Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

'A kimono is not supposed to be fast fashion'

by Rachael Merritt

Contributing Writer

Stasia Matsumoto can predict how her customers will react when they see themselves dressed head to toe in a traditional kimono, even before they have had a chance to glance at themselves in the mirror.

It’s a reaction the professionally trained Tokyo-based kimono stylist and photographer has witnessed many times since she took went full-time with her company, InKimono. But she likes seeing the looks of admiration and joy flash across her customer’s faces time and time again. She says it’s her favorite part of the job.

“They always always say, ‘Oh, it makes me feel so beautiful, I feel beautiful wearing this, I feel so elegant, I feel so graceful,'” Matsumoto says.

As she dresses her clients, wrapping them in layers of silk and other fabrics, Matsumoto explains how each fold, tuck and tie of the kimono is deliberate and loaded with meaning. She explains every little detail: the style of the kimono, the era from which the pieces originated and the choice of fabric.

The Polish-born stylist and certified kimono teacher-in-training is well-acquainted with the rules and traditions of kimono dressing, even the little known tips of social etiquette regarding how the wearer should sit and conduct themselves, such as not letting the sleeves slip away from the arm and exposing the bare skin beneath.

A unique experience: Stylist Stasia Matsumoto loves the reactions of non-Japanese people who see themselves in a kimono for the first time. | COURTESY OF STASIA MATSUMOTO
A unique experience: Stylist Stasia Matsumoto loves the reactions of non-Japanese people who see themselves in a kimono for the first time. | COURTESY OF STASIA MATSUMOTO

When Matsumoto’s clients are dressed in her collection of traditional and vintage kimonos, they are carrying much more than the weight of layer upon layer of heavy fabric, but the responsibility of wearing garments imbued with a long, rich history, originating from the Heian Period (794-1185).

“I would really like people to understand just how much there is to the kimono, how much study it involves, how much hard work it is, how much patience, how much craftsmanship, dedication and passion,” she says.

The word “kimono” itself made headlines last week after Kim Kardashian West announced the launch of her new shapewear endeavor, Kimono. It’s the latest entrepreneurial exploration by the 38-year-old American media personality and businesswoman. The decision was met with public outcry and backlash as social media users from Japan and around the world (as well as the mayor of Kyoto) protested the trademarking of the word, sharing pictures of themselves proudly wearing their national garments, many of which had been handed down through individual families for generations.

[On July 2, after this story’s publication, Kim Kardashian West announced she would drop her bid to name her shapewear line Kimono.]

For her part, Kardashian West told the New York Times in a statement that the word written in a particular font was up for the trademark and that she has the deepest respect for the significance of kimono in the Japanese culture.

“The whole thing is ridiculous, it’s disrespectful,” Matsumoto says. “There is kimono underwear. It exists. But the thing is, it’s completely opposite to what (Kardashian West) created. It’s not supposed to be fast fashion, it’s not supposed to be mass produced, like the brand. I don’t see how it can be positive for her new brand in the long run.”

Kardashian West isn’t the only person who has found herself in a problematic situation involving the kimono. In 2015, a small group protested the garment’s involvement in an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and people overseas who wear it at Halloween are often accused of cultural appropriation.

In Japan, however, the takeaway has been different in that non-Japanese people who wear the kimono are seen as taking part in a cultural exchange, one the Japanese side largely believes to be positive.

The modern kimono industry has been slowly declining since it peaked in 1975, with a market value of ¥1.8 trillion, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The latest reports from Yano Research Institute reveal the market value hit ¥271 billion in 2017, slightly down from ¥278.5 billion in 2016.

According to Anji Salz, a Tokyo-based kimono stylist and writer, the kimono transitioned from everyday wear to formal wear, usually worn at weddings, graduations, christening, funerals and festivals. After Western-style clothing was introduced to Japan, the wearer could style without a set of traditional dress rules.

“I think it kind of scared a lot of people away,” says Salz, owner of Salz, a fashion website selling kimono and offering in-person kimono styling and photography sessions. “It was difficult to access and the rules were strict, and you don’t want to make any mistakes.”

In season: Anji Salz wears a kimono at Fuji-Q Highland in Yamanashi Prefecture. Salz's passion for the garment began at a rental store in Kyoto. | COURTESY OF ANJI SALZ
In season: Anji Salz wears a kimono at Fuji-Q Highland in Yamanashi Prefecture. Salz’s passion for the garment began at a rental store in Kyoto. | COURTESY OF ANJI SALZ

Originally from Northern Germany, Salz first encountered Japanese culture through music, before studying the language and receiving her first yukata (a lighter summer kimono) as a gift. But it was an experience at a rental store in Kyoto that cemented her passion, sparking her obsession with the garment and her desire to learn and teach kimono culture, etiquette and style.

“For me, it was a life-changing moment,” Salz says. “I really loved the way the kimono made me feel. I felt more calm and gentle toward my surroundings, versus when I’m in Western clothing.”

Since she launched her business in March, Salz says she’s witnessed the positive effect social media is having in reigniting interest in the kimono, particularly for younger generations. The wide availability of kimono dressing tutorials on YouTube is making the complex process appear more accessible and vintage stores and flea markets are making purchasing kimonos more affordable.

“By wearing kimono, you can learn a lot about Japanese culture and about Japan,” Salz says. “I think it’s important to indulge in other countries’ cultures and garments, and have a nice exchange to understand each other, especially since we are so connected through the internet.”

While Salz makes it her responsibility to educate her customers on the historical and cultural importance of the kimono, not everything in her workshop is dictated by tradition.

“You can mix and match patterns and colors, you can do color blocking, you can do flowers — with stripes, with checkers, with whatever — and it looks amazing,” she says. “It’s just so much fun.”

While traditionalists may be against dissembling the customs and traditions that have accompanied the kimono for centuries, Japanese neo-kimono stylist Yui Michael (pronounced “Michelle”) says that is exactly what must happen if the kimono is going to be worn in Japan centuries from now.

“It’s a new kimono style,” says Yui of her work. “I mix the kimono with Western clothes and accessories, like boots and shoes. It’s easier to wear this instead of a traditional kimono.”

Yui is no stranger to kitsuke, the art of wearing the kimono in its most traditional form. Before transitioning into professional styling, Yui was a kimono dresser for more than eight years, but found her work, which was meant to be preserving tradition, was having the opposite effect on some customers, who became disengaged with the numerous rules of kimono wear.

Working with both Japanese and non-Japanese customers, Yui’s kimono styling is about rediscovering the kimono in a new light, as a fashion choice that can transcend cultural confines. Yui is bringing her love of kimono to France for the upcoming Japan Expo in Paris from July 4 to 7, where she will encourage participants to experience a yukata.

“Everybody has a choice to wear whatever they want to,” says Yui. “For me, (wearing kimono) is just a fashion choice, so I want everybody to choose their own way to wear kimono.”