Kimono makes comeback -- in used form

Female shoppers search for a cheap, elegant reminder of yesteryear

by Akemi Nakamura

Every once in a while, 27-year-old Junko Nagumo and five companions visit boutiques in upmarket Tokyo districts such as Omotesando and Ginza — not to buy trendy fashion items but to find inexpensive used kimono.

The six women wear the garments at a “kimono cafe” session they hold one Sunday every month at a restaurant in Shinjuku Ward. They serve light meals and soft drinks to their customers, many of whom are also kimono-clad.

“We thought that (the image of) kimono would help create an attractive space where people of various generations come together,” said Nagumo, an office worker who founded Kimono Cafe, the group that holds the monthly event.

“I view kimono as a kind of artwork, so I’ve always liked looking at them. . . . I’ve now found pleasure in wearing them.”

Kimono constituted everyday wear for most Japanese women until Western clothing became popular in the postwar period. These days, however, the garments are widely perceived as formal attire worn only on special occasions such as weddings and Coming-of-Age Day.

This development prompted the kimono industry to produce luxury items, consequently pushing prices sky-high.

But thanks to the emergence of used-kimono retailers, kimono are gradually making a comeback as affordable wardrobe options for women, especially the younger generation.

After launching the cafe enterprise, Nagumo, whose previous experience of wearing kimono was minimal, bought five secondhand kimono ranging in price from 3,000 yen to 20,000 yen.

She has thus far spent some 80,000 yen on kimono and necessary accessories, including obi and zori, she said.

“You can enjoy various combinations of kimono using obi and ‘haneri’ (decorative collars) . . . as well as normal accessories” that go with Western items like caps and necklaces, she said. “(The eye-catching colors and patterns) of antique kimono look very fresh to me. Wearing such kimono make us look very flamboyant, yet elegant.”

One firm that quickly spotted the business potential in used kimono was kimono wholesaler Tokyo Yamaki Co., which opened its first Tansu-ya secondhand kimono shop in the city of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, in September 1999.

“Many Japanese women like kimono and want to wear them, but they hardly buy or wear them because they have the image that kimono are expensive,” said Tokyo Yamaki President Kenichi Nakamura. “Looking at the success of (used-book retail chain) Bookoff Corp., I thought selling used kimono could be a new business.”

The firm began purchasing kimono lying dormant in people’s closets, paying 300 yen to more than 100,000 yen apiece. After being washed and disinfected, the old kimono are resold, with the core price range at several thousand yen to 20,000 yen — less than 10 percent of the most popular price range for new kimono.

The Funabashi Tansu-ya shop attracted an unexpectedly large number of customers, mostly women in their 40s or older, Nakamura said. But the firm hit a snag: Kimono made before 1970 were too small for some younger women.

To solve the problem, the firm decided to manufacture new, larger kimono featuring early 20th century patterns.

These garments are made overseas in order to keep production costs low, and are priced around 50,000 yen each.

The strategy seems to be working. Tokyo Yamaki now operates about 80 Tansu-ya shops nationwide and expects to rake in sales of 3.3 billion yen — 90 percent of its total sales — from Tansu-ya’s business for the year ending in May.

It expects the figure to rise by some 10 percent in the next business year, Nakamura said.

Other firms, including major kimono retailers and stand-alone businesses, are also gearing up to cash in on the used-kimono market.

Tokyo-based Kururi Inc., which opened its first used-kimono shop in 2000, launched a new store in March that only sells reproductions of antique kimono.

“We target women in their late teens to early 30s,” Kururi President Izuru Miura said. “More and more women (in that age group) are wearing kimono as they do Western clothes.”

He added that the firm plans to launch a Web site in May, hoping to sell denim kimono to overseas customers.

The market for used kimono and reproductions ballooned to 34 billion yen in fiscal 2003 from 6 billion yen in fiscal 1999, whereas the new kimono market shrank to 590 billion yen from 787.7 billion yen during the same period, according to private think tank Yano Intelligence Ltd. The market for used and replica kimono is expected to reach 50 billion yen in fiscal 2005.

Shoichi Takahashi, an analyst at Yano Intelligence, said the popularity of kimono is part of a broader craze in traditional Japanese culture.

This larger trend has been seen by some as an indication that many Japanese have become tired of the hectic nature of modern life and want to take things slower, like in the past.

Tokyo Yamaki’s Nakamura believes the popularity of traditional Japanese culture, including kimono, will continue.

“As young people go abroad, they may see Japanese culture in a new light . . . and think of kimono as a way to visually express their Japanese identity,” he said.

He added that the boom may also encourage women to pass their kimono on to their daughters.

Take the case of one 34-year-old visitor to the Tansu-ya store in Kichijoji, western Tokyo; she said she wears kimono once a week and noted her clothes were given to her by her mother and mother-in-law.

“I wanted to get used to wearing kimono before I leave for France with my husband next year,” she said. “Used-kimono shops allow more people to enjoy kimono at a lower cost. I now make ‘juban’ (kimono undergarments) and haneri myself.”

Brisk sales of used kimono, however, are a thorn in the side of conventional kimono retailers because they are eating into the new kimono market, said Takahashi of Yano Intelligence.

“People who used to buy new kimono may instead purchase used kimono . . . while few users of secondhand kimono may buy (expensive) new ones,” he said, noting retailers must offer attractive kimono at reasonable prices if they want to attract used-kimono fans.

But traditional retailers are not used to this way of doing business, and so it may be difficult to reverse the ongoing contraction in the overall kimono market in terms of value, Takahashi said, acknowledging that used kimono remain a niche market.

The total kimono market is expected to shrink to 570 billion yen in fiscal 2005 from 624 billion yen in fiscal 2003, according to the think tank.

“People buy new Western clothes whenever fashion trends change, but this does not happen with kimono,” he said. “(People who own used kimono) may start exchanging their garments,” bypassing stores altogether.