Style & Design

Yumi Katsura's mission to popularize the everyday kimono

by Misha Janette

Contributing Writer

Yumi Katsura is synonymous with wedding dresses in Japan and, after her most recent show, may also become equally known for boosting the popularity of kimono across the globe. A historic and recent first, Katsura is the only designer ever to be allowed to show at the opulent Akasaka Palace, demonstrating just how revered she is in cultural circles.

The palace could hardly have been a more fitting location for her show. Built in 1909 as the Imperial Palace of the Crown Prince and fashioned in the Baroque architectural style of 18th-century France, it is designated a national treasure and used as one of two state guest houses in Japan. On receiving the honor, Katsura says: “I first visited this site 40 years ago and I said to myself that someday I would show a collection here. Finally, my dream has come true.”

Katsura’s fashion show took place in one of the palace’s grandest halls, the “Hagoromo no Ma,” with its 300-square-meter ceiling painting depicting scenes from the noh play “Hagoromo.” Beneath it, a lineup of 60 dresses (and suits) graced the runway, each one a presentation of incredible feats of handiwork and largesse.

Under the theme “Beyond East and West,” Katsura presented not only Western-style ball gowns suited to royalty, but also injected traditional Japanese art into many of her pieces, such as copies of woodblock prints by the master of ukiyo-e himself, Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai’s instantly recognizable piece “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” was featured on a series of shibori- and yūzen-dyed dresses that opened the show, setting the tone for an unabashed merging of art and fashion.

The 85-year-old Katsura wasn’t always a warrior for cultural awareness, not for her own culture, at least. In fact, she has spent most of her 53-year career in fashion forging a market for Western-style dresses in Japan and China. After studying the art of haute couture in Paris at the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, she was inspired by the art of bridal design and, upon starting her business after returning to Japan in 1964, became the first Western wedding dress designer in Japan.

In 1973, she began her first line of ready-to-wear wedding dresses and opened the Yumi Katsura Bridal House in Nogizaka, a four-story neo-Baroque palace that is recognizable to anyone passing through the neighborhood today. The 1980s saw her become the first bridal designer to set up shop in Beijing and, in 1993, she presented a papal vestment to the then pope, St. Paul II, who wore it to Easter Mass that year.

While Katsura’s career is marked with many firsts, the show in Akasaka Palace was especially important to her. This collection was the pinnacle of a new challenge she has been taking on for the past six years: saving the art of the kimono. “Japanese people may wear kimono at a wedding or for their coming-of-age ceremony, but that’s it,” she says. “I felt an urgent need to preserve the art of couture Japanese techniques like yūzen and shibori in my own way. And, since the bridal season comes just once a year, I decided there was something I could design in the interim.”

Katsura has been a mainstay on the haute couture runways of Paris since 2003, but she only started to wholeheartedly exhibit kimono and Japanese-inspired designs in 2012. Given the moniker “Yumi Yuzen,” these collections feature the art of traditional techniques such as gold leafing, yūzen-dye painting, sumi-e ink calligraphy and Japanese silk embroidery. Other works turn materials such as bamboo, washi paper, chirimen crepe fabric and Japanese pearls into incredible feats of fashion. One of her most visually striking pieces, a “super washi” wedding dress — made of paper and detailed in stark black and white sumi-e — was even acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

Six years into the project, Katsura is determined to keep these kimono techniques from being a flash-in-the-pan trend. “When John Galliano was inspired by kabuki for his collection in 2007, it was just a trend. I don’t want it to be that way,” says Katsura.

To that end, Katsura wrapped up her palace couture show in front of special guests — including kabuki actors Ebizo Ichikawa XI and Ainosuke Kataoka VI, and actress Norika Fujiwara — displaying a series of traditional kimono in all their glory, topped off by a bride in a gorgeous, 12-layer jūnihitoe robe.

To sum up her efforts, Katsura offers an anecdote: “I had a customer in Paris purchase one of my kimonos and I warily asked if it was meant to be displayed in her foyer. ‘No, I plan on wearing it,’ she said. And so I feel proud to say that I’m making progress.”