Written by Amy Chow
Photos by Melissa Dex Guzman
Fumie von Dehn admits that while growing up in Japan during the ’80s she wasn’t that interested in kimonos. “I was into club music, fashion from Europe and not so much the traditional kimono. Occasionally, I would be impressed by a vintage kimono from my mother’s collection.” She liked the feel of the soft silk and the bright colors of the fabric.
Unlike her grandmother who wore a kimono daily, her mother collected vintage kimonos to create wall art. When it came time to divide up the family’s kimonos, von Dehn says she was the only one who wanted to have them. “My cousins had no interest in the kimonos, so I kept them,” she says. With more than a hundred kimonos, von Dehn believes her decision to eventually create one-of-a kind garments using vintage kimonos was inevitable.
The majority of the people in Japan don their national costume a handful of times each year: the kimono is worn at an infant’s first presentation to the family shrine, coming-of-age ceremonies, graduations, weddings and funerals. The rest of the time, it remains out-of-sight and forgotten. Yet not that long ago, women like von Dehn’s grandmother had ‘everyday-wear’ kimonos and formal kimonos which were worn in public.
According to Liza Dalby, the author of Geisha, geishas are among the few who wear a kimono daily. The geishas were the trendsetters during the late nineteenth century through the 1920s, especially in terms of colors and patterns. Today’s modern components—such as the wearing of a haori overjacket, the taiko style of obi fold and the convenient Nagoya cut of the obi—all have geisha origins.
For the modern women in Japan, the demise of the kimono isn’t only due to factors such as cost and inconvenience, but pride. The style of the kimono, and how and when it is worn, reveals details about the age and marital status of the wearer. For example, the furisode with flowing sleeves is worn at a women’s coming-of-age ceremony. The kimono with its bright, ornate patterns signifies to others that the wearer is unmarried and a legal adult. While a married woman wears a kimono that has shorter sleeves, subdued patterns and darker colors.
Von Dehn only realized the design possibilities of her mother’s vintage fabric when she created an outfit to wear to a friend’s birthday party. It was a silk green wrap-around skirt that had large purple flowers and a purple liner that could be seen as she walked. Her look paid homage to the fact that kimonos were worn in sequence layers, to carefully reveal a glimpse of color. She received a lot of compliments from people at the party who noticed the vintage material. “It gave me a lot of confidence and I felt good.” Newly inspired, von Dehn made a few more outfits for herself and soon people were asking if they could buy her designs. In 2000, von Dehn began successfully selling her collection in a friend’s boutique called Fixg Taboo in Sendai, Japan.
“I love the material and I want more people to know more about vintage silk… I want to reuse them [the kimono] so the silk can come alive again.”
Von Dehn usually feels itchy and uncomfortable when she wears synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, or mixed cotton. She noticed how comfortable she felt in the silk which had no chemicals. Von Dehn believes that by incorporating the vintage fabric into her contemporary designs, people will learn to appreciate the material again. “I love the material and I want more people to know more about vintage silk. If people buy a kimono it’s hard to wear and then they usually end up being stored inside a chest of drawers. I want to reuse them [the kimono] so the silk can come alive again,” she says.
While von Dehn has a diploma in textile from Shokei University, her mother initially taught her how to sew. Yet she had to learn how to work with the vintage fabric by herself. “It was a lot of trial and error, I learned a lot from my mistakes,” she says. She quickly learned that washing the vintage kimonos incorrectly can cause the colors to fade, or change the texture of the silk. Initially, she was also unaware of how long the process would be to take apart a kimono.
The process usually takes von Dehn three tedious days, as she meticulously pulls almost a thousand threads out. Von Dehn’s modern designs start by taking the kimono apart and dividing it into complete strips of fixed length and width. Unlike Western clothes, all kimonos are made of the same size and shape, regardless of gender. Each adult kimono is made from a bolt of cloth of approximately 12 meters by 35 centimeters and consists of four main strips of fabric. Two straight lengths of fabric make up the kimono body and two panels are used for the sleeves. Smaller strips of fabric form the front panel and collar. A smaller person would have to make adjustments by folding extra fabric either under, or over the obi depending on the gender.
Von Dehn explains that the material takes hours to iron due to its strong strength. The dense material also requires special needles to penetrate the material. It’s only after all this preparation that von Dehn thinks about her design. “Like a cook who decides what to make based on what they have, I look at the fabric for my design inspiration. I spend more time thinking about the color, pattern and texture combinations than the actual design—to show off the material.”
In an effort not to waste any of the vintage fabric, von Dehn ensures that her designs maximize the vintage material by using straight lines. “I try not to cut curves or round holes, so I don’t have to throw any fabric away.”
In 2005, von Dehn moved to Vancouver with her husband Stefan and her seven-year-old son, Kai. For the last four years, she concentrated on building up her inventory of designs. “I finally have enough,” she says.
By making it a private affair, it makes the interaction between the designer and customers more personal. “I want to teach people the background of each piece, that each piece is made by hand and the fabric is more than a hundred years old.”
Some of her current designs are multi-functional. An accessory could either be a belt, scarf, or headband. Many of her designs can even be matched with a pair of jeans—like her silky, off-white, halter top that is actually two kimono sleeves attached by a red ring at the collar. She also designs dresses, gowns and tops for men with prices ranging from $65 for an accessory to $1,500 for an haute couture gown. Von Dehn explains that the handiwork, quality, and age of the vintage material drives the price.
At the moment, she only wants to sell her designs in private residences around Vancouver, through word of mouth. By making it a private affair, it makes the interaction between the designer and customers more personal. “I want to teach people the background of each piece, that each piece is made by hand and the fabric is more than a hundred years old,” she says. Ideally, she would like to pass on her appreciation of the vintage material to her clients.
For von Dehn, this is more important than her sale revenues, and she admits that selling isn’t her main interest, nor her strength. Although, it’s quite easy to imagine her designs being sold on Granville Island, Main Street, or at fairs like Portabello West, this modest designer hasn’t considered these options. For now, she’s happy if people would help promote her work by hosting a show.
Check out more of Fumie von Dehn’s designs here.