Kansas City Business Journal 

Jan 21, 2011

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Asiatica’s Wilson is a unique Kansas City asset

by Michael Braude, Contributing Writer

I previously wrote a column expressing my great respect for Marc Wilson, the recently retired leader of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art who took that venerable Kansas City institution to new heights. I characterized Marc as intelligent, creative and innovative.

Those same attributes are appropriate for Marc’s wife, Elizabeth, who formed Asiatica 33 years ago.

Asiatica is not just one of a kind in Kansas City; it literally is unique anywhere.

When the Wilsons moved to Kansas City in 1977, Elizabeth couldn’t find a position in her academic field, Chinese and Japanese history.

She believed people would leave The Nelson and its world-famous collection of Chinese and Japanese artifacts and want to own things reminiscent of what they saw in the gallery.

She originally founded Asiatica to sell Chinese and Japanese antiques. Quickly, it evolved into a business featuring distinctive clothing fashioned from kimono cloth.

Elizabeth had marveled at the vintage kimonos she saw in Japan. She loved them but pondered a function for them. Very soon, Asiatica was making shirts out of them.

Within five years, Asiatica settled on an effective marketing strategy of having trunk shows in hotels in major cities throughout the United States. These shows featured a profusion of garments, scarves and jewelry.

On annual trips to Japan, Elizabeth looks at 40,000 to 50,000 kimonos. She buys about a thousand of them, and these kimonos are destined for a new life at Asiatica’s facility at 4824 Rainbow Blvd. in Westwood.

At this location, which doubles as a factory and retail space, a staff of 10 produces the amazing products.

Clothing definitely is the engine of the enterprise, which Elizabeth characterizes as “an old-fashioned business that absolutely customizes clothing for its customers.”

About 10 percent of Asiatica’s customers are Kansas Citians. The other 90 percent are trunk-show attendees. Elizabeth is about to embark on one of those trunk show trips that will take her to two shows in Florida, two in California, two on the East Coast and three in the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis and Omaha).

I asked Elizabeth how she gets women to these trunk shows. She said: “We have a great mailing list of 9,500 women. ... The list contains intelligent women who want to dress well. They have a sense of themselves. They are not trophy wives or status seekers. They are intelligent, independent women who are involved in their communities.”

As I visited with Elizabeth, I realized that Asiatica is about extraordinary fabrics, perfect fit and clothes that women can wear for a very long time.

Famous Asiatica customers include the head of the Ford Foundation, the CEO of Estee Lauder and Tom Brokaw’s wife, Merideth. All are certainly women of accomplishment.

Elizabeth Wilson appropriately ended our conversation by telling me: “There is no business model for us. We just figured out what we wanted to do.”

A recent Asiatica mailing piece perfectly described the business: “Timeless chic for 33 years.” Elizabeth’s former partner, Fifi Whize, quite correctly said: “To wear Asiatica’s clothes is to enter the infinite decorative imagination of the Japanese.”

As I left Elizabeth Wilson and Asiatica, I had precisely the same feeling I had when I left my visit with Marc Wilson last year at The Nelson. I realized that I had met with someone who is a tremendous asset to our community.

We are fortunate that the Wilsons came to our town more than three decades ago.

Michael Braude | lmbraude@aol.com. He writes weekly for the Kansas City Business Journal.