji Nakashima impressed the skeptical French woman, who had lived in Japan since 1989, by dressing her both stylishly and comfortably.

“As a foreigner living here, there is always someone who wants to put a kimono on you, take pictures, etc., and I had never either felt nice or comfortable in it.”

But everything changed when she put on Nakashima’s kimono.

“I could walk, I could drink, I could enjoy myself. I wasn’t tired,” she said. “So I enjoyed wearing it and being seen wearing it. I felt beautiful,” she explained. “The Japanese women and men [at the reception] were so happy. It started all kinds of new contact and new conversations with people.”

The experience inspired Maniglier, now 39, to delve deeper into the world of kimono. Eventually, she became a passionate kimono advocate who is now pushing the boundaries of kimono design by meshing traditional garment-making with cutting-edge digital printing.

DIY design

She initially became involved in kimono design after complaining to friends about not being able to find a yukata print that she would like to wear. One friend asked why Maniglier, a businesswoman who runs a graphic-design firm, didn’t just print her own pattern.

Not only did she take up the idea, she turned it into a exhibition the following year, in 2003.

She asked digital artists Tatsuya Oka (her husband) and Hiroshi Goto to create the designs for the fabric, her network of printers to create the printed textiles and Nakashima to make the garments. Rumi Shibasaki, a yukata designer who was already using textiles printed with inkjets, joined the team as a consultant.

When the group first started working with inkjets, digital printing on fabric was still in its infancy. The artists had few colors to work with, color gradation was poor, it was difficult to find silky or comfortable fabric that held the ink, and the end result was an undesirable matte look.

Because it was new territory, she also had to convince the printers to work as the artists did: repeating the process until they got the ink and textile combinations just right.

The decision to use digital printing to create the designs was both an artistic and a financial one, according to Maniglier.

“The kimono and yukata were sold at a price that we could not afford if we had to do it by hand — hand-painting I mean — or if we had to print a hundred meters of textile,” Maniglier said.

Getting it in print

So far the informal group has held two exhibitions. In 2003 they showcased cotton yukata. “You can have a lot of fun with yukata,” Maniglier said. “It’s not so serious like kimono. It’s the aloha shirt of Japanese traditional clothing.”

After a successful exhibition in Tokyo, they moved on to the more serious and challenging work of creating silk kimono and undergarments, which they showed in Kyoto in the summer.

Creations shown in the Kyoto exhibition can now be ordered through Nakashima’s shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward or Maniglier’s design firm, Exprime Inc. And she currently is negotiating with several groups to create a line of kimono accessories and plans to come out with her own brand, Maia.

Several of the garments shown in Kyoto will be on display at the Axis Building in Tokyo’s Roppongi district next month as part of a retrospective of Shibasaki’s work. “Digital Rumix” will show 15 years of yukata design done under Shibasaki’s Rumix label as well as her collaborations with Maniglier’s team.

Maniglier’s knowledge of kimono is not only appearing in shops and exhibitions but also in print. In June she published “Parijennu no kimono hajime (A Parisian and Kimono),” a book full of advice on how to select and wear the traditional garment. After she began wearing kimono, she says Japanese women confided in her that they, too, wanted to wear kimono but were intimidated by the tradition and reluctant to ask potentially embarrassing questions at kimono shops. Maniglier, however, had no such reservations.

The reaction to a French woman writing a book on kimono has been positive, Maniglier said. The book doesn’t advise on what to buy, rather it outlines the choices people have when putting their outfits together.

“I had letters from people who had been wearing kimono for 15 or 20 years and even those people said, ‘You answered questions that I have been asking myself and I couldn’t find the answers to for so many years,’ ” Maniglier said.

The designer believes that a recent resurgence in all things wafu (Japanese style) — be it homegrown food or period dramas — coupled with a flood of old kimonos onto the market, has led to more people in their 20s and 30s buying old kimono.

“But I hope the trend is going to shift to new kimono. The traditional kimono buyers are still the same,” Maniglier said. “The newcomers are buying mainly recycled kimono because, of course, they are less expensive.”

Maniglier believes that women who have been brought up with Japanese and European high fashion will hold the same standards in new kimono.

“You can’t wear Gucci and Armani suits in the day and [be seen] wearing an old vintage thing in the evening,” she said. “I mean, somewhere you’re going to want the same fashion [in kimono] as what you are wearing” every day.

The kimono experience shouldn’t be painful

Here are a few tips from Maia Maniglier on buying a kimono:

* Decide on your budget before you start shopping and don’t be afraid to talk about money with
the clerk. Some people think it is impolite, but
there is nothing wrong stating how much you want
to spend from the start.

* If you decide to buy a used kimono, keep in
mind that the inner and outer garments must be
properly matched for size.

* Deciding how you will wear your kimono is
important. You can learn the traditional way of
tying the obi sash, but it is also possible to order a
custom-tied obi that you just clip on. It’s a more
common practice than people think and looks deceptively realistic.

* Don’t be afraid to tell the person dressing you
if you’re not comfortable. The kimono shop may
also try to tell you that tabi socks should be a size
smaller than your feet, but this serves no particular purpose. It just makes your feet hurt.