Be-Japon recycles traditional culture to survive modernity

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Perhaps it’s a case of, “Be careful what you wish for.”

For generations, Japanese have tried to make their children taller than themselves — for example, by feeding them milk daily or by making them sleep long hours — and it would appear that their efforts have paid off. Average heights have increased by about 15 cm since 1900. But, there’s been one unintended consequence: People can no longer wear inherited kimono.

In the past, kimono were made so well, and hence were so costly, that they were routinely handed down, usually for two or three generations. But the current generation of elegantly lanky recipients are finding that their forearms stick out from the sleeves and their ankles are exposed.

What to do?

“Older women these days just end up holding on to their old kimono, sticking them in storage or — worst case scenario — throwing them out,” explained Tokyo-based costume designer Eiko Kobayashi. “It is just too sad to think about.”

So 15 years ago, the effervescent designer took it upon herself to breathe new life into this dying heritage.

“I saw the old kimono as a real expression of Japanese culture, which was just being put to waste,” she said. “Of course, kimono continue to be made today, but the old ones are very different to modern ones — the fabric is softer and the designs are far more bold.”

Kobayashi hit on the idea of re-purposing old kimono into modern dresses, which she could then present as fashion-show-like events overseas. Grant applications followed and, within a few years, she set up a nonprofit group called Be-Japon to organize the shows — often with the financial backing of the Foreign Ministry.

The nonprofit aspect of the operation was important, because Kobayashi found that in order to procure old kimono for her project, she often had to emphasize that her work was not for her own financial gain, but for cultural exchange.

“If I explain to people in old cities, like Kyoto or Kanazawa, that the dresses will be shown in Europe to further cultural exchange, they often are happy to give up the kimono that they have stored away,” she said.

Another, perhaps surprising, source are temples.

“Word got around in Kyoto a few years ago that I was seeking old kimono and I was contacted by the wife of a temple monk,” she explained. “It turned out that many years ago, locals who had been unable to make regular payments to their local temples had instead settled their accounts with kimono.”

“There was such a range of colors being used 100 or 120 years ago — bright colors,” she said, holding up some samples — one with a checkerboard-like pattern in 1970s-style turquoise, orange and yellow; another that appeared at first glance to be an underwater scene, with oddly abstract corals, but then also lotus flowers, too.

In creating the dresses, Kobayashi examines the original kimono, noting how certain elements of the original patterns can be used.

“The vertical line is very important in kimono,” she explained. “So I usually try to maintain vertical strips of the original fabric at their full original length.”

Hence the finished products tend to be long evening dresses, often with central decorative features at the front and back.

“One of the easiest types of kimono designs to re-purpose as dresses are the tsukesage design, where the top half of the kimono, around the shoulders, is just a neutral color, and a pattern runs around the bottom half at the legs,” she said.

Sometimes, when the original kimono are too small or have been damaged, she combines their fabric with fabric from other kimono to complete her dresses.

Kobayashi presented her first show of kimono-based dresses in Europe in 2005, and since then she has showed both at home and abroad many times. Later this year she will present shows at the Japan Expo in Paris — on July 5 and 6 — and at the Maison de la culture du Japon a Paris on July 4. She’ll also take the dresses to Switzerland, where they will be presented at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

“When I show the dresses overseas people always ask where they can buy them,” Kobayashi said, talking about previous shows. “But I have to say they’re not for sale. If I sell them I won’t have any left, as I can’t replace them.”

Still, this year she has created a few smaller items — blouses and belts, for example — that she does intend to take to Paris and sell.

“With these items I think you can give people something that inherits the kimono culture, but that can be used in more common, casual contexts, too,” she said.

Be-Japon will hold a preview of the upcoming European shows at Bunka Fashion Incubation (Shibuya Cultural Center Owada, 11F, 23-21 Sakuragaoka, Shibuya-ku) at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on June 14. Admission is ¥4,000. For more information, visit bejapon.org.