'Western style' kimonos fizzle in Japan

Few countries have embraced the mania for designer clothes quite as eagerly as Japan. Almost anything with a designer label seems to sell here, from Yves Saint Laurent blouses to Calvin Klein jeans.

But apparently there's a limit. The Japanese appear willing to wear anything designed by prominent Westerners except that most traditional and respected Japanese garb, the kimono.

In recent years, ''Western style'' kimonos have been introduced with great fanfare by an international coterie of designers, including Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and, most recently, Daniel Tribouillard, chief designer and general director of Leonard of Paris. With their Western-style fashions selling for hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of dollars, all of these designers are popular and respected here.

But sales of both Cardin and Ungaro kimonos fizzled shortly after their lines were begun.

And though the Leonard kimono has been on the market for only a few months, the initial sales have been ''upsetting,'' according to Rikio Isaka, manager of the kimono department at Tokyo's Matsuya Ginza department store. In fact, at Matsuya's invitation-only showing of the Leonards, only 15 of the 170 bright-colored kimonos and obis sold.

Sales have been similarly tepid at other highly publicized shows at hotels and department stores throughout Japan.

At first glance, bringing kimonos to Japan might seem a bit like importing oranges to Florida. Not so, says Tuyoshi Wada of Sankyo Seiki, the Japanese licensing firm that commissioned the Leonard kimono. In recent years, as Western-style clothes have become the norm, kimono sales have dipped. It was hoped kimonos by popular Western designers could lure Japanese women back into their native dress.

The firm was also careful to select a Western designer who is both popular with the Japanese and whose fashions have a vaguely Oriental flair. Tribouillard , whose fashion trademarks are bright colors and elaborate floral patterns, seemed to fit the bill. His Western clothes are also quite costly here, and it was this upper-crust customer that Sankyo Seiki was hoping to interest in their Western-style kimonos.

Earlier this year he even boasted that he would sell 1,000 kimonos his first season, with a 40 percent increase the second year.

But it appears that even Japan's most Westernized women want to keep a few aspects of their heritage entirely Japanese. ''If I were extremely wealthy and could have hundreds of kimonos, then maybe I'd like one designed by a Western designer,'' says Miki Ichiyanagi, a student at Tokyo University.

''I don't think a Western designer, no matter how good he is, can really understand the kimono for all it means and stands for,'' added Yukiko Yoshimoto, a secretary at a large corporation.

The Leonard kimonos have also been criticized for their extravagant patterns and colors, which include turquoise blue and hot pink. ''Many kimonos come in bright colors, but the average young woman still chooses a kimono in pale pink, '' says Rikio Isaka of Matsuya Ginza.

Everyone admits it takes a special type of woman to wear a Leonard kimono.

What it takes is a wealthy woman. The Leonards are priced at around $5,000 for the kimono, with the obi, or long waistband, costing an additional $1,600. But apparently price is not a problem.

Many women pay such prices for formal kimonos, and the creations of kimono craftsmen deemed Japan's Living National Treasures can cost as much as $100,000. Such kimonos are in fact considered the Japanese equivalent of Western haute couture; fashion-conscious Japanese can spot the designs of Kako Moriguchi, Kotaro Shimizu, and Yoshimatsu Nambu as readily as some Westerners can identify a Chanel, a Givenchy, or a Saint Laurent.

Tuyoshi Wada of Sankyo Seiki admits that no one expects women who own just one kimono to select a Leonard; this is still the kimono for the woman who has everything, and despite the early indications, the company is hoping for success.

What their promoters are hoping for are more young women like Mariko Nakamura , an economics student. ''I think a Western-designed kimono is fine,'' she says. ''Anything is all right as long as the kimono is pretty.''

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