Hunting for Used Kimonos in Japan — published in Impressions
Copyright ©2017 Japanese Art Society of America
The first 2 photos (Fig. 1 & Fig. 2) were taken by Julia Meech. All other photos are by Elizabeth Wilson over a period of three years, from 2014 to 2016.
Elizabeth Fulder Wilson
Elizabeth Fulder Wilson is the owner of Asiatica, a gallery and clothing design business in Westwood, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri (fig. 1). Since 1977, in partnership with the collector Fifi White, who retired in 2001, she has been designing and selling clothing of vintage Japanese textiles and artisanal contemporary fabrics from Japan. Each is a one-of-a-kind piece and made in-house in Kansas City. Today, her store has a staff of ten and a vast archive of twentieth century Japanese textile fragments, principally intact and dismembered kimonos. She has been hunting for unique fabrics in Japan for forty years. We are grateful that between international buying trips and trunk shows throughout America, Wilson shares with Impressions her insider knowledge of a fascinating, little-known and important aspect of the Japanese art world.
Impressions: Elizabeth, it’s hard to know where to start. Will it be the Sunday-morning flea market in Tokyo, where I spotted you and Fifi camped out at 6 a.m. on someone’s bundle of used kimonos, or the monthly Kyoto textile auction (fig. 2)?
Wilson: People know about the flea markets, but they may not know about how the textile auction system works. It’s so different from auctions I have attended in the United States. Dealers only. No previews most of the time. There’s an air of competitive camaraderie.
Impressions: What happens at such an auction?
Wilson: In the Kyoto kimono auction, you never get to preview anything. When the cloth is being auctioned, the auctioneer first pulls out a piece from a cardboard box inscribed with the offering dealer’s name, and throws it on the floor (figs. 3–7). He often starts at ¥1,000 ($8.60). If he doesn’t get a bid, he throws another piece from the box on top of the first one, again starting at ¥1,000. If there is still no bid, he adds still another piece to the stack, again asking for ¥1,000. Someone will say, “Two thousand for three pieces!” And another will fire back, “Five!” And then the auctioneer pauses, bundles the lot up and throws it across the room at the winning bidder. Sometimes, someone will want the lot so much that she or he will immediately jump up to “ten thousand” and then stop—unless other people counter with “fifteen, twenty, twenty-five.” So it goes, very, very fast. You hardly have time to touch the garment. The auctioneer has his way of flinging it out so you can see as much as possible. He makes either a serious or a funny remark about it, such as “Oy, is this a piece of junk!”or “Wow! This is a really good, genuine kasuri” (ikat). He flicks it over quickly. Kimono handlers have a certain ritual—how to hold it, how to throw it out.
Impressions: The textiles don’t belong to the auctioneer?
Wilson: Sometimes, yes. One knows the sellers from their names on the cardboard boxes. There are many, many auctions of old kimonos all over Japan—after all, used clothing is about the lowest-grade item you could possibly take to auction. The man who organizes this particular auction in Kyoto, on the twenty-sixth of each month, goes by his nickname, Ake — from the character for aka (red). That’s not his family name. He’s the auctioneer for all the lots. There’s a table on the side where the recording secretary writes down the winning bids. He or she knows all the people in the room, because it’s the same old crowd almost all the time; I’m the only foreigner. I am in Japan on a buying trip every year, and usually go to the June auction. I try to stay in Kyoto until the twenty-sixth for that purpose, because it’s really fun.
Impressions: How did you get in? Why aren’t there more foreigners participating?
Wilson: I don’t think most foreigners are interested in old kimonos that they have to bid on. Most foreigners who buy old kimonos look upon them as costumes. They might stay in a hotel in Kyoto and go to a flea market to buy something they can wear as a dressing gown (fig. 8). They’re not kimono collectors or “re-formers” of kimono, as we’re called. And the textile auction is by invitation only. My retired partner, Fifi White, and I were inducted around 1995 by Ake, who was as amused by us as we were by the whole used-kimono game.
Impressions: How did you meet Ake?
Wilson: Ake used to have a store in Tokyo in Harajuku, in the basement of the Mori Hanae building, where there were lots of antique shops. He had a teeny shop with kimonos of very high quality; he’s one of the few kimono dealers who really has an eye and a knowledge about textiles. As in any field, the kimono market is mixed with dealers in fine, second-hand kimonos, dealers in junk and rag pickers. I don’t know whether Ake’s family was in the kimono business—or how he acquired his expertise. Once upon a time, Ake used to save things for Fifi and me when were sourcing. He was our first stop in Tokyo in our heyday of buying old kimonos, about twenty or twenty-five years ago. We told Ake what we were looking for, and every year when we got there, he had several boxes full of pieces that he thought we would like—he’s the only dealer who has ever done that and whom we trusted to do that. We would go through Ake’s boxes and say yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. We’d probably winnow out a third of what he had collected that we didn’t want. Then we’d go to the auction ten days later, and we’d find all our rejects there. People knew that we liked tie-dye, or shibori, so when a shibori piece would come up from Ake’s stock, when he was auctioning his own lots, everyone would say “Hey, Fifi, Elizabeth! Look, it’s shibori!” And it would go for absolutely nothing. The other dealers did not understand why we did not bid when the prices were so low. We knew what Ake’s markup was. If he had asked us ¥10,000 ($86) for a tie-dyed jacket but couldn’t get even ¥1,000 for one at the auction—well, we knew how much money he was making, but it really didn’t matter so much if we were able to get first choice and skim the pieces offered. One of the dealers told us once that she wanted us to know that we were way overpaying Mr. Ake. We answered, “We know, but if you would pick as well as Mr. Ake does for us, we would overpay you, too.” She did not understand exactly, and when I have seen her at the auction she seems not to remember my trip to examine her things. That trip was an example of “cleaning out” a source of all the interesting material. We did not return, because we judged that she was unlikely to ever again gather a worthwhile quantity of choice pieces.
Impressions: How and when was payment handled?
Wilson: When we bought a lot of things from Ake-san, we would owe him $15,000 or $20,000 for what he had accumulated for us. We would go to his store in Tokyo, look at all the pieces he had gathered for us and make a boxful of what we wanted. He would tally it and give us a bill. Sometimes, it might be about $15,000. We would say to him “Okay, we’ll meet you at the bar at the Fujita Hotel on the twenty-fifth, the night before the auction, and have the payoff.” He would buy us drinks, and we would hand him an envelope full of cash. Two years ago, not having bought anything directly from him in several years, I got a call from Ake in my hotel on the night of the twenty-fifth, and he asked me to meet him at a certain restaurant for dinner. It was a restaurant to which I had never been, upstairs in a private room. Ake was drinking whiskey and eating bar snacks. A Japanese woman with him looks at me and says, “How come you haven’t been to see me for such a long time?” And I ask myself, “Do I know her?”She hands me her card, which I recognize. “I don’t know,” I answer. “I had better come next year.” The reason I hadn’t gone to see her was because she didn’t have anything great about ten years earlier. Some dealers you have to give a while to accumulate new stock. Others, you never have to see again. You realize their taste does not coincide with yours, and it’s not worth getting on the train for a trip to Tanba, near Kobe, for example. Anyway, I did go and see her this year and was pleasantly surprised. She had upgraded her stock significantly. After they tore down the Mori Hanae building, Ake closed his shop, but he does run auctions. And he’s sort of a hipster. He drinks and smokes and always wears a white shirt buttoned up to the neck for dress-up. He’s in some of my photos (see figures 4, 5 and x).
Impressions: Who puts the Kyoto textile auction together?
Wilson: Ake is the organizer. He rents the space, he sends out the notices. I don’t know what cut he gets, or how it works. You pay next to nothing to attend—maybe ¥1,000 or ¥2,000, something like that. And then if you want lunch, you throw in another ¥2,000 (fig. 9a –c). The event starts at 9a.m. I always say I’m not going to have lunch. I’m always going to stay for only a few hours, but then it’s so much fun that I do both.
Impressions: Where does Ake hold the monthly auctions?
Wilson: He rents a big tatami room at Yasui Konpira Shrine, just south of the Gion, for the day of the twenty-sixth. The participants drive up in little vans with their cartons of kimonos, obis and haori jackets, with their names written on the outside, and they draw lots to see the order of the bidding. They post a piece of paper on a pillar that says, “Tanaka-san is first and so-and-so is second,” in the order of the way things come up. There may be thirty-five different dealers. Then, the person whose turn it is sits or stands in the front of the room (figs. 10a, b and 11). A woman I know from the Kyoto flea market was the first to auction her goods in 2015 (fig. 12). As she stands there looking sort of hopeful and sheepish at the same time, Ake starts auctioning off her textiles until they are all gone. Her items have never been of great quality, and she was disappointed in the final sum, as she was going out of business. Meanwhile, all the people who are bidding get an empty box. You write your name on the box and put it near where you’re sitting. Everything you buy goes in your box. All these kimonos thrown in the air, so to speak, as if sailing from one box and landing in another. At the end of the day, everyone’s box of exchanged merchandise is full (figs. 13 and 14). It’s pretty funny.
Impressions: Are people always polite—even when they’re competing?
Wilson: Yes, Japanese are so nice to each other, they really are—even when they are all competitors. For me, the auction process is like the last act of a play. I will have been to see a lot of dealers by the twenty-sixth of the month. I’ve been to Nagoya, I’ve been to Tokyo and I’ve seen most of the dealers in Kyoto. This is the grand finale, where they all gather together, and I look at them and muse, “Oh, I know her. She’s the one who gave us sushi when we went to see her outside Nara that year. And isn’t that the lady with a pile of total junk up in Tanba?” And the other aspect that’s interesting is that I can see who’s buying complete crud and who has good taste (from my point of view, anyway). Sometimes I see a dealer who’s been buying quality goods and I think, “Huh! I don’t know her. I wonder who she is?” “Where’s your storage?” I’ll ask. She’ll reply, “Kumamoto,” or someplace, and then I decide whether it’s worth going to Kumamoto to see her. And they also watch me to see what I buy. If I buy a piece for ¥20,000 that they just auctioned, they come up to me, as this lady from Kobe did with her husband, thinking, I suppose, “That foreigner, she knows something about this stuff, so maybe she would come to see me in Kobe and buy some more things at that price or higher.”
Impressions: Would a piece that you might buy for ¥20,000 be intended for a jacket that you would make for sale at Asiatica in Kansas City?
Wilson: Could be. The most expensive lot I bought there this year was a roll of brown linen, still unsewn and enough for a complete kimono, with a peacock-feather pattern in ikat with lavender and purple. It was really beautiful. Sometimes, I’m a little aggressive and then I get embarrassed because they call me out, “Hey, Elizabeth! Wait!” I had jumped the gun. The auctioneer has just put something on the floor and I’m already eager, “Yes, ten thousand yen!” They say, “We haven’t started yet!” Everyone laughs. But I realize that the others have done the same thing. Ake mumbles on about how wonderful this piece is and somebody opens the bidding. Then I am welcome to bid anything I wish. One might miss a piece. There could be a group of perhaps five pieces somebody bought for very little, or very much—whichever—and there’s one piece there that you would have wanted, but you didn’t have time to look at it. Afterward, you go over and inspect the winning bidder’s pile and fish out the piece that you really liked. “Would you sell this to me?” Of course, he knows that you know what he paid for it, and he says, “Sure, doozo (please.)” The dealers almost never say no. You say, “How much?” He’ll answer, “A thousand yen.” “No, no, that’s way too cheap,” you insist. “You know, I’m happy to give you a profit.” “No, no, no, doozo.”
Impressions: Do you have other buying strategies?
Wilson: Yes. You buy a pile to get one piece you wanted. You bought four pieces in order to get what you wanted, and then you have these extra pieces and you don’t want to ship them home. So you go over to a dealer friend and you say “Doozo.” You just give them to somebody else, and if they make $10 on it, that’s fine. So people are really, really nice to each other. Once in a while, someone will have coveted something he or she bought, and will explain, “Well, I could make a huge profit on this, so I really can’t sell it for what I paid for it.” And you’ll reply, “I wouldn’t expect you to sell it for what you paid for it. But what would you like?” The answer is either “no” or “fifty thousand yen,” say. Then you decide—is it worth it to you? Because all the buyers and sellers know one another, if they see a particularly flamboyant, embroidered gorgeous obi, they know that person is going to want it. “Hey, Ito-san, this is for you.” It’s quite amusing. And then, of course, you go to their shops and you see the materials and you know damn well what they paid. But no one lets on that the piece is familiar. When I see someone buying or selling who to me shows unusually good taste, I do try to see their stuff. The dealers can’t peg me so well, because they don’t quite understand my taste—it’s not limited. I’ll buy a fabulous brocade, or a more folky tie-dye, and they can’t determine what it is that I really like.
Impressions: So the dealers don’t know much about your shop?
Wilson: If any of those dealers ever saw what we have in Kansas City, they would lose their minds. Not because they would want everything, but because they would not believe how neatly organized it is and how many wonderful pieces we have that we have bought from them over the years. They can’t imagine that we foreigners understand anything about what they have. They always say, “Haa! Kore wa meisen” and I’ll think, “No, it’s not. It’s not meisen.” Or they’ll say, “Tsumugi desu (It’s raw silk). Very, very rare.” In the flea markets, there are rag pickers who’ll first tell you how valuable the item is, and then just roll it in a ball and stick it in a bag—so you know they don’t really value it. It’s been really fascinating to see over the years how the business has changed, the dealers have changed and the stock has changed. If anything, the level of dealing has risen from real rag pickers. Lots of the old-time, flea-market kimono dealers are gone. Now, there are knowledgeable textile people who are in the business.
Impressions: What about the price markup and what’s available?
Wilson: At the end of the afternoon at the auction last June, they dumped out two boxes of fancy obi. Everyone is tired, bored and wants to go home. That last box—they kick it around and say, “Doozo, a thousand yen for the whole thing!” “OKAY!” And a few days later, you go to the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku, Tokyo–– a notorious tourist magnet—and find the same obis at ¥18,000. So there’s a huge markup for certain things if you buy them at American tourist places. And they’re usually pretty darn ugly. But one person’s ugliness is another person’s beauty. We in the trade are all looking for something different. Someone is looking for something cheap that she can sell you at five times market. Someone else is looking for inexpensive kimonos her less-well-heeled customers need to wear—or want the vintage kimonos now in fashion. And someone else is looking for only the most refined, wearable kimono for Japanese clients. Someone else is trying to recycle late kasuri cottons. The market is almost entirely kimono. It’s not really textiles. An Ainu piece or a paste-resist dyed futon cover would rarely turn up at Ake’s auction. Only kimono, haori jackets and obi—used clothes.
Impressions: Is there a protocol to the textile auction?
Wilson: As with anything, the cost and quality filters up from the very bottom. Everybody sorts, keeps sorting, sorting, sorting, until you get to the very top and you pay the best dealer the highest price, because he or she chooses the best things. Condition is really important, of course, but you don’t have any chance to examine articles. That auction goes too fast for that. First of all, the seating order is pretty fixed. If I tried to sit in the front row, that would not be appropriate, because I come only once a year and that’s where so-and-so always sits. You should be sensitive to the order. But as I’m the largest and the loudest, I have to also be a little careful about being too obnoxious. An American antique dealer from Kansas City made himself extremely unpopular in Japan just because he was rich. He would go to furniture auctions in Niigata and he would just buy everything. That’s a terrible practice. You can’t do that. If two of you are bidding, you have to be sure that somebody will defer with “Doozo (Please).” The next time, the other person will reciprocate, “Please, it’s yours.” As I’ve said, the dealers are very, very polite to one another. I don’t know if Mr. so-and-so and Mrs. soand-so really get along, but at this auction, they’re very nice. I’m sure that when the American was bidding for old tansu, or chests, in Niigata, he was out of line. I’m sure one can be cutthroat, but at this kimono auction, the stakes are so low that generosity prevails. Fifi liked to go to the auctions, but she was so uncomfortable, with her bad back. You have to sit on the floor, although they may have a few folding chairs. And they all used to smoke. Now you can only smoke in the entryway, which makes a big difference. Probably some people complained, because this was an enormous smoke-filled room all day long. The smoking is diminishing, and the camaraderie is really great. “Ah, this is something for you, Tanaka-san. Doozo.” And then they just roll it in a ball and throw it. Of course, everyone knows how to fold a kimono on the lap. I still have trouble doing that. I know how to fold a kimono properly, but it’s hard for me to do so very quickly on my lap. The real pros can do what I call “folding it in the air.” One of my aspirations!
Impressions: How do you settle up at the textile auction?
Wilson: At the end of the auction, or when you’re ready to leave—whichever comes first—you go into this little side room where there is a young woman at the computer. “Elizabeth-san,” she says, “you owe ¥200,000 ($1720).” Cash. Everything is cash. I pay my ¥200,000 and go into another room where there is someone with UPS forms. You write on a label where you want the package to go, he slaps it on and off it goes (fig.15). Very efficient. You don’t have to worry about how to schlep the stuff home.
Impressions: Do they ship to your hotel or to America?
Wilson: Not to America. Usually you ship it to the person who is going to ship it to America for you, or you ship it to your hotel, or to the next town, or wherever you want it to go. It’s just one more example of Japanese knowing exactly how to maneuver in a particular environment. They just know how to do it.
Impressions: Have you ever gone as far as Kyushu in search of kimonos?
Wilson: I’ve been to Kyushu, but not intensely. You have to have a real lead before you go, because otherwise, you might waste a whole day there before you realize that everything has already filtered up to where the auctions are. Of course, there are small auctions all over Japan all the time. It has to be proven to me this can be worthwhile. I don’t know Osaka at all. A woman from whom I bought a beautiful linen piece made an effort to come over and hand me her card, because obviously I passed muster in her book. She’s in Kobe, so, I might take a train to Kobe next time and “clean her out.” It’s fine if you find a dealer on your wavelength and you’ve never visited. Then you can have really good pickings. I am particularly fussy. Whereas in years past I might have found one thousand pieces in a two-week period, in recent years it has been closer to one hundred fifty. This year, I realized why a particular fine dealer has a “¥5,000 ($42)-room.” I wonder,“Well, how can she sell stuff so cheaply?” It’s because she bought many things at auction for less than ¥1,000. Then you realize that she’ll buy some unattractive things—not exciting to me—just because they are extremely inexpensive and in relatively good condition. She puts them in her annex and can get five times what she paid, because she paid so little at the auction.
Impressions: Have you lived in Japan?
Wilson: Yes. In a very unfashionable neighborhood of Tokyo called Oshiage. Eight or nine months in 1972. Ostensibly, I was doing research for my dissertation under Jim Cahill at Berkeley on a Chinese painter, Xia Gui, whose work was collected and admired in Japan—although the dissertation never materialized. But I did meet through Cahill my husband, Marc, the former director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, which is why I have my business there.
Impressions: And that was when you discovered textiles?
Wilson: No, actually, the first time I went to Japan was in 1969. The textile moment came then. I knew what great Japanese art looked like, but I couldn’t buy a painting by Sōtatsu. (Although I should have tried.) Textiles were what I could afford to buy and were representative of incredible, decorative artistic tradition that still had that sensibility. Textiles were so cheap and the dollar so strong. I had $2,000 for the whole year. That was my stipend from the NDFL (National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship). In 1972, I had another fellowship. The first time I was on my way to Taiwan, and the second time I lived in Japan. I tried to pick a Chinese painting dissertation topic that would take me to Japan, because the culture was so aesthetically pleasing. I would buy little bits of fabric. I had yukata casual robes that I wrapped around pillows for my décor and a haori jacket on the wall. And I decorated with pounds of mikan, or tangerines, because there was a glut that year. I had a pyramid of mikan in the tokonoma. Textiles were the most financially accessible for me. I could buy lacquer or even dishes, and I did, but I could get a lot of textiles for a few dollars and, if you chose well, they were spectacular. You could hang them on the wall, decorate your futon, run them down your table. The clothing idea didn’t occur until at least ten years later.
Impressions: At that point, how many kimonos did you own?
Wilson: Ten or twelve. I was very discriminating. I would just buy what I loved. In those days, it was yukata—fabulous blue-and-white yukata patterns. Those are virtually gone. They’ve been sullied with European designs. They’re even pink! They have to be blue and white, I think. A yukata cost $10. I also collected tenugui—cotton hand towels; they cost a dollar at the tenugui shop. You could make a pillowcase out of one. You could use a tenugui on the table. You could make napkins. That was really fun. All such traditional things faded away, but now they are being revived under the influence of Scandinavian Marimekko fabrics, which is really interesting to me. Yukata and tenugui are coming back. It’s nice to have the Japanese rediscover something that they disdained for so long. Now, they even want some old kimonos.
Impressions: Is there anybody other than you who is buying old kimonos in order to make clothing?
Wilson: Yes, it’s become fashionable now for many of the secondhand kimono dealers to not only sell kimono to Japanese, but to “re-form” them for Western-style clothes. There are also some places advertising apparel and accessories on the internet as derived from Japanese kimonos. I am certainly not the only non-Japanese to recycle them.
Impressions: The Japanese are in kimono resale in the manner you are?
Wilson: Some. There’s a lady in Nagoya who deals in very high-quality secondhand kimonos for her Japanese customers. But she will also make blouses and other things out of kimono fabric, because she realizes that her customers no longer apply the stigma to recycling them that they did up to a generation ago. Very few people are wearing kimonos now. My Japanese friend Kahō-san, who had never considered a secondhand kimono before, asked me, “May I come with you to the kimono lady in Nagoya?” I said, “Sure.” So we went together and she bought a kimono because she found one that was long (fig. 16). She’s very tall at five foot nine. One of the price points that took me a long time to understand is why one kimono of the quality that I would like can be much cheaper than another that looks to be of the same quality. It’s because of the length. Once they’re made up, they have a particular length. The fine kimono dealer measures them all in traditional shaku, equivalent to about twelve inches. Japanese all know their shaku size.
Impressions: What did your friend purchase for her first secondhand kimono?
Wilson: She found a kimono for $600 or $800 dollars that was the perfect length for her. But her choice was extremely conservative. She’s not going to shock anyone by wearing a boldly-patterned, bright-colored ikat-weave meisen kimono, no matter what size it is. It’s too aggressive. Similarly in America, we tend to wear a very conservative suit. The whole kimono market is so interesting to me, because secondhand clothes are secondhand clothes. We all know people in America who wear vintage clothing, although it is still a small part of the fashion market. Hollywood types will wear a vintage Yves St. Laurent and New Yorkers will comb consignment shops for upscale work clothes. (Some might even be looking for vintage Asiatica clothes.) But in Japan, the kimono is so complex that a person just can’t throw all caution to the wind and decide to wear this or that kimono—because the fabric, the design, the obi and accessories to go with it say so much about the wearer, the occasion and taste. “I just love that fabric,” I might say at a secondhand shop. The attendant might be twittering, “Hah! Does she know that’s a wedding undergarment?” or “Doesn’t she know that that robe is something my grandfather would have worn?” It’s irrelevant to me. The fabric just has to look good and feel good.
Impressions: Aren’t chic young girls wearing kimonos on the street in Tokyo, hiked up, and with Western shoes?
Wilson: Yes—it’s revisionist fashion. And they’ll wear hakama, traditional men’s formal trousers. There’s a very stylish girl in Kyoto who is famous for irreverently wearing kimono with big meisen patterns, closed with men’s striped obi and huge geta, or wooden clogs, with striped socks. Putting it together in a very inventive way. The tradition has been interrupted long enough (meisen went out of fashion around 1960) that some fashionable and creative spirits can revisit and reinterpret it. Most “high” Japanese look askance if you’re not wearing your kimono properly, or it’s not proper for the season, or you don’t understand the appropriate fabric or the combinations of fabrics and patterns. But if you’re fashionable, you can do all sorts of crazy things. They just write you off as crazy, which we do in America, too. We wear a Victorian wedding dress to a party and people think we’re very stylish. But that’s a small group of fashion mavericks. And then there are the “thread ladies”—Japanese women who are recycling and making very quirky things. I’m sure they think the way I reuse fabrics is very strange. You go to the flea market and you see the ladies picking through little bits of cottons, linens and silk, wearing mostly country fabrics patched together. They also make bags and dolls. And there are kimono recyclers making Western clothing who have booths at the flea markets now. They have a very different sensibility. They use cloth with holes and make little triangular patches. It’s their own way of looking and recycling their own tradition. There was an edition of a magazine some years ago on “re-formers” of kimono. Fifi and I were interviewed by an innocent young man who was totally puzzled by us. He asked, “Well, then you must know Miss Yamanaka.” “No, who is Miss Yamanaka?” “Well, she recycles. She lives in Aomori, up in northern Japan.” “No,” we respond. “Well, how did you get this idea?” He thought it was some infection that started from one person, a clandestine thing. “Well, how about Hirota-san from Fukuoka? Do you know her?” “Nooo.” He was flummoxed. He had no idea what we were doing. We all had a page in the magazine showing our wares. They were all quite different, on purpose. I don’t want somebody to look at our clothes and comment, “Oh, how clever. They’ve recycled a kimono.” That’s not the effect we’ve been after. I want them to say, “Oh! Beautiful jacket!” And if they know, if they speak the language of Japanese textiles, then they recognize the fabric. But most have no idea. Even our customers of many years will say, “What do you mean, kimono?” Which is fine. When we bring these extra sleeves that they can choose for a custom garment, they might say, “Well what is that?” “Well,” we start, “it’s the sleeve of a kimono. We have the whole kimono at home, and if you might want us to make a jacket out of these, they have not yet been sewn. So you can determine what you’d like us to make from it.” Even after they’ve come for twenty or twenty-five years, some draw a blank. So, for them, I don’t think the fabric is the most significant thing about our clothes––unless they speak that “language,” in which case, they are pleased.
Impressions: What will Asiatica do with its incredible archive of twenty years of kimono fabric?
Wilson: You can make a big hole when I leave and fill it in. It shouldn’t go to a museum, because it will sit in a cabinet and no one will ever look at it or use it. Somebody will have to document it––a lifetime’s work. But it sure is thrilling to just look at them (figs. 17–20).
Impressions: Shouldn’t it go to a museum with the stipulation that it has to be accessible and people have to be allowed to handle it?
Wilson: It could. But the patterns now can be conveyed by a computer. The collection would need to be archived, photographed and documented, each description with a swatch of the fabric attached to it. It can all be kept in an accessible database. It requires some compulsive person to learn what it is and just do it. Just a standard documentation. These traditional Japanese ideas of what makes a design are so original. What other culture uses waterwheels or sheaves of rice or such bizarre ideas for decorative patterns? There are very few repeats. What has kept me engaged for all these years is the sophistication, verve and endless variety of these beautiful textiles. Tiedye and ikat techniques are timeless, and the uniqueness of a jacket with waves and maple leaves or an oversized geometric pattern in subtle and sophisticated colors is impressive every time.
Impressions: But look at how many Uji Bridge screens there are. They repeat. Everybody wanted one. But with kimono, it seems that didn’t happen?
Wilson: Well, that is fashion! Different from everything else—in that change is required. The tie-dye and ikat techniques were widespread and they exploited them to the hilt. Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto are benefitting still from those traditions. Meisen and many of the pieces we have sold or reused represent the end of the line of the kimono tradition. It’s been going on for a millennium. True, at the very end of the line there are some copies and some pale reflections of Kōrin wave patterns and other familiar motifs, but the Japanese designers push and push and push these designs until “How did they think of that?” It’s just amazing––the lack of repetition is what keeps me going. I don’t come to work every day and see one more jacket or blouse in the same pattern. People who aren’t visual don’t recognize this. They’ll come up to a shibori blouse and announce, “Oh, I’ve got one just like this.” And I’ll offer, “Really?” Pause. “Of course, it’s a different color.” Or, “Oh, it has a different pattern. But, it’s just like this.” They may see it as the same technique, but to me, it’s more like saying, “I’ve got a picture—with a frame. Yeah, it’s one of those.” And the Japanese style of juxtaposing patterns! Do you remember Hisako Dubosc, the wife of the French collector Jean-Pierre Dubosc? The way she would put things together! When you find a really stylish Japanese who understands the game: obi, kimono, tabi socks, underkimono, collar––if she can play that game with sophistication, it’s just astounding. There’s an old geisha called Ikeda-san, who has a secondhand kimono shop in Tokyo. It’s no more than a shadow of what it used to be. She collected kimonos and published several books about her collection. When she puts things together, it’s artful and quirky and bizarre all at the same time. You think to yourself, “What’s the relationship between these and why did she select that obi to go with that kimono?” It’s like a puzzle you have to unlock: “There’s a maple leaf there, and this is the stream.” And the colors! When you can play it properly, it is a great thing. The erasure of the body in a kimono is so amazing, too. That’s how Miyake and the recent Japanese fashion revolution happened. It’s about the fabric. It’s really not about bosoms and waists and hips. The neck, of course, is important. But other than that, it’s just taking form into fabric and trying to make the body look as columnar as possible. Look at Rei Kawakubo. There’s nothing about a body in those clothes. It’s all about manipulating fabric. We look at it and wonder, “Why is that attractive? You have a hump on the side of your back.” Our Western clothing tradition is completely different. When you think of any of our couture designers, they’re all about corseting or waists or sweeps of skirts or sleeves. In Japan, it’s just four pieces of fabric sewn together. Man, woman, child, old, young. The language is all about the fabric. It has nothing to do with anything else. I have a Japanese manicurist in Los Angeles who complains, “I can hardly wear a kimono because there’s always something wrong about it. I didn’t do the back deep enough, or the obi is just not quite appropriate for the occasion, or the sleeve is just a tad too long. People whisper, ‘She’s not well brought up, She doesn’t know how to wear a kimono properly.’” I, on the other hand, can be oblivious to the whole thing: “Oh I love that! That’s so pretty!” Years ago, in 1969, when I lived in Taiwan, I went to Chia Yi in the middle of the country. My boyfriend’s father was an American missionary who lived there. Exploring the city, which had nothing but dirt streets, I went into a little antique shop and found four rolls of reddish orange, tissue-weight silk, tie-dyed with aqua and white. They were about a dollar a roll, stuffed away in the back of the shop, obviously left by the Japanese after the war. So I bought the four rolls and came back to Japan on my way home. I had a Japanese “family,” so to speak, and I liked them so much that I tore from my heart two of these rolls of silk and bestowed them as a present. They graciously said, “Oh, thank you so much.” They never acknowledged that I had given them old silk fabric for a baby’s underclothes.