Kimonos and their silk: Bespoke at Motoji, Tokyo

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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. 

 

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Christopher

Under what circumstances might you consider owning (or recommending) a kimono?

Paul

The point of a kimono used as a “dressing gown” is not to put any effort into putting it on. Tom Ford demonstrated the style at Gucci about a decade ago. You wear it undone, to show off your work at the gym.

Jeff

Very interesting. Was most interested in the discussion of the silk (how many cocoons etc.,). I enjoy reading as much the process as I do about the final product. Articles about indigo dyeing, sewing techniques – all those things that go into fine items and clothing.

Anonymous

Did you have a look at any of their silks, see any alternate uses for them or understand why they can be so astronomically expensive?

Bob

Do you think the extent they take it to is relevant? For example only working in the evenings/night when the water is naturally cool enough rather than simply chilling the water

Bob

Do you think its more tradition or more economics? I dont know the sale of the operation, cost of refrigerating the water required or options of cheap electricity like solar or hydro but assuming there are staff involved requiring night shifts would normally have a labour cost associated.

KP

Hi Simon,

Given the interest in silk, it would not be prudent to leave out Indian silks, more so the Southern ones in Kancheepuram that have been weaving silk for centuries, now. Agreed, they form a traditional garment in the form of a saree for women. But given the farming, dyeing and weaving processes differ from other silks, even within India, it’d complement the write-up of time-honored, traditional skills.

John

Hi Simon,
Thank you for this very interesting report! It was a very good idea while visiting the country to touch upon this side of Japanese craftsmanship. Indeed, it’s quite impossible to fully understand the dedication to outstanding products by today japanese tailors, shoemakers etc. without taking into account the historical or contextual background whose main characters are the shokunin.
John

Christopher

Hello Simon, what trousers are you wearing in the Kimono shop? They are really nice!

Anonymous

Simon
What is your opinion on the A&S haberdashery trousers?

Anonymous

Sorry to digress on the trouser topic, rather than kimonos, but is there anywhere in London where you can get high quality trousers with some flexibility in style like A&S at a similar or lower price?

Anonymous

Perfect thanks, and better than going to graham Browne?

Anonymous

Thanks Simon. Always appreciate that you are willing to respond to relatively mundane questions, it is what makes the site so great.

Anonymous

Hi Simon,

Completely different topic but have been waiting for a couple of months hoping this topic would appear but unfortunately it didnt. About perfum, the last time you had an entry was in Feb 2016. And I particularly like your interview with Frederic Malle.
Now, can we have a rough list of “permanent perfurm” based on his category: colognes, woods, leathers and orientals.

Would love to hear your words on this.

Anonymous

Simon, yes. Or perhaps that would require another entry/post.

Anonymous

I can hardly wait for that. Give us a favor, simon – make it faster. Sorry I sound too demanding.

Hugh

Would you recommend these silks for jackets Simon? And is there anyway to source the fabrics in the UK?

Christopher Ashley

You wouldn’t recommend the silks for jackets – is this more to do with the colour/patterns than the quality of the fabric?

Anonymous

I’d like to take your attention on some different way to wear silk:
Shirts.
A splendid alternative to cotton or linen

Luca

Is possible make a suit from a Kimono’s silk cloth?

Sam Tucker

It’s nice to see the Japanese haven’t completely abandoned their traditional clothing. As much as I love traditional Western tailoring, I think the world would be much more boring and thus worse off were all cultures to adopt the same code of dress, which unfortunately seems to be the way things are going.