My musings about Asiatica’s Elizabeth Wilson, depth, and a look into the future
words Susan Cannon
select photos Tara Shupe
Anais Nin once wrote, “I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
Never did this quote resonate more than during my twenty years working in the fashion industry in New York where I found myself on photo shoots and sitting at runways shows in Europe. Early on I paid my dues working for old-school diva editors from the Diana Vreeland days, and under some heavy-hitting forces: Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, and Giorgio Armani’s then-CEO Gabriella Forte, a petite woman who could make grown men cry, not to mention the rest of us.
I had to style numerous actresses and musicians, as fashion in the nineties ushered in a whole new level of celebrity worship. It was stuff that could make a person lose their Midwestern grounding, which I tried not to let happen. I preferred to stay away from what could be considered the shallow side of the industry. So many 'fashionistas' took themselves way too seriously. It was silly. I was more comfortable with the crowd who found a deeper appreciation for the conceptual side of fashion, its process and image-making. This felt more down to earth to me. I became particularly wowed by new perspectives of the avant-garde Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe, and of course, Yohji Yamamoto. They represented poetry, wit, and real depth.
Fast-forward to 2009 and my first opportunity to meet Elizabeth Wilson, the owner, and founder of Asiatica. I had just moved to KC and had discovered there were things I didn’t know existed here: the iconic Warren Platner interior at The American Restaurant; the new, astonishing Bloch Building at the Nelson; and Asiatica, this beautiful looking shop with all kinds of Japanese wares. These topped my “viscerally need immediately” list. (Little did I know that Asiatica’s owner Elizabeth Wilson was married to the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Marc Wilson—both scholars and experts of Asian art, design, and culture, and who had met on a set up in a Tokyo cafe back in their late twenties. A fact I just love.) I ventured out to explore on my third day here. First, the Bloch Building with its Isamu Noguchi Court. Heaven. In the afternoon, I moved onto Westwood. I rang the bell of Asiatica, and Elizabeth Wilson opened the door. She engaged me immediately. I gaped at her beautiful storefront filled with one-of-a-kind garments created from a blend of exotic textiles, like nothing I had seen before, hanging amid Asian antiques, unique contemporary and vintage objects for the home and tabletop, an abundance of featherweight shawls and swoon-worthy jewelry. I was bugged-eyed and felt in my element.
She explained that she created her pieces of mostly shirts, jackets, vests and coats (even a toddler collection called Asia Minor) out of vintage Japanese kimono cloth, contemporary artisanal Nuno fabrics from Japan and other luxurious textiles—all made in-house. She regaled me with fascinating and hilarious stories of her experiences buying at kimono auctions all over Japan each year, and how she built her loyal clientele of savvy, well-traveled urbanites by driving across country in her minivan to do trunk shows—as if peddling hot dogs from a food truck. (Mind you, it's a brilliant business success story that has appeared in the The New Yorker, among other journals.)
Elizabeth then ushered me into the back to check out her whole vertical operation of garment making. There was a massive room stocked with immaculately rolled, color/fiber/patterncoordinated vintage kimono fabrics, literally by the thousands. Then another room of the same, with more vibrant colors, each more divine than the next. I said, “Who, seriously, anywhere in the world has this type of textile collection?” I was officially losing my mind.
It was fun. I found myself touching one fabric after another, and I remember Elizabeth describing, with a combination of passion and funny anecdotes, where the different textiles came from, what each pattern represented or how a particular kimono of such provenance would traditionally be worn—or inappropriately worn—a big faux pas! Then came the next area where designer/production coordinator Kate McConnell executes her work by creating styles with unique kimono fabric combinations for the ladies in the back to make. I was given a peek inside cleverly designed closets that concealed more gems: intact antique kimono, some which might be used to make a unique garment, yet most tucked away as part of this remarkable collection. We finally entered the expansive, light-filled workroom inhabited by the talented pattern maker, cutters, seamstresses and modern textile makers. It was all under one roof and extraordinary.
Elizabeth and I ended up talking for two hours (gracious of her, refreshing for me). I felt we spoke the same language. Her deep knowledge, intelligence and disarming humor were enlightening, and I learned many things. I got the fascinating run-down of how she and her former partner Fifi White started Asiatica in 1977, and she explained the winding road she’s traveled to build Asiatica into a successful business on her terms, with no remarkable strategy or model—just flexibility, hard work, levity and good juju. It’s a story as layered as a generous helping of mille-feuille Tonkatsu. (That’s Japanese multi-layered pork cutlet to you and me.)
Elizabeth Wilson and the skilled artisans who have worked with her for many years are truly a collaborative team. This notion of allowing each person to play a role in the creation of a single, one-of-a-kind garment is inspiring to all, and the freedom and encouragement comes from the top. It’s much like a traditional couture house, though Elizabeth would never make a statement that lofty. She's far too real.
Fast-forward to today. March 2017 will mark the 40-year anniversary of the company. On average, fifteen hundred garments are created annually for clients who have stayed loyal to the unique Asiatica brand. The magic is they keep coming back, and Elizabeth keeps traveling to them—the arduous teamwork never waning. Not for the first time, but for the final time, Elizabeth says with classic humor to her team (which I’m now part of), “We need to attract younger customers—you know, how about women in their fifties!" It’s agreed that now is finally the time to create a new collection with new silhouettes and some solid staples geared to a new demographic (realistically the 30 to 50-year-old set) who will be surprised to discover this best-kept secret.
Looking into the future is an exciting time for all involved, and, as usual, the "boss babe," as Elizabeth so eloquently has been named, says again that the success of Asiatica is because of her staff; that she only hires people smarter than herself. We all know the truth.
In retrospect—I realize Elizabeth is a mermaid. A one-of-kind, just like her clothes.
Asiatica is located at 4824 Rainbow Blvd., Westwood, Kan. For more info, call (913) 831-0831 or visit asiaticakc.com.