Japanese Fashion Finds in New York City
>> Whenever the weather is warm and clear, I exit the subway at least five miles from my destination (the 42nd Street Port Authority) for exercise and window-shopping. When I return to Manhattan from Brooklyn, for example, I get off on Canal Street, then select one of many routes north to 42nd.
Random walking, of course, is the most fun in New York City when it provides opportunities for exploration (i.e., buying stuff). That said, Thompson Street from Canal to Houston is one of my favorite routes.
Thompson Street is a marvel of fashion shops, fine import houses, and a few funky outdoor murals. One of the most unique stores there (or anywhere) is The Kimono House, featuring Japanese fashion, fabrics and good luck charms.
Prior to visiting The Kimono House, my primary exposure to Japanese merchandise was through the huge Japanese Mitsuwa Plaza in Edgewater, New Jersey. There you can select from hundreds of beautiful sushi dishes, tea sets, futons, straw mats, screens, pretty bean-curd pastry, fresh and dried fish and a robust selection of seaweed.
In contrast to Mitsuwa, The Kimono House's merchandise focuses on high-quality silk and cotton fabrics as found in a wide selection of kimono's and obies (silk or cotton belts).
It might surprise many Americans to learn that kimonos are still popularly worn by men and women in Japan.
Kimonos are elegant, soft and very comfortable for around the house, yet are also exceptionally beautiful for formal occasions. In fact, wearing a kimono is spirit-elevating anywhere as you sense its surface and shifting folds. It's the Japanese-designed fabric that is key to this luxury.
Look, for example, at the Kimono House's pillow collection (top picture). These are made from shimmering silk and brocade of the type used for kimonos and obies. Soft. Lustrous.
Kimonos consist of two parts: the kimono itself, which is made from a vibrantly printed or woven natural fabric and its obies, which are colorful sashes or belts used to keep the kimono closed.
The obi serves a number of functions. On a long kimono, an obi holds the garment closed. Careful placement also lifts the lower hem so you don't trip, as Kimonos are not made at any particular length. Obies also provide contrast to kimonos. Even though one obi will accomplish its purpose, multiple obies, in a variety of widths and colors, are often layered to very the overall look.
While I was conducting this interview, many shoppers came in asking for specific types scarves, shawls, neck pieces, belts and even table runners. In this store, most of these things originate from some form of obi.
Here's an example: The beautiful orange silk brocade obi (second photo) would look stunning as a wall hanging, a table runner, or piano cover as it does wrapped around the waist of a slinky kimono. At 14 feet long and about 1 foot wide, it covers plenty of area. If you are handy with a sewing machine, this obi could become a smaller runner, a pillow and perhaps an evening bag (photo to right).
Obies, which are meant for the waist, are also used as scarves that can be worn hanging (tuxedo-like), wrapped completely around the neck, or as shawls. Not shown here is a photo I took of an exceptionally soft, blue, silk scarf made from an obi that combined smooth brocade patterns, tight crinkles, and Jacquard shapes. I would have shown it, but could not bring out the detail on a web page to do it justice.
The Kimono House also showcases Japanese crafts sold at reasonable prices. On my first visit, for example, I purchased a stunning, $5, 4-by-6 inch tall, free-standing "flip" calendar featuring watercolor flowers, reduced from $10.
In a similar price-range are numerous good-luck charms, most of which can be attached to purses, charm bracelets, wallets, rear-view-mirrors, and key chains. If the store isn't busy when you stop in, ask to have these charms explained to you. Their purposes are fascinating and they make good gifts for all age groups.
You will also find hand-made cards, paper products, paper decorations, pottery, jewelry and soap. Try on the authentic Japanese sandals, too, which look as good on a woman's feet as off (last picture).
The main stock of the Kimono House, of course, are kimonos.
With the exception of a few that are hung "full frontal" on the wall, the hundreds of kimono's available aren't as obvious as the other merchandise.
The reason the kimonos are somewhat hard to see "at a glance" is because they are hung on a rack that runs from the front to the back of the store. When you first walk in, what you see of each kimono is its sleeve edge.
It is well worth your time to draw the kimonos out of the rack and try them on. They make beautiful evening dresses and stunning lounge wear. Also ask to see the shop's authentic Japanese magazines to understand how kimonos are currently worn and to stimulate your own sense of style.
I fell in love with short kimonos (called "haori") and plan on buying one soon. In Japan, these can be worn over a full-length kimono for added warmth. In the West, however, they are more appropriately worn as dressy jackets by men or women for formal evenings. They also make sharp business jackets for women.
In 2003, kimono jackets have been making design news as Gucci and a number of commercial names started featuring them in their collections.
The short kimono seen to the right, modeled here by a saleswoman, in fact, was featured in the April 2003, Allure Magazine, page 124, next to a Gucci version. At $200, this authentic, Japanese-made kimono is a bargain! (Note that it is also sold.)
Of course, this photo does not do the jacket justice as it was spontaneously modeled over the saleswoman's jeans and t-shirt for my benefit. Still, you can see that the black silk with just enough embroidered flowers could go with any number of outfits, especially flowing rayon or light wool pants.
Observe that each sleeve is lined in white silk. As our model moved, flashes of white peaked out. This was particularly striking from the back, where slivers of white are exposed on the left and right from where the sleeves drape beneath the shoulders.
As kimono jackets are unconstructed, they look good on slim and heavy women alike. The overall effect is tailored and, at your option, you can wear one or more colorful obies to hold it shut.
Jackets like this have been appearing in many of the major fashion magazines, including the March and May 2003 issues of Bazaar where the editors refer to the trend as "Chinoiserie" - the use of oriental fabrics.
For a very clear idea of what a kimono jacket does for women's business clothing, consult the April 2003 issue of Lucky Magazine, page 96.
Visit The Kimono House at 131 Thompson Street, between Houston and Prince (212 505-0232). Their staff, lead by Yumiko, the manager, are all Japanese and are happy to answer your questions.
Don't limit your questions to Kimonos, however. Learn more about Japanese good-luck charms as well as paper crafts and pottery. Although this is a small store, as are most on Thompson Street, it is loaded with enough interesting merchandise to fill your hours. Best, if you decide to buy a few things, your total bill won't strain your credit card.
Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 4/26/2003. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.