Jotaro Saito has been showcasing his kimono brand at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo since 2006, almost a decade before the eyebrow-raising appearance of X Japan frontman Yoshiki Hayashi’s Yoshikimono brand at the event last October.

It’s true that Matohu, from design partnership Hiroyuki Horihata and Makiko Sekiguchi, and Takeshi Kunitomo’s Gouk continue to find ways of incorporating traditional Japanese aesthetics into their work, but Saito and his eponymous brand remain the sole proponent of pure kimono as fashion during the weeklong event.

“It’s in my blood,” Saito says. “I represent the third generation of kimono makers in my family, and we have always worked more like designers than shokunin craftspeople. In the kimono world, our family was always viewed as innovators for presenting kimono as fashion, and I think that is why when I was learning my craft in my 20s, the people around me and sales staff who sold my work encouraged me to make my debut as a kimono maker early. Usually you would have to wait until your 40s or 50s to make your official debut having inherited your family’s techniques, but I did so at 27. That is a rarity — even now.”

In his early years, Saito remained rooted in a classical style. Indeed, a layperson might not have even noticed how progressive his designs were.

“I used to start with a classical base, but as a youth I found the realism of the style dull, so instead of, say, drawing sakura (cherry blossom) pink, I would highlight them in blue; take the form and give it an interesting twist,” Saito says. “That is why I call myself a designer, not a craftsman who just repeats the same technique over and over.”

Throughout his career, Saito has been conscious of his place in history and the responsibility he has to his country’s fashion culture.

“You have to remember that the history of wearing Western clothes in Japan is far shorter than our lengthy history with kimono,” he says. “We were just overwhelmed by the idea that everything that came from America was powerful and fast, and that everything from Europe was beautiful and detailed. Now that Western fashion is increasingly casual — with its focus on streetwear and its lack of a clear identity due to globalization in conjunction with Japanese people increasingly going abroad to see the West rather than believing in the dream — I think Japanese people have finally realized the beauty of their own country’s fashion culture. We neglected our tradition, but the fact that we are now able to enjoy and feel pride in our traditional culture is proof that the Japanese have matured in their stance toward it. However, the current popularity of traditional culture leaves us at a crossroad: Is it popular as an exhibit in a museum, or will it morph into something new?”

Saito identifies the role young people as significant in defining the outcome to that conundrum.

“We have to move away from how we wear kimono,” he says. “People these days go to beauty salons to be dressed professionally and have their hair and makeup done, but in the process they all end up looking the same. People can’t be expected to lose their individuality, time and money — never mind concede to arbitrary restrictions based on age, status and so on — just to wear kimono. The key for the industry is to make kimono without rules, then I can just focus on making the best designs that can compete with a Dolce & Gabbana dress or Armani suit on equal footing.”

However, that equal footing is hard to come by, especially in an industry that insists on separating the Western from the Japanese, with department stores rarely placing kimono and dresses side by side, and frequently separating them across different floors. This puts an unfair onus on the designer to defend their work as fashion constantly.

“I saw Tokyo fashion week as a way of placing kimono in the same context as Western fashion,” he says. “In 2006, I decided to make my debut there and it had a huge impact on my design process. Kimono has one of the oldest business models in Japan that continues to exist; traditional kimono makers only made the kimono garment, with obi, sandals and accessories all being made by other craftspeople. Therefore, when a kimono maker presents his or her work to the public, it is usually just the kimono. At a fashion show, however, you need to bring everything together into a complete ensemble, and that is what I had to start doing. That made me not just think about the components, but also the style as a whole. I always imagine my coordinates in a street setting — that is where I want them to be, as a part of daily life. In fact, it annoys me when my models walk the runway as if they are on a stage, not on the street.”

However, even if fashion week is a positive experience for the designer, the industry has not been so kind.

“It was tough in the beginning,” Saito says. “I was always asked questions that I wanted to throw back at journalists (such as), ‘Is kimono fashion?’ They are the ones telling people it isn’t. I was also never given any good slots in the schedule because there was always a focus on Western clothes and, actually, that is a problem that still persists. However, I am positive about that. It is precisely because tradition comes into contact with international and modern things that we can enjoy it. For example, I have had the chance to dress non-Japanese body shapes and many different nationalities through my fashion shows, and I want to show that kimono is something that doesn’t just belong to the Japanese. If it belongs to a country, it is national dress. Fashion belongs to everyone.”

One might expect some of Saito’s designs that go against the grain, including his kimono in denim, to raise the ire of traditionalists but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“As the market shrank, the kimono industry became more and more supportive, especially of designers’ efforts to find new means of expression — they even put us in the spotlight over the old guard,” Saito says. “It’s almost as if the fashion industry feels the most threatened. My latest collection is titled ‘Go Beyond,’ and that is exactly what I want to do, both in business and culturally. I see the 2020 Olympics as a watershed moment for kimono as fashion. I want the world, as well as Japan, to see kimono differently. I want kimono designers to look back in 50 years time and see this point as being the moment when everything changed.”

Whether Tokyo fashion week can ever walk the tightrope between the march toward globalism and paying reverence to the past remains to be seen. Nonetheless, removing kimono from the catwalk would be akin to taking a part of Japan out of the equation, and to lose Saito, in particular, would be to let go of the very person capable of freeing kimono from the prison of tradition and into the world of fashion.

For more information on Jotaro Saito, visit www.jotaro.net.

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