The kimono fashion trend has long been a hugely popular one – even in the West, where they've been around longer than you might think. Lately, we've seen kimonos making a reappearance on the catwalk – this time with fresh and contemporary twists.
Look back to the late 1800s and traces of kimono influences can be seen in the fashions of the time. Since then, designers far and wide have looked to the East for inspiration. Christian Dior was particularly enamoured with the Far East, often reinterpreting ancient Asia's traditional dress codes for his early collections. Fast forward to the catwalks of SS15 where a resurgence of Japonism took hold, showcasing geishas with a military edge from Alexander McQueen and stylish kimonos with judo belts at Marni.
'A thing to wear': the history
Of course, in order to properly understand the trend, we have to delve a little bit deeper into its history. The kimono (directly translated as ‘a thing to wear’) began its ascent into fashion during the Edo period. Prosperous artisans in a rigid society turned to art and found the kimono's simple T-shape construction well-suited for daring design. Red was almost instantly outlawed, but sartorial provocateurs sewed in scarlet linings to scandalise passers-by (a more subtle scandal than Madonna or Lady Gaga, yet effective for its time). Author of the compendium Kimono, Anna Jackson, suggests that for a woman, fashionable kimonos meant that she would be judged “by her dress ... as is evident in paintings and prints, where it is the detailed depiction of the kimono, not the face, that gives the viewer a sense of personality.”
The 21st century has seen a wealth of new, Tokyo-based designers taking inspiration from their cultural roots and bringing kimonos fashion trend into the international fashion sphere. Jotaro Saito, a Fashion Week Tokyo mainstay, has been showcasing his traditional designs since 2006. He believes the kimono is just as relevant, and just as 'fashion', today as a sharply cut suit or high-octane dress. Hiromi Asai is another champion of kimonos on the catwalk, this time at New York’s AW16 Fashion Week. Asai worked hard to fuse the East and West, sending her (multi-racial) models out to a soundtrack of Uptown Funk while wearing the decadent embroidered robes. “We don't use Japanese music or Japanese motifs in the show. We display the kimono in a Western setting,” she told The Independent.
A new look: when East meets West
The early 20th century saw Western fast fashion being embraced by the younger generations in Japan, giving way to a subversive and rebellious moga ('modern girl') who rejected the traditional kimono. Ironically, while the kimono fashion trend was experiencing a decline in its home country, an appreciation for all things Asian was seeing a resurgence in Europe. The iconic flapper dresses loosely resembled the straight-up-and-down silhouette of a kimono, while the exotic prints and rich hues were taken directly from the silk fabrics used in robes.
More recently, the minimalist shape of the kimono has been put into the foreground by designers. While the SS13 catwalks were awash with Asia-inspired fashions, the utilitarian-style robes by labels like Marni, Osman and Etro caught our attention. At the latter’s show, the Etro jackets featured paint-box-bright colour blocking with thick black borders, creating a dramatic aesthetic. Stella McCartney’s jackets gave the traditional kimono a sports-luxe twist, with exaggerated silhouettes in muted hues and high-tech fabrics. The SS15 catwalks took similar inspiration, with Edun offering pared-down, sleeveless kimonos in stark monochromes with flashes of red (tut-tut). Alexander McQueen put kimonos on the catwalk in a different form, offering outsized prints on leather and tulle. The Alexander McQueen dresses were a particular highlight, styled with harnesses to resemble the kimono silhouette.
A Hollywood influence: the craft kimono
A fashionable kimono offers a bridge between an offbeat aesthetic and vintage elegance: think Marlene Dietrich lounging gracefully in a softly lit room. For SS16, Dries van Noten fused Old Hollywood with Japonism, showcasing dramatic kimono-style prints in flamboyant shades of teal, mustard and magenta, against a backdrop of 40s androgynous silhouettes. For AW16, Valentino combined a distinctly Roman aesthetic with Eastern elements: subtle scallops and floral motifs adorn nude-coloured gowns – but it was the sheer trompe l'oeil that resembled a belted kimono that stood out among the Valentino dresses. For the same season, Fendi dresses drew on the kimono’s wide collar, thin belt and rich metallics. Sumptuous fur coats further emphasised the vintage appeal.
No longer a purely Japanese staple, the kimono has worked its way into bohemian wardrobes too. Traditional styles are worn with tux trousers and layers of necklaces, or with cropped denim and silk scarves. One of the favourite looks of SS16 was Gucci’s bird-illustrated kimono, offering an artful blend of Far Eastern detailing and traditional Italian design. It’s since been spotted on Margot Robbie on the red carpet, Chrissy Teigen while she cooks and Florence Welch... everywhere. The kimono fashion trend has trickled down to the high street too, with many mid-range retailers offering their own take on the design.
Stylish kimonos have been a favourite of the fashion pack for decades. Offering elegance, exoticism and a sartorial quirk, the traditional Japanese dress robe stands for individuality in the West. In its traditional setting, however, designers are striving to show its ‘fashion’ status, making it more than a cultural artefact. These different contexts and design directions keep the kimono ever-exciting and changing – even if we're still a bit fixated on that SS16 Gucci version.