A beautiful cultural blend: African kimono

by Danielle Demetriou

Wander past a certain kimono store in Aoyama and center stage in the window is a riotous splash of canary- yellow cotton, with bright cubes of grass green and swirls of earthy brown. A tribal red-and-black obi tied high around the waist completes a perfectly styled kimono that on close inspection evokes not the misty mountains of Japan but the searing heat of another world: Africa.

The contrasting landscapes of Japan and Africa may seem, literally, worlds apart. But they have been artfully united in a collaboration between an African designer and a traditional Japanese kimono-maker. Launched last month, Wafrica — Africa plus wa for Japan — has unveiled a range of kimono handcrafted in an array of African cotton fabrics that would seem to be a million miles from the subtle silks more commonly associated with traditional Japanese dress. Yet despite the orange comets and flashes of lightning tearing across a moss-green background, and the tribal swirls in colors that recall the sun-drenched African soil, the prints blend seamlessly into the kimono form before they surprise Japanese shoppers with their foreign origin.

The cultural cocktail is the brainchild of Serge Mouangue, a Tokyo-based concept- car designer for Nissan, who joined forces with Kururi, a Tokyo-based kimono- maker, to produce the traditional Japanese attire in 18 African prints sourced in markets from Nigeria to Senegal.

In the sedate confines of the Kururi store on Aoyama Dori, visitors are drawn to the bright outfits placed prominently in the window display.

“These kimono have vivid colors, and the impact is powerful,” says Izumi Ichikawa, one of the store assistants, who is immaculately clad in a more conventional pastel-hued piece. “People expect more neutral tones in kimono, but these attract younger, modern people who are looking for something different.”

“These color combinations are not found in traditional fabrics and are new to kimono,” adds Yoko Nagai, the merchandiser at Kururi, which has been selling kimono for 15 years. “And the printed wax cotton used in Wafrica kimono does not exist in traditional kimono materials.”

Such a lack of familiarity between materials and form strengthens the effect that Mouangue is seeking to create.

“I do not want the end result to belong to Africa, nor should it belong to Japan. It is not a ‘fusion,’ ” says Mouangue, who was born in Cameroon and grew up in Paris. “I want it to be something else. It should transcend the boundaries of both cultures. It is a third aesthetic.”

Mouangue moved to Tokyo with his Australian wife and their children two years ago and was instantly drawn to exploring the similarities and differences between Africa and Japan.

“They may appear different on the surface but they do share some cultural similarities,” the 35-year-old says. “Both societies are very tribal and have a respect for hierarchy and an appreciation of the power of silence.

“And then there are the differences. In Japan there is no improvisation. Here, improvisation can mean trouble, shame, difficulties. But in Africa, it means life, renewal, health and spirit.”

The seed of Wafrica was planted earlier this year when Mouangue decided to explore mixing the two cultural landscapes in the form of one of the most iconic symbols of Japan: the kimono.

“The kimono is an icon of Japan,” says Mouangue. “I’m fascinated by the cut and the attitude and poise it creates among women when they wear them.

“Putting on a kimono is an immensely complex process. It is like a building, with layer after layer. But the complexity disappears when it is put together, and the end result is pure beauty and timelessness.”

For Mouangue, his kimono project is neither a fashion statement nor a commercially motivated venture. In between sips of a mango smoothie in a cafe near the Aoyama store, he energetically draws diagrams of rivers and mountains and valleys to explain his conceptual motivations.

The changing faces of Japanese kimono

From delicate floral motifs to bold Art Deco graphics, the kimono’s look has been updated repeatedly over the years. First worn by commoners working the land or as an undergarment for the aristocracy in the 16th century, the kimono is an enduring symbol of traditional Japanese culture.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the garment reached dazzling heights as a means of expressing beauty and status within society’s hierarchical confines. With the introduction of laws meant to rein in the most fantastical kimono creations — including a ban on the color red — makers became more ingenious in their designs, introducing more subdued, layered and understated hues and fabrics.

At the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), as Japan opened up to the world, the outfit was again revolutionized. With exposure to Western clothing, new production techniques resulted in affordable silk kimono for a growing number of Japanese women. Even the West was seduced, and as the fashion for all things Japanese hit new heights in 1870s Europe, kimono were even available in shops in London.

The Taisho Era (1912-26) heralded another sharp change in direction. Western influences from Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles were suddenly in fashion, with the emergence of bold striking prints and vivid colors eclipsing more subtle traditional motifs. Loosening the shackles of its association with the nation’s feudal past, embracing the new prints became a popular statement for independent women of modern-day Japan.

The end of World War II brought about the demise of the kimono as an everyday outfit, as Japanese women increasingly favored Western fashions; today, the number of daily kimono wearers is dwindling to an almost negligible few. The kimono is far from dead, though. From the denim creations of Jotaro Saito at Tokyo Fashion Week to the recent collaboration on men’s kimono between United Arrows and Kondaya of Kyoto, it remains a source of inspiration for generations of designers. (D.D.)

“The connection between two different worlds such as Africa and Japan may be hidden,” he says. “There may be a sea that seems to separate the two places. But we are all connected. There is earth under the sea that links us all, but we can’t always see it. This is a project that tries to show that connection.”

Since Mouangue has connections to Cameroon, Paris and Australia, and is now living in Japan, it was a natural progression for questions surrounding identity, home and cultural boundaries to have motivated the project.

“Being here as a designer, I have to ask myself where I come from, where will my children call home,” he says. “I have been asking myself that since I arrived. This is a way of trying to find answers. It is one more way of narrating a story.”

It’s a story Kururi is keen to embrace.

“We are pioneering new projects with the kimono,” says Kururi’s Nagai. “We introduced the use of denim in the past, so our company is very suited to Wafrica.”

For the kimono industry, such modern interventions should be regarded as no less than a breath of fresh air. Speaking volumes in relation to the social status, aesthetics and even emotions of the wearer, the art of wearing a kimono has long been considered as culturally significant as tea ceremony and ikebana.

Though once common, the popularity of Japan’s national dress has steadily been usurped by increasing exposure to Western fashions since the end of the World War II. Today, the kimono industry has shrunk dramatically, with fewer than one in 10 Japanese women wearing a kimono rather than a Western-style dress on their wedding day.

The creation of classic kimono with a modern twist — in the form of styling or fabrics — has been one way of reviving the fortunes of the ailing national dress, according to Yoshichika Kitamura, a Japanese-culture expert.

“Kimono is a Japanese-orientated national costume, so most Japanese women like to use traditional Japanese patterns,” he says. “But among young women today, there may be a growing attraction for non-Japanese fabrics or unusual patterns.”

But mixing African fabrics with Japanese dress was no easy challenge. While silk fabrics are traditionally used in Japanese kimono, Mouangue insisted that cotton — the fabric of Africa — be used in his creations.

“African women are supposed to show their bodies,” he says. “The cut of their traditional babu dress may be from loose cotton, but when they move it is designed to show all their curves.

“In African dress, womanly lines are celebrated. In Japan, the shape is different; it is more like a tube.”

The future of Wafrica will not be confined to kimono. Mouangue has approached local craftsmen about other kinds of collaborations with Japanese and African materials and art forms. They, much like the kimono-makers, are more than open to such ideas.

“I am hoping to expand this to include other aspects of Japanese culture,” says Mouangue. “This is just the start. It is about finding a third aesthetic. Telling a familiar story a different way. The end result? It’s about hope, and it’s about the future.”

Kururi is at 3-5-9 Kita-Aoyama, Minato Ward. For more information, call (03) 3403-8280 or visit www.wafrica.jp and www.kururi.net