SAN FRANCISCO — “Everything old is new again” seems to be a perennial sentiment in the fashion world. It’s never seemed truer than with the Japanese kimono. The Asian Art Museum’s Kimono Refashioned demonstrates the kimono’s enduring impact on fashion since the 19th century through luxurious Japanese kimonos, opulent Western gowns, and haute couture from the likes of Junya Watanabe, Issey Miyake, Alexander McQueen, and other renowned designers. The exhibition asks what it is about the kimono that has captivated designers worldwide, for well over a century.
Perhaps the richness of kimono fabrics compelled European designers in the 19th century to create new fashions from deconstructed kimonos. Japanese-style textile designs continue to appear in contemporary creations. In a dress from Yohji Yamamoto’s Spring/Summer 1995 collection, for instance, the sporty black jersey of the bodice contrasts with a sumptuous red-and-gold brocade skirt reminiscent of a kimono’s obi sash.
Maybe kimono’s myriad motifs and patterns are aesthetic delights to designers’ eyes. Irises, cranes, bamboo — such traditional Japanese imagery, drawn from the natural world have appeared in abundance in Western fashions, and traditional Japanese motifs continue to adorn Western clothing in novel ways. Examples in the exhibition range from haute couture gowns to kicky boots.
Yet, my bet is on the kimono’s distinctive form and construction, represented by such pieces as a Lucile Ltd. kimono-esque evening dress and a House of Amy Linker coat evoking the uchikake jacket. For Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2003 collection, Tom Ford envisioned the form as a sumptuous, flowing jacket, with batwing arms, epitomizing relaxed refinement. Kimono’s straight cuts and flatness create illusions between two and three dimensions. Similarly, the kimono’s long expanses of fabric are exploited with opulent embroidery and dyeing techniques that, in the hands of Iris van Herpen, stretch the limits of textile’s materiality.
Contemporary fashion also reflects Japan’s pop spirit with clothing inspired by manga and animation. Images from “Astroboy” and Mobile Suit Gundam enliven haute couture with innovative graphic designs that blur the boundaries between high and low, and East and West. Time and again, the kimono has been transformed from a unique Japanese “thing to wear” into an international fashion design staple. I can’t wait to see what the kimono will morph into next.
Kimono Refashioned continues at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin Street, San Francisco) through May 5.