Kimonos and their silk: Bespoke at Motoji, Tokyo

Monday, February 20th 2017
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In the realm of classic menswear, silk is usually restricted to discussions of ties and handkerchiefs.

There is the occasional silk facing, and silk-mix jacketing, but it rarely features alone in clothing. 

It was fascinating while in Japan last year, therefore, to understand a bit more about the use of silk in traditional Japanese dress.

We even, by pure fortune and coincidence, got to see a demonstration of silk farming. 

Although the fitting and tailoring is important in making a traditional kimono, the real focus is cloth. 

The craft is all about harvesting the best silks, dying with natural processes and dyes around the country, and then different small-scale weaving techniques intended to get different shapes as well as effects.

Motoji, in the Ginza region of Tokyo, is one of the most famous kimono houses in the country.

It uses only silk farmed in Japan (around 1% 0f the global production) and uses tailors based in and around the city. 

(The majority of silk today comes from China, followed by Brazil, and most kimono tailoring is outsourced to China or Vietnam.) 

Traditional kimono silks have details of the cloth printed on notes at the end of them.

At Motoji, there is a particular emphasis on naming the weaver of the silk. 

"Putting the name on the cloth elevates the importance of the weaver," says Keita Motoji (pictured above), the son of founder Komei Motoji.

"It makes them famous, at least in our world, and they will often come to the shop to have a photograph taken next to the cloth with their name on it."

That level of recognition also helps encourage weavers to take up the trade, and keep in going across generations.

And, as elsewhere in the world, there is a growth in the recognition of craft - even in Japan, which has always maintained a greater tradition around handmade product. 

The cloth above was accompanied by a leaflet about how it was dyed - in the north of Japan around Hokkaido, because the water that washes the dye out of the flower has to be particularly cold and fresh. 

In fact, the flowers are picked in the summer when they bloom, but are only used in the dying in winter - and even then, the work is done between 4pm and dawn, so the water is particularly cold. 

One of the things that Keita is doing to increase awareness in Japan is hosting demonstrations of silk farming.

This was going on while we there, with thousands of silk cocoons suspended in racks from the ceiling.

Schoolchildren were playing with the silk worms, and showing them to the public passing by. 

Around 3000 cocoons are required for one metre of cloth - all male cocoons, as they have longer fibres. 

"When I was younger I hated the shop, and kimonos," says Keita. "All I wanted was western clothes." 

"But over time I got to love it, and now I'm passionate about trying to spread awareness of it around Japan."

Although I didn't have a kimono made myself (I simply wouldn't wear it) I did go through the process of being measured, which was interesting.

The fit of the kimono is all about drape. Although we talk about drape a little in tailoring, little of it really goes from the shoulders.

The work of the tailor is much important to how the cloth sits, at least in the top half of the body.

But with a kimono, everything is about how the cloth is held and tied in different places in order to help it drape in different ways.

And different materials - light and heavy silks, linens, cottons (usually for summer yukata) - drape in very different ways.

So as mentioned earlier, that selection of cloth is crucial.   

The key thing with the measurements being taken here, then, was balance. 

If the shoulder seam sat precisely along the middle of my shoulders, the cloth must hang dead straight at the bottom hem, parallel to the floor. 

There was equal precision around where the cloth hung at the wrists, and the angle of the front edge into the belt. 

Even with nothing but cloth to work with - or perhaps, because of that - the measuring was as precise as any bespoke suit. 

Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man

Prices at Motoji from £1600 for a cotton yukata into the tens of thousands for precious or rare silks.

Thanks to Masaichi Hasegawa of Gaziano and Girling and Jason Yen of Gaziano and Girling/Camps de Luca for their extensive help with the trip.