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Saturday, May 22, 1999 Published at 22:11 GMT 23:11 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Saving the kimono

A campaign has been mounted to save the look

By Juliet Hindell in Tokyo

Some of the most conservative thinkers in Japan have mounted a campaign to make the kimono trendy, so that the traditional costume does not die out.

Politicians have been wearing their national dress - the full-length, silk costumes, with long sleeves and luscious patterns - to make a fashion statement.

[ image: Politicans line up in their best kimonos]
Politicans line up in their best kimonos
Yoshiro Mori, a member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic party, says that they must keep up their traditions. "Globalisation sounds like a nice word, but it also means not wearing kimono."

Another LDP politician, 66-year-old Michiko Ishii, hopes she can help to promote kimonos. She owns dozens of them herself, but admits she rarely wears them for work. She does think, however, that the kimono has many practical advantages:

[ image: The handpainted silk is extremely expensive]
The handpainted silk is extremely expensive
"Kimonos never go out of fashion like western clothes, so you can wear them for many years, and if you put on weight you can still get into your kimonos.

"These days male politicians don't wear kimonos when they go abroad because it might look strange, but I think they should, at least at parties. This is our heritage."

Such sentiments may comfort Japan's kimono makers, who are struggling to find customers in the country's longest recession since the war.

A new, cheap, kimono costs $2,000, while the better makes can cost as much as $50,000. But that does buy you handwoven silk and handpainted designs.

Juliet Hindell: "The kimono could end up a museum piece, only worn at weddings and funerals"
Teiyu Ogura has been making kimonos for 35 years.

His customers include the Empress of Japan, but he says times are hard. "The kimono industry has come to a complete stop," he said.

"There is no movement at all. Artisans like me are under immense pressure, but I believe people will come back to kimonos when their anxiety about the recession dissolves."

Kana Dyke works for the Italian fashion company, Benetton, in Tokyo.

Benetton thinks that many people would wear kimonos if there was a cheaper alternative and not something aimed at the older generation. They are, therefore, launching a range of yukata, the summer version of a kimono, made of cotton.

[ image: Yukata is a summer version of the kimono]
Yukata is a summer version of the kimono
Kana Dyke of Benetton says: "Yukata is one of the most affordable Japanese traditional costumes that you could get, whereas a kimono is very difficult to handle even for a lot of Japanese.

"Yukata is a very practical and cool summer dress. We would like to more people to be able to wear it and by having an Italian fashion company make it, it makes it a little trendier for young people to buy."

So with the help of two people who tied and tucked for 15 minutes I put on a Benetton yukata. Even though it is supposedly the easy version of the kimono, I have to admit that I do not think I could have put it on alone. So are they really practical for daily life?

[ image: Kimonos come in all the colours of the rainbow]
Kimonos come in all the colours of the rainbow
One woman says that climbing stairs and getting in and out of cars in a kimono is difficult, but another says she is fed up with western clothes which are nearly all black. In a kimono she can wear all the colours of the rainbow and feel much more feminine.

But unless more people start thinking this way, the kimono could end up a museum piece, which is only worn at weddings and funerals.

Japanese politicians may have to start wearing kimonos on a regular basis if the outfits they say are such an important part of Japanese culture are to be saved from extinction.

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