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Vintage kimonos recycled into future-proof styles

Around EUR 1.5 billion worth of kimonos are sold in Japan every year. As they are typically passed down generations as precious heirlooms, the nation is currently facing quite a textile stockpile. Designers have decided to give them a second chance.

Vintage kimonos made from a mix of silk, cotton and wool have re-emerged as casual wear at pop-up shops and Gallery Shili, owned by New York-educated Tokyo-based Korean designer Duni Park. She demonstrated the beauty of the ‘forgotten fabrics’ by showcasing her recycled collection at big department stores across Japan as well as the US, Italy, China and Taiwan.

Park’s work has been praised for updating the image of the Kimono ‘from old-fashioned to super fashionable’. The designer explains it can take up to half an hour to properly put on the many layered garment, measuring roughly 50cm wide and 15 metres long. It’s a time-intensive process today’s youngsters are increasingly moving away from.

The revived pieces are made to be easy and comfortable to wear. The recycled collection is hailed as an alternative to downcycling the kimonos into cushion covers, rags or even fertiliser, as has been the custom.

Meanwhile, Japan generates over 1.5 million tonnes of textiles waste per year. The latest (2020) figures put the recycling volume at not even 150 000 tonnes.

All the more reason for Bloomberg writer Adam Minter to celebrates the new initiative as it preserves the ‘lovely fabric’ full of Asian history and family tradition. He fondly remembers interviewing a Japanese woman called Saya for his book Secondhand. She was having a hard time letting go of the kimonos, handcrafted by her late grandmother.

He calls the encounter ‘one of the most emotional moments I’ve encountered in my career as a reporter’. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

Saya leads me into an adjoining walk-in closet that’s dominated on one side by a wall-length wooden chest of drawers. The rest of the room is filled with boxes and storage bins. ‘Japanese religion is very interesting. This chest has its own spirit,’ she says, ‘because it’s been used a long time.’

A piece of string ties down a drawer-length piece of rice paper that Saya lifts gently to reveal a heavy blue hemp garment and, below it, wool woven into a floral pattern. ‘These are kimonos made by my grandmother,’ she says, lifting one and then another. ‘She sewed them.’

Six kimonos are in this drawer, and at least as many are in each of the three drawers below it. She walks into the bedroom and reaches into a box that I didn’t notice earlier. It contains at least ten more.

‘You’re keeping these, right?’

She kneels down and unties the rice paper covering two more kimonos. ‘A kimono. A mother wears it, a daughter wears it . . . not so easy to give it up.’ She stands and wipes a tear. ‘It hurts my heart, but I cannot take everything. Already some are gone and sold.’

With the help of Park and others like her, it very well could be that these unique pieces will turn up in the wardrobe of the next generation. Just under a different name.

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