Japanese kimonos gain appeal as wearables and works of art

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Oriental kimono is cropping up everywhere. It is being worn by many as a kind of chic and newly discovered fashion accessory, to be worn at home or as a light wrap outside. It is being collected by others to hand on the walls of homes, public buildings, and galleries as a sumptuously beautiful work of art, rich in sheen, texture, and pattern.

This resurgence of interest in the kimono has been spurred by many concurrent recent influences, including James Calvell's novel "Shogun" and its subsequent television serialization; the epic Japanese film "Kagemusha" with its lavish display of opulent samurai robes; the Asia Society's impressive exhibition of Japanese robes; and the Metropolitan Museum's stunning review of Chinese costumes. Collectors are also showing an increasing delight in textile arts as a whole.

Today's new appreciation of kimonos includes a study of the lore of the robe in all its specific uses (wedding kimono, scholar's kimono, older-married-woman kimono, priest robes, etc.), and a fascination with its weaving, dyeing, embroidery, and painting techniques.

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Shops and galleries in various parts of the country have begun to feature the kimono, particularly the Japanese kimono, which has had such a long and illustrious history. Its basic lines were first developed for the Japanese Noh theater, and much of its inherently dramtic quality can be traced to the functional and aesthetic needs of this stylized art form.

The costume later came to be adopted by the Japanese aristocracy, and reached its peak of sheer visual splendor during the Edo period (1615 to about 1867), when Japan was isolated from the outside world. In simplified but graceful style, it has survived as a national dress until the present time.

Jeffrey Hayden is one of the Bay Area collector-dealers who offer exquisite Japanese textiles.Ten years ago he was a student living with a family in southern Japan, exchanging his English lessons to the children for room and board. "This family was involved in all the processes relating to the making of kimono and obis, including the weaving of the cloth, dyeing, application of resists, stencil cutting, designing, and sewing," he explained in his Gallery 3044 at 3044 Fillmore Street, which is part of an enclave of some 15 shops specializing in Asian arts and antiques.

"When I expressed an interest, they took great delight in showing me and teaching me, and it was there that I became fascinated with quality production of cloth, in the history of cloth, and in the early trade in silk. During this nine-month period I acquired my first pieces of old textiles and have been collecting them since that time." After that experience, he continued his barter system, trading English lessons, and his ability to repair farm machinery, for old kimonos, obis, farmers' coats, and other folk pieces of various kinds.

For several years he commuted back and forth across the Pacific, staying with families, traveling for several months at a time (one year he covered 7,000 miles), and bartering his various skills for textiles. He was, in the meantime, honing his knowledge of textiles, visiting museum exhibitions in Japan and the United States, and "studying everything written in the English language about Japanese textiles."

One year he loaded an old truck with his Japanese garments and went on the road up to Seattle and across the country to the East Coast, selling as he went.

"It soon became clear to me that there was a great demand in shops and galleries for my kind of goods," he says. "Magazines were beginning to promote antique textiles as 'wearable art," and interior designers were discovering their decorative use as 'wall art,' so my timing was right." At that point, the garments were modest, and his wholesale prices ranged from $45 to $400.

Mr. Hayden claims he was instrumental in helping build today's kimono-for-wearing market, which now includes stores throughout the US. Most of these kimonos were made during this century, he says, are readily available in Japan today, and sell in the US generally between $65 and $500.

Later, he began to deal in older and finer pieces, and now concentrates on buying and selling 17th- and 18th-century pieces (chiefly of the Edo period) that may sell for between $1,200 and $50,000. These go to what he terms "the collector market" (those people seriously interested in collecting Japanese textile art as art), and the demand, he says, now far exceeds supply. Private collectors, he explains, must now compete with museums for pieces of finest quality.

Mr. Hayden sees a new generation of serious collectors who understand the market value of kimonos and are willing to invest. Hayden and his wife, Toril, are the textile experts in their gallery, while their partners, Bozena and Richard Mead, provide the Oriental porcelains and pottery. The shop wholesales to other dealers in 25 states around the country.

A New York outlet, Jacques Carcanagues Inc. at 119 Spring Street, in Manhattan's SoHo art district, is one of the many other shops now specializing in kimonos. Mr. Carcanagues collects his "used" garments from Japan, and sells them here for from $20 to $1,500, and also wholesales them to other stores across the country. Most of his kimonos were totally hand-made in this century, and most are sold here as fashionable items of wear. His customers who are decorators, he says, often prefer to buy the lavish children's kimonos for hanging on the wall, or for framing for the wall.

A shop called Cherchez, 864 Lexington Avenue, specializes in antique Chinese robes as well as in Japanese kimonos. The magnificent Chinese robes to be seen at this shop were made in China in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, up until 1911. None was found in China, however. All were bought in the US and in England.

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