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The Cultural Appropriation of the Kimono in Fashion

3 days before the launch of our newest style: The Slit-Back Maxi, we came across an article written by Emi Ito on the cultural appropriation of the traditional Kimono garment. It was educational, vulnerable, and a part of an important conversation. Beyond that, it was an invitation for brands to respond mindfully.

Going over Emi Ito’s article brought to mind the conversation of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation we had last year before the launch of The Reversible Kimono Jacket. A conversation that led to more research and reflection on our end. After all, referencing the traditional Kimono for inspiration is not an original idea. We took the time to learn its history and understand the details that make it what it is because our intention was to better appreciate this cultural garment.

But after reading Emi Ito’s writing on why “My Kimono is Not Your Couture”, we realized intention alone was not enough. So we called a meeting. The agenda was twofold: 1) To discuss the renaming of our newest style, whose placeholder name at the time was The Kimono Dress, and 2) To talk about whether we should change the name of our (already launched and known) Reversible Kimono Jacket.

The Slit-Back Maxi Mayura Rust worn in Portugal
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Shop the Slit-Back Maxi here

 

On the “Kimono Dress”

In Emi Ito’s article, she listed 4 questions to ask before calling something a Kimono. We went through it and realized:

1. The Slit-Back Maxi’s only similarity to the traditional Kimono is the generalised silhouette with full sleeves and T-shaped lines. The latter detail is too loosely reinterpreted to really be able to called a Kimono when it feels descriptive and more akin to any generic robe as opposed to a cultural garment.

2. Even though it is a dress we named after a Japanese cultural garment, its silhouette is not a strong parallel to its inspiration. It wasn’t designed by Japanese designers, the prints used are not Japanese, the fabric and garment wasn’t made in Japan, and the models in catalogue and lookbook shot are also not Japanese. As designers, it is not enough to give credit to creative inspiration. We also need to recognize the people and culture behind our inspirations and involve them in the conversation and design process.

3. Another name would work just as well for the garment; one that highlighted signature components integral to its design.

So 3 days before the launch of our new style, we made changes to our marketing and content plans and renamed it the Slit-Back Maxi instead.

Sculptor Han Sai Por in the Reversible Haori Parva
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Shop the Reversible Haori here

 

On the “Reversible Kimono Jacket”

In the middle of 2018, we launched the Reversible Kimono Jacket, our modern reinterpretation of the heritage silhouette of the Kimono traditional garment. It was also the catalyst for our conversation on cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. We knew that part of cultural appreciation is intention, and to respect the inspiration of the Kimono from the Japanese culture, meant we should assume the responsibility to make that appreciation apparent. Beyond conversation, this also looked like taking the time to understand the history of a cultural garment and its significance.

But after reading “My Kimono is Not Your Couture”, we realized its details of a T-shaped straight-lined silhouette, attached collars and full sleeves were far more reminiscent of the Haori than the Kimono. Traditionally worn open, The Haori is a Kimono-style jacket and worn most often over a kosode (a basic Japanese robe). Which is why we made the decision to rename The Reversible Kimono Jacket to The Reversible Haori, a name more accurately appropriate of its silhouette.

 

 

We began with a commitment to transparency, and we want to continue that practice in our everyday, beginning with the people and process behind our products. Post-meeting, we knew we wanted to write about this conversation on our journal. There’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and we’ve come to realize that even when we think we know the distinction, there’s always more to learn. As brands and customers, it’s important that we take initiative and educate ourselves on this dichotomy. We all have the ability and resources (hello Google) to do so, and it is not the responsibility of the marginalized community to educate us about their experience. If our curiosity and intention is genuine, we need to speak to a wide range of people from that culture and listen to them, and not just the ones that agree with us.


Editor’s note 04/10/19: Shortly after this article was published, Emi reached out to us about the naming of the obi belt in the Slit-Back Maxi and shared a similar conversation she shared with Elizabeth Suzann. Though our belt was heavily inspired by the traditional obi belt, its silhouette now is a more simplified and modified adaption; one that speaks more accurately to other modern interpretations as opposed to its namesake inspiration. After discussing with the team, we’ve decided to rename the obi belt to the wrap belt. 

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