Cultural Keepers of Modern Japan

By Vivian Li

In 2019, I was generously awarded a Japan Research Travel Grant from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the Northeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies. The purpose of this funding was to conduct final research in preparation for the exhibition Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso, scheduled to open in spring 2020 at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). The grant allowed me to research the archives, artisan and design studios, and art collection of the 466-year-old kimono maker Chiso in Kyoto.

The idea for an exhibition featuring Chiso, one of the oldest and most prestigious contemporary makers of kimono, came about when I was catching up with Christine Starkman, the co-curator of this show, during Asia Week in New York in 2016. She told me about Chiso, which she had come upon during her trip to Kyoto a few months before. After some correspondence with them, we learned that Chiso had just celebrated their company’s 460th anniversary and were thinking of the future. They were supportive of the idea for an exhibition focused on the importance of the art of kimono in the 20th and 21st century from the maker’s perspective. From our initial meeting with them, Chiso and WAM began their partnership in developing Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso

The most remarkable part of that final research trip to Chiso in the summer of 2019 was visiting the artisan studios. Each of the seven studios was going to contribute to the making of a special commissioned wedding kimono (uchikake) for the exhibition. Like many other established companies in Japan, Chiso was known to be discreet about their techniques and practices. Though the intention of the commission was to present an example of Chiso’s kimono practice today, becoming their customers also allowed us rare behind-the-scenes access.

Kamachi Yutaka and his son, Kamachi Shota, who practice colored flour paste-resist dyeing for Chiso
Figure 1: Kamachi Yutaka and his son, Kamachi Shota, who practice colored flour paste-resist dyeing for Chiso. (Image: Vivian Li)

Through these insightful studio visits with Chiso’s staff, Christine Starkman and I were able to study not only the process for each technique, but also the environment of the famous textile industry in Kyoto. Chiso is renowned for its yūzen paste-resist dyeing, and it has invented several types of yūzen since the late 19th century. I met Kamachi Yutaka and his son, Kamachi Shota, who practice colored flour paste-resist dyeing (iro utsushi icchin yūzen) (figure 1, above). This technique was developed by Chiso more than thirty years ago in collaboration with Kamachi Yutaka’s father. In contrast, I also had the honor of meeting some of the last few practitioners of endangered techniques, like barrel tie-dyeing (boshi shibori). I met Matsuyama Itsuo, who is one of the few remaining artisans who know how to seal the custom-made barrels for this technique. It is hard to attract members of younger generations to apprentice and carry on such labor-intensive practices.

Imai Atsuhiro with his design of the WAM commissioned kimono.
Figure 2: Imai Atsuhiro with his design of the WAM commissioned kimono. (Image: Vivian Li)

This amazing opportunity to see these techniques and learn about them directly from the makers was an unforgettable experience allowed by the Japan Research Travel Grant. The dedicated interviews with each artisan, as well as with Imai Atsuhiro, the senior designer at Chiso who designed the commissioned kimono (figure 2, above), shaped the narrative of the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue on Chiso and kimono art and culture in modern Japan. Only from this research trip did I fully understand the intimate guild-like structure of the approximately 600 artisans in Chiso’s network, as well as how influential kimono firms like Chiso play an important role sustaining this precious network of highly-skilled artisans.

Pieces dyed by Chiso for Dior’s Spring/Summer 2020 Menswear Collection.
Figure 3: Pieces dyed by Chiso for Dior’s Spring/Summer 2020 Menswear Collection. (Image: Courtesy of Dior)

On my last day of the trip, I asked the company’s senior managing director, Isomoto En, about the relationship between Chiso and its artisans, most of whom work exclusively for Chiso. Isomoto replied that Chiso’s responsibility to its artisans is to continue to give them work. Chiso has been re-evaluating the company over the last five years to find new and creative opportunities to expand the use of the kimono and its techniques for a sustainable future in the 21st century. Their recent collaboration with Dior, where Kamachi Shota dyed pieces for Dior’s Spring/Summer 2020 Menswear Collection using colored flour paste resist, exemplifies a successful adaptation (figure 3, left). After personally meeting many of the artisans and learning of their dedication to their craft, inextricably tied to Chiso, I understood the urgency as well as optimism in Isomoto’s response.

Kimono Couture was supposed to open in April 2020. Since WAM, like all other museums, closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the show was postponed to November 2020. Yet as the pandemic wore on into the summer, the primary concern was how to ensure the safety of staff at the museum and our colleagues at Chiso, who would help courier and install the works from their art and kimono collection. This was going to be the first time Chiso’s collection was leaving Japan, including fragile and extraordinary works (figure 4, below). Yet international shipping was also becoming increasingly untenable. By August, WAM and Chiso decided to transform the show into a virtual exhibition. 

Artist unknown, “Kosode with Overturned Flask Design.” Mid to late 17th century, Edo period (1603–1868), kanoko shibori tie-dyeing and ink on white figured satin.
Figure 4: Artist unknown, “Kosode with Overturned Flask Design.” Mid to late 17th century, Edo period (1603–1868), kanoko shibori tie-dyeing and ink on white figured satin. (Image: Chiso)

The virtual exhibition of Kimono Couture features ten selected kimono and themes from the originally planned Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso exhibition. In the virtual exhibition you can also meet some of the artisans I encountered on that final research trip two years ago. Transforming the physical exhibition into a virtual one allowed us to include more interactives, videos, and detail views of the kimono. Special thanks to WAM’s Asian art curator Rachel Parikh for coordinating the virtual exhibition of Kimono Couture— be sure to read more about our transition to the virtual platform here. The commissioned kimono was fortunately able to travel to Worcester and so is included now in the physical show The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design.

Visitors may not be able to see all the magnificent kimono and artworks in the originally planned exhibition Kimono Couture, and delight with their own eyes in the complexity of intricate techniques, luxurious materials, and ingenuity of design by Chiso, which is truly spectacular and rare to encounter in kimono today.  Yet I hope the virtual exhibition, which will remain accessible online in perpetuity, will allow more people to access the contemporary art of the kimono from the unique perspective of one of today’s leading makers. I also encourage those who can safely travel to Worcester, MA to see the stunning new commissioned wedding kimono by Chiso that can be viewed in The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design. Originally planned to open in March 2020, The Kimono in Print is on view now until May 2, 2021 at WAM.

Vivian Li is The Lupe Murchison Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art and was previously Associate Curator of Asian Art and Global Contemporary Art at the Worcester Art Museum.

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