How This Japanese Artist Reinvents Traditional Kimono Design

SHOP THE LOOK | Kyo-Yuzen Silk Clutch

by Jes Kalled

“Each color remains separate from its neighbor,” says Tomoko Fujii, Founder & Art Director of RITOFU, describing the color application technique of Kyo-Yuzen, an Edo-era artform of hand painting kimono. “Before we dye the fabric we use a special glue to separate the colors.” The amount of time and patience allotted to each design is unparalleled. The details are intricate, unique, and made with care by skilled hands trained specifically in this traditional Japanese art.

Tomoko Fujii, RITOFU founder

“It’s a Japanese art, an elegant kind of painting.”

“Kyo-Yuzen, as we call it, was born in Kyoto,” she says with a soft affection. A technique that began in the Edo era, it is only practiced today by the few that possess the knowledge of the craft. “It’s a Japanese art, an elegant kind of painting,” says Fujii of the 14- to 15-step process that can take up to three months to complete.

Kyo-yuzen kimono by Tomihiro Hand-Dyeing

Tomoko Fujii’s company, RITOFU, has a rather unique history of its own. Beginning as a kimono maker in Kyoto, Fujii’s father started the business Tomihiro to design tailor-made traditional kimono for clients including Japan’s Imperial Family, such as the long-sleeved kimono, Unshutenreisaikasane, for the The Princess Nori. As a young child, Fujii describes growing up constantly surrounded by the creation of kimono, as if hands on silk and fabric were of second-nature.

Kyo-yuzen painting by RITOFU

Fujii recalls a childhood of “making things,” an interest in art that she was born into, and developed through carefully watching her father, her grandfather, and their family’s practice. She notes that it wasn’t influence or inspiration that drew her to the craft, but something closer to family roots. As if she too grew in the same garden. “Since I was small I was introduced to this kind of life,” she says. “It was very natural.”

SHOP THE LOOK | Kyo-Yuzen Silk Clutch

“There are only a few women in the kimono making business.”

About five years ago, Fujii began designing something new. Her new company RITOFU continues the long-standing tradition of traditional kimono making that began with her father’s vision, but also finds other creative outlets for thes craft skills, such as designer silk clutch bags using the Kyo-Yuzen method of dyeing and painting. The designs themselves reflect a true homage to the fashion of Kyoto, the beating heart of Japan’s traditional art scene, with a shade of something modern beneath the surface.

kyo-yuzen silk clutch fabric by RITOFU

Smooth clouds, and soft pastel colors take shape on the fabric of the Yuzen clutch bag, evoking feelings of spring and fresh beginnings. She confesses her personal favorite colors are that of red and white. However, it isn’t the color themselves that carry a meaning, but the feeling of which they summon, especially in regards to the ever-changing seasons of Japan.

SHOP THE LOOK | Kyo-Yuzen Silk Clutch

Fujii explains the meaning behind the cloud design, in Japanese zuiun, which represents a kind of effortless happiness. She goes on to say that each design is carefully made to bring out the joy in a person. Each season in Japan carries with it new colors, senses, and smells that can inspire and invigorate peace and contentment.

SHOP THE LOOK | Kyo-Yuzen Silk Clutch

It is with this intention that she actualizes her artful and functional designs. Notably, Fujii was awarded the Wonder 500 award for her tasteful conception. Her standout collection is a blend of the old and the new, a relationship between something her family started and something that she expanded upon and grew.

Tomoko Fujii, RITOFU founder

“There was a kind of freedom in being the only woman, I was not bound by supervision.”

During her time in university, Fujii describes a world that was predominantly inhabited by men. In school, in business, everywhere she looked, the lack of women was tangible. “There are only a few women in the kimono design business,” she continues, “I knew that I was the minority, I could feel it.” However, despite the paucity of women compatriots in her field, Fujii expresses that she was able to meet many different kinds of people, especially now as an established business woman, and for the insight they gave her about this industry of business and creativity.

Kyo-yuzen painting by RITOFU

“It’s a very unique and specialized industry,” Says Fujii in regards to her business practice now, and she reflects that actively seeking the counsel of others was important. “My friends confirmed that what I was experiencing was real, and valid,” she says, implying that this could be useful to other women entrepreneurs also seeking success in the field.

The lack of female students was something she got used to, it was common place. These days, she considers that there’s more than one way to look at things. “There was a kind of freedom in being the only woman, I was not bound by supervision.” She notes that finding the confidence and hope to persevere can come with challenges for everyone, but that we can overcome them little by little.

Kyo-yuzen tea box by RITOFU

Looking at the collection of Fujii’s work, you can see how it encapsulates Japanese values, while at the same time moving us to feel like we’re seeing something new. The uniqueness of her design, perhaps in part, owes to her experience of being one of the only women navigating a male-dominated industry.

Going back in time we can also imagine a family room so enriched with patient creativity, that it was instilled in young Fujii to carry on a treasured and inherited practice no matter what. “It was something I saw every day,” she says with the conviction of a true master of a traditional craft. “It’s all I know.”


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