From the 17th to the 20th century the kimono was the principal piece of clothing in Japan for both men and women. But now it’s an inspiration for fashion all over the world
Fashion as we know it – the business of clothes-as-zeitgeist, as distinct from simple dressmaking – was invented in Paris by Louis XIV in the second half of the 17th century. This, at least, is fashion’s widely accepted creation myth. The Sun King and his finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, established a luxury fashion industry which enshrined France as the world leader in taste. To help the lavish new court at Versailles eclipse the austere, black-clad glamour of Madrid, they introduced a rigid schedule whereby new fabrics were issued twice a year – not just warmer or lighter to reflect the weather, but in new colours each time – and the fashion “season” was born.
But travel 6,000 miles east to Kyoto, home of the kimono, and the history of fashion looks quite different. In the late 17th century, a demand for luxury textiles among the burgeoning Japanese merchant class grew so fast that by 1700 the narrow streets of the Nishijin district thundered to the clacking of an estimated 7,000 looms. The headquarters of Yamaguchi Genbei’s 10th generation family-run kimono business is testament to the garment’s powerful history. This elegant atelier, where studios with lacquered floors look on to a light-dappled central courtyard, helps tell the story of the kimono as an alternative narrative to a Eurocentric history of elegance. Yamaguchi’s designs, and his family collection of antique kimono, attract visitors from the highest echelons of the fashion industry. When Giorgio Armani visited last year, they spent five hours together. (Mr Armani was particularly taken with an obi with silver embroidery cascading down one vertical seam, a design based on how glaze flows on to a ceramic, Yamaguchi said.) Both Chanel and Nike have also sent sizeable delegations to pay homage to this Kyoto version of an haute couture house. Here in Japan, in other words, fashion has never been about Paris.