People | 20 QUESTIONS

Robert Hamilton: Making kimono accessible

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Name: Robert Hamilton
Age: 47
Nationality: Canadian, Irish
Occupation: Kimono designer at Roccoya (www.roccoya.com, @roccoya_official)
Likes: Monjayaki (savory soft batter pancakes)
Dislikes: Rush-hour trains


1. How did you get into designing kimono? My background is in oil painting, and I designed some Irish dance dresses on the side when I was in university. After moving to Japan, I met my wife Hiroko, who was a kitsuke sensei (kimono dressing teacher), so we combined our skills. I make a design, and she tells me why she wouldn’t want to wear it. Then I go back to the drawing board until I’ve produced something that she likes. So essentially, every Roccoya design is made for her.

2. Why did you come to Japan? I’d been incorporating images from Japanese popular culture into my paintings for a while, so I decided to come to Japan for a year to further explore the culture. Twenty years later, I am still exploring.

3. Why kimono? It takes a punk-rock attitude to strut a kimono when you are surrounded by a sea of gray business suits. I respect people who can pull that off, so I wanted to be a part of it.

4. Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind some of your unusual designs for kimono? An early design was based on Celtic illuminations from The Lindisfarne Gospels. A chūsen dyed yukata (light summer kimono) was inspired by the Barrel of Monkeys toy, and a Banshu-ori kimono has images of gas masks and snakes woven into it.

5. Where does the name Roccoya come from? My wife and creative partner’s name is Hiroko — “Rocco” for short. So, Roccoya means “Rocco’s shop.”

6. Are there advantages of being a non-Japanese kimono designer? There are unexpected effects. I naturally bring Western art traditions into my work. That was a hallmark of Taisho Era (1912-26) design, when Japan was embracing European art and fashion. So, many of my designs have a retro-chic feel to Japanese eyes.

7. What is the most challenging aspect of designing a kimono? There is more math involved than one might imagine. Before committing a design to fabric, we have to be sure that it will flow smoothly from one fabric panel to the next once it is sewn together. Kimono fabrics aren’t cut, so that alignment is determined at the design stage, not the tailoring stage.

8. What’s your favorite design so far? A couple of years ago, I made a kimono that was covered in painterly red dahlias. Designing that felt really natural; it took me back to my oil painting days.

9. Did you know how to put on a kimono correctly before you began designing them? Not even a little. I came to love kimono through design, and only later started to wear them.

10. What do you think is the way forward for the kimono? Since the ’90s, young people have been increasingly wearing yukata at summer festivals because they are elegant, beautiful and unintimidating. Kimono are also elegant and beautiful, but we need to work a bit harder at presenting them as unintimidating.

11. When Kim Kardashian originally named her shapewear brand Kimono, what was your reaction? I was angrier than I thought I’d be, to be honest. Partly because it seemed so disrespectful, and partly because I was hoping to live my life without ever having an opinion about a Kardashian.

12. How often do you wear a kimono or other Japanese item of clothing? In the summer months, you’ll often see me in uogashi shatsu (traditionally dyed shirts originally worn by fishermen in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture). Otherwise, I wear kimono or yukata for specific events or occasions.

13. You organize Tokyo Kimono Bash, what is that? It is a big, fun kimono party hosted by a different drag queen each year. It is an excuse for kimono lovers from across Japan to get together in our favorite kimono and let loose.

14. Why drag queens? We want everyone to feel welcome. Having drag queens and Latin dancers at events lets people know that they are among friends and are accepted here, regardless of how traditional or nontraditional they are.

15. If you could pick anyone to wear a Roccoya kimono, who would it be? I’d be over the moon to see singer-songwriter Sheena Ringo in one of the silk kimono that I designed based on 17th-century Mughal mosaics. I’d love to see how she’d choose to accessorize and style it.

16. What triggers your endorphins? Unreasonably spicy food.

17. If you could go back in time and give your teenage self some advice, what would you say? Sell your comic book collection in 1995. Something called eBay will make them all worthless after that.

18. What have you never, ever … but want to? I’d love to visit Antarctica. I’ve never eaten a penguin.

19. Do you collect anything? Tree ornaments. Every time Hiroko and I travel, we get something that we can hang on the Christmas tree to remind us of that time.

20. If you could express your personality in a design, what would it look like? I already do that every day.