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Designer wraps kimono styles into current fashion trends

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  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A Kimono-clad woman celebrating turning 20 years old, goes through a security check to participate in an official ceremony, used to be called a Coming-of-Age ceremony, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Yokohama near Tokyo. Held annually on the second Monday of January, local municipal celebrate for Japan’s young adults. Japan lowered the age of adulthood from twenty years old to 18 years old in 2022.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A Kimono-clad woman celebrating turning 20 years old, goes through a security check to participate in an official ceremony, used to be called a Coming-of-Age ceremony, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Yokohama near Tokyo. Held annually on the second Monday of January, local municipal celebrate for Japan’s young adults. Japan lowered the age of adulthood from twenty years old to 18 years old in 2022.

  • JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI
                                Contemporary kimono designer Maria Kawahara at Kamigamo Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto.

    JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

    Contemporary kimono designer Maria Kawahara at Kamigamo Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto.

KYOTO >> Maria Kawahara, a kimono designer, believes that the traditional garment can be worn more freely — with a belt, for instance, if one doesn’t have an obi, or even with boots or high heels instead of zori (traditional thong sandals).

The kimono fashion that the Kyoto-based designer advocates shakes up the way people think about kimono. She blends both Japanese and Western styles as well as the present and the past in a playful way, which she calls “the kimono style of the Reiwa era,” which began in 2019.

Kawahara believes Kyoto is an open-minded city. At first, she got strange looks because of her kimono style, but eventually she began receiving more and more compliments. Someone even gave her an expensive kimono.

Inspired by Kawahara, who has more than 100,000 social media followers, young people are donning Reiwa-style kimono, smartphone in hand as they walk in the neighborhood surrounding Kiyomizu Temple, a major sightseeing spot in Kyoto.

The history of kimono is a long one, and current dressing rules were established after World War II. Until the early 20th century, for instance, wearing a kimono with a skirt was popular in Japan.

“The more you know about kimono, the more freedom you will find,” said Kawahara. “I want to expand the scope of kimono in order to make it an everyday garment again.”

Kawahara was born in Nagasaki, the youngest of six siblings. Her maternal ancestors were “hidden Christians” who hid their faith during the 17th to 19th centuries, when Christianity was prohibited in Japan.

At age 12, Kawahara enrolled in a school that trained girls to become nuns, and she was allowed to go out just a few hours each month. As a youth isolated from the outside world, she longed to find a way to express herself.

Kawahara entered the workforce at 18 and moved from job to job, wondering what kind of homegrown design Japan could show with pride to the world. She landed on kimono. And when she thought of kimono, Kyoto came to mind.

After doing some research, at 23, she became an apprentice to a Kyoto-based designer.

Kawahara has benefited from the broad reach and rapid response of social media. She received design and modeling jobs after posting pictures of herself in her kimono style, and launched her own brand, successfully running a pop-up shop in Harajuku in Tokyo.

In 2019, she became an independent kimono designer and expanded her skills, becoming an illustrator and an event art director.

Despite the glamorous image of her design work, Kawahara’s kimono pattern designs require careful processes using both modern technology and knowledge of history and Kyoto. As she works, Kawahara moves her pen over the computer screen in an elaborate manner, much like an animator, to create patterns based on seasonal plants in Kyoto and designs handed down in shrines and temples. She pays attention to detail down to the millimeter, keeping in mind how a design will look when worn on a body.

Today, less than 1% of the population wears kimono daily, and many kimono designers are in their 70s and 80s. There is the possibility that someday, designers will be replaced by artificial intelligence.

But Kawahara said she won’t give up. She believes kimono and its traditional patterns are a form of beauty to take pride in.

“That’s because they are the identity of the Japanese,” she said.

Kawahara values the principle of shu-ha-ri — “learn tradition, break through it and move beyond it” — a philosophy that guides the traditional tea ceremony and martial arts.

“I will create tradition with the wisdom of our predecessors and contemporary ideas,” she said. “I want to sow the seeds for that here.”

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