Kyomaï: Upcycling Japanese Craft Heritage into Timeless Accessories

The epitome of slow style, ShopCurious’s latest collection of Kyomaï clutch bags and cuffs (coming soon) is a fusion of traditional Japanese craftsmanship and French haute couture manufacture. 

The family-run business was conceived during a spell of living and working in Asia for seven years. Kyoto, “the soul of ancient Japan” was “an amazing discovery for the whole family,” which included children aged 3, 5 and 9. They lived close to Gosho, near the Imperial Palace, with access to thousands of nearby temples and shrines, surrounded by magnificent gardens, the most famous being the Golden Temple, ‘Kinkaku-ji’. It was only when they moved to Shanghai that the idea of making purses from Japanese obi was born. In 2015, the family returned home, to the Champagne area of France, where they developed their bag manufacturing business with the help of an haute couture atelier, under the brand name Kyomaï – a traditional dance performed in kimono and obi, and combination of the words Kyoto and mai (dance). 

Kimono are secured at the waist and the length is adjusted using obi sashes. Traditionally, obi came from the Nishijin area of Kyoto. The Emperor of Japan was based in Kyoto for 1200 years, until 1868, and, as a result, the most skilled silk weavers in Japan settled in Kyoto to supply the court with kimono and obi belts. Nishijin-Ori (“woven in Nishijin”) are the most lavish obi to be found in Japan, being made on Jacquard looms from silk and gold thread. Coincidentally, these looms were actually invented in Lyon in France, by Joseph Marie Jacquard, in 1804. In the Meiji period’s “Era of Light”, following two and a half centuries of closure to the outside world, the Emperor sent emissaries all over the world to study modern techniques. They returned from Lyon with a new way of weaving silk textiles, which used punch cards to create extremely sophisticated patterns. 

The obi sash is often the most valuable piece of traditional Japanese attire, and is viewed as a “jewel to enhance female beauty.” According to the art of kimono wearing, known as ‘kitsuke’, women should behave and dress in a prescribed way. However, traditional rules of dress have been progressively discarded, as western style clothing has been more widely adopted, with kimono wearing reserved for weddings, graduations and ceremonial occasions. Despite a resurgence in vintage and rental kimono for special events, obi do not survive in large numbers, as they are easily damaged by frequent tying and are not looked after in the same way as treasured kimono.

Kyomaï aims to help transfer the rapidly disappearing essence of Japanese culture to the modern woman’s wardrobe, as well as perpetuating stories passed on through time-honoured symbols spun into these artfully handcrafted accessories. The company's founders were not only influenced by their taste for arts and craftsmanship, but also by their appreciation of the painstakingly detailed workmanship in Japan. They admire the way Japan has adopted and perfected techniques from all over the world, and that they honour their skilled craft workers as “Living National Treasures.” 

The upcycling process takes place close to Reims, in a small village called Verzy. By curious coincidence, the Forest of Verzy has the world’s largest reserve of dwarf beeches, which are surprisingly similar to the trees found in Japanese gardens. Each obi sash is around 4 metres long, but only 2.5 metres are decorated. This length is used to make up to 5 clutches, which are individually numbered from 1/5 to 5/5. Each clutch bag is thus totally unique, and limited to an edition of only five. Not only is the inner silk lining of the belt used in the making process, but the decoration at the other edge of the obi is also used to make cuffs, meaning that the manufacture of these items is completely zero waste. The only additional material employed is felt, which adds reinforcement and structure to the form. 

Whilst Kyomaï’s accessories celebrate the simplicity and perfection of traditional Japanese culture, the designs are based on the divine proportions of classical art and architecture. For instance, the height of each clutch bag is comparable to the length of a hand, while its length is similar to that of an arm, drawing on the Golden Ratio discovered by the Greeks and popularized by Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci. And each item is presented in a beautiful box, handmade from Paulownia wood, traditionally used for storing kimono and obi sashes. 

“Reuse, recreate and revive” are the key tenets of Kyomaï’s philosophy. After their use as traditional obi belts, the sashes are upcycled and given a new life as handcrafted, luxury clutch bags and cuffs. As vintage kimono are experiencing something of a revival, not just in Harajuku, but the world over, Kyomai’s inventive repurposing of obi sashes enables these exquisite vintage pieces to be appreciated and admired as the works of wearable art they were originally created to be.