STYLE The ki­mono’s mod­ern up­date.

Bar­bara Bal­four ex­plores how one Ja­panese designer is giv­ing the ki­mono a mod­ern makeover.

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Bar­bara Bal­four

as techno beats pulse in sync with the flash­ing lights and pris­matic colours that il­lu­mi­nate the room, rows of ki­mono-clad ladies with stiffly teased hair sit straight-backed, en­rap­tured, at leg­endary ki­mono designer Jo­taro Saito’s spring/sum­mer 2015 run­way show in Tokyo. Many of the at­ten­dees’ grand­moth­ers once shopped for Saito’s grand­fa­ther’s ki­monos. For them, and for this third-gen­er­a­tion designer, con­ver­gence is the theme of the day: moder­nity blend­ing with tra­di­tion, one gen­er­a­tion over­lap­ping an­other.

For Saito, the only ki­mono designer in Ja­pan whose col­lec­tions are reg­u­larly fea­tured on the run­way, push­ing the en­ve­lope runs in the fam­ily. His grand­fa­ther, Saiz­aburo, was a cel­e­brated dye artist and the first ki­mono designer in his­tory to use his own name on the la­bel when he opened his work­shop 81 years ago in Ky­oto—Ja­pan’s his­toric cap­i­tal and the coun­try’s cen­tre of tex­tile pro­duc­tion for cen­turies. At the time, the idea of a sin­gle artist mak­ing a sin­gu­lar piece was un­heard of. This is an idea unique to the 20th cen­tury; his­tor­i­cally, ki­mono mak­ers re­mained name­less. Saito’s fa­ther, San­sai, also took con­sid­er­able risks by mix­ing un­con­ven­tional colours within the same gar­ment: Com­bin­ing grey (tra­di­tion­ally worn by older mar­ried women) and pink (his­tor­i­cally re­served for young girls), for ex­am­ple, chal­lenged so­cial norms. Iron­i­cally, while Saito, 45, is con­sid­ered a rule breaker in the ki­mono world for jux­ta­pos­ing geo­met­ric pat­terns with lush flo­rals and us­ing metal studs and zip­pers as adorn­ment and tex­tiles like denim and fur, the gar­ment’s h

ties to au­then­tic­ity and Ja­panese iden­tity are a con­struct of the West, says Ta­mara Joy, chief cu­ra­tor and cul­tural direc­tor at the Morikami Mu­seum and Ja­panese Gar­dens in Del­ray Beach, Fla. “It was West­ern in­flu­ence and in­ter­ac­tion that made the ki­mono in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able as a Ja­panese na­tional cos­tume, even though it evolved from a Chi­nese robe and colour-rank­ing sys­tem,” says Joy. “Be­fore then, through hun­dreds of years of Ja­pan’s iso­la­tion, there was no out­side force to say ‘Look at this new style; let’s change it.’”

By dis­tanc­ing him­self from the tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als as­so­ci­ated with the ki­mono, Saito is re­spon­si­ble for ef­fec­tively trans­form­ing it into a gar­ment rel­e­vant to the 21st cen­tury. “To­day’s Ja­panese de­sign­ers are play­ing with tra­di­tional items and re­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing them within West­ern stylis­tic cre­ations,” says Ja­panese fash­ion ex­pert Fed­er­ica Car­lotto, a lec­turer at Re­gent’s Uni­ver­sity Lon­don and a long-time re­searcher of the Ja­panese adop­tion of West­ern fash­ion. “They are re­triev­ing and re­fresh­ing tra­di­tional know-how within the tex­tile sec­tor; they are de­con­struct­ing the body’s sil­hou­ette as it has been shaped by West­ern cloth­ing by pre­sent­ing de­formed items of cloth­ing on the cat­walks.”

Saito’s rein­ven­tion of the ki­mono comes at a time when the Ja­panese have a re­newed in­ter­est in re­defin­ing what it means to wear the tra­di­tional gar­ment. “Enough peo­ple wanted to be in­di­vid­ual that our de­signs started tak­ing off,” says Saito, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor in a cof­fee shop in Tokyo’s luxe Rop­pongi Hills dis­trict, where his con­cept store is lo­cated. “Still, my fa­ther and I al­ways talk about the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing tra­di­tions in our work. It’s all about bal­ance: You can chal­lenge what is con­sid­ered nor­mal, but you don’t want to break ev­ery sin­gle tra­di­tion.” ■

Clock­wise, from bot­tom right: Mod­els at the Jo­taro Saito s/s

2015 show at Tokyo Fash­ion Week; a ki­mono

de­signed by Saito’s grand­fa­ther Saiz­aburo; Saito in his Tokyo shop

Painstak­ingly hand-painted and de­signed, Saito’s ki­monos range in price from 100,000 yen (about $1,000) to 3 mil­lion yen ($30,000).

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