At first glance it may not be immediately obvious that there is a relationship between what is happening in the world of kimono and COVID-19. However, there is almost no area of life that is not affected by the pandemic, and that includes kimono.
I left London in mid-March, just before the announcement of the temporary closure of their superb, ground-breaking kimono exhibition “Kimono, Kyoto to Catwalk”. What was set to be a block-buster exhibition came to a sudden halt, along with all the associated businesses, workshops and events that were planned to go along with it.
Such exhibitions are years in the making, and although it reopened briefly in September for online ticket sales only, the damage was done. Tokyo National Museum’s “Kimono: Fashioning Identities” was delayed by months and opened finally with limited online ticket sales. There is no doubt that the number of people who actually got to see these shows was greatly reduced by COVID-19.
A big shock to the kimono community was the announcement this summer that “Tansu-Ya”, a used kimono shop chain with around 100 shops, had gone bankrupt and was closing. Tansu-Ya was one of the big success stories in bringing used kimono back onto the market at prices which were affordable for many.
Owner Nakamura Shinichi based it on the model of the popular used book store chain, “Book-Off”. Some outlets appear to be still in business, but could be just selling off left over stock.
To kimono fans outside of Japan the announcement in June of the closure of the online used and antique kimono store “Ichiroya” caused similar distress. And it left those outside Japan with few choices for the purchase of kimono.
On a recent trip to Ginza, I found that the antique market there, a great source of kimono and accessories, had disappeared.
Fabric Weavers Now Produce Masks
It is not only the shows and shops that have been affected by COVID-19. I spoke with several weavers from the Tango area, in outlying Kyoto, to find out the impact of the pandemic on them.
The industry is at a bit of a stand-still, with goods not being shipped to Kyoto because there is little movement at the department and kimono stores. This is, of course, bad for business. However, these workers are nothing if not resilient.
The Yamatou workshop, which specialises in furoshiki, has been researching the properties of silk for health, and has been producing masks. Silk threads are much longer than cotton threads and silk doesn’t hold dust in the same way. It has antibacterial qualities.
Itori workshop produces accessories for kimono and yukata, but say that one year of work is lost as there were no events at all this year, where people wore kimono or yukata. They have been using silk padding to make light-weight futons for babies and those with delicate skin.
Other workshops have been using the time in different ways. Create Ebara kimono weaving company has been using the time to work on creating a beautiful website. It is also trying to figure out ways to increase direct communication with customers. They recognize that the internet offers opportunities that have not been available to previous generations. They are also trying to experiment with new silk products including making a silk that has some stretch in it.
Shibata Orimono is already thinking about where the next kimono trends are going to be. Shibata thinks that there will be a renewed interest in old and sometimes forgotten symbols that are omamori, or thought to have some kind of protective, or good luck qualities about them.
Already the form of Amabie, a kind of mermaid-like yokai or ghost, who was forgotten for years is being seen on goods and woven into silk masks, as the creature is thought to bring protection in a pandemic.
Small businesses are going bankrupt every day. A walk around my town in the suburbs of Tokyo and I can see the vacated shells that were full of goods or dining tables and chairs just a few weeks ago.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 is hitting the kimono industry really hard too.
Yamazoe Akiko of Yamatou reminded me however, that all the work was stopped once before. It was in the second world war. All the weaving workshops were instructed to stop making kimono and make silk for parachutes. They all had to work for the country’s effort and the kimono industry literally came to a standstill.
However, the story did not end there. These people started up again, and the industry survived and flourished.
The future will not be the same as the past, but I am sure that new products and ideas are in the pipeline and eventually new outlets will appear. The market may be smaller, but there will be less waste. The history of kimono is a history of artistic innovation and ever-changing designs. I believe that this will continue in spite of the hard year that 2020 has proved to be. There is too much creativity for it to stop.
Author: Sheila Cliffe