-- SO-AN is a store in Nezu, which has been developing kimono sales and rental services. It is highly regarded for its rich lineup of rare and unique kimono, but what was the initial inspiration for the store?
("Unique KIMONO SO-AN" Representative, Ms. Keiko Okamura) I have been a collector of kimono for many years, and at first, I started by renting out kimono from my own collection to customers. What triggered my interest in kimono was a Tsumugi kimono that I got my father to buy me when I was around ten years old. I really loved it, and was always creating opportunities to go places wearing it, such as bunraku appreciation. Naturally, when I wore the kimono, I was frequently praised. People would say things like, "You look wonderful, even though you are so young," which made me happy, and I believe became the motivation to start collecting them. While I was using internet auction sites to accumulate kimono, I also enhanced my collection.
-- Have you been focused on unique and rare patterns from the outset?
Ms. Okamura: At first, I had a lot of standard, relatively subdued items, but on one occasion, an older lady who was a kimono expert said to me, "You should wear showier kimono, because you are young." So, I told her that if I was going to make a special effort to wear a kimono, then I wanted to wear one with a unique, unparalleled patters, which prompted her response of, "Well then, why not make it yourself?" I ended up sharing with her, and wearing, tailored kimono with alternating panels.
-- What do you mean by tailored with alternating panels?
This refers to kimono that are made by combining two different types of kimono cloth. The experience of sharing kimono that are one-offs in the world left a powerful impression on me, and led me to an increasingly deep interest in one-of-a-kind items. I assumed there must be many other people like myself, who want to enjoy one-of-a-kind items, so I wanted a place that offers a high-quality product lineup, unmatched elsewhere, for those people. This is the number one reason why I started to offer a rental service.
(Store manager, Ms. Matsumoto) Because we are very particular about the product lineup, I naturally feel privileged when people who know a great deal about the subject of kimono are pleased with us. In particular, semi-ceremonial kimono come in a vast array of unusual patterns, so there is no shortage of customers who select a kimono while marveling, "I have never seen one like this." The number of customers who say, "Next time, I want to wear this" and reserve it for next time, is also increasing.
-- In addition to the kimono collection you have built up, you plan and produce original kimono, is that correct, Ms. Okamura?
Ms. Okamura: I work on the design of original products, and produce them using noren cotton. This hawk pattern can be worn by men and women alike. Of course, I strongly recognize the fact that it is a design that exists nowhere else. It can be worn on its own, just as it is, like a Yukata and can also be worn as a kimono, by wearing a nagajuban inside.
-- Please tell us how you came to set up the store in Nezu.
Ms. Okamura: I set up the store in Nezu in September 2017, and in March 2019, I moved it to its current location, close by. I am originally from Nippori, so I am familiar with the area. I felt that, firstly it does not have the various confusions of a major tourist destination, and it has a charming local character, that is lovely and green, with a retro feel. I intuited that the town would be a good fit for opening a store that deals with unique kimono and antiques.
Because it is an old town, there are many long-established stores, and lots of people who pride themselves in having built the town over the ages. At first, I felt that the hurdles we would face by trying to newly join this area would be high, but because of that, I thought that we had to gain the recognition of the local people, and provide them with a high-quality service, that could integrate with the area.
Ms. Matsumoto: I often take photographs in the vicinity, for the purpose of introducing customer services and products, and the people that saw me doing this introduced us to customers, saying "A Kimono dressing service would really work there!" I am very grateful that we have such a connection with the area.
-- Nezu also has a sizeable number of foreign tourists. Have there been any memorable episodes?
Ms. Matsumoto: They are particularly surprised by the process of putting on a kimono. There are many people who take photographs and videos when we are dressing customers; they exclaim things like, "Does it take long to do all these things?" and "How many layers do you put on? How many times do you tighten it?" (smiles). Even we find such reactions amusing.
Because the dressing process is so difficult, the sense of freedom when taking a kimono off seems huge. We share jokes, like "Drinking a beer after this will be delicious, right?" while staff enjoy communicating with customers while guiding them.
As for the question of what the customer wants most when we help them, their needs are all different, whether they are Japanese or tourists from abroad, so we make a concerted effort to speak with them.
The number of newlywed visitors from abroad, who tell us that, although we do not want a formal wedding dress, we want a kimono that can be worn for our anniversary, is increasing, as is the number of recommendations from tour guides.
-- What kind of experience do you feel you want customers to have through kimono rental?
Ms. Okamura: When I first put on a kimono, I was hesitant that, "It seems difficult with all the rules, and if I put it together weirdly, I will get laughed at by professionals," and yet I could only think about the fact that I wanted to wear a unique, one-off kimono. I never even thought about the fact that even choosing a kimono is difficult; it was all love at first sight for me, inspirational.
So, I want the customers to have a similar experience through wearing my kimono, that it is not something that is stifling and formal, but feels more showy like a party dress or a stylish outfit. Firstly, the feeling that it is instinctively enjoyable and beautiful is important. I would be happy if they then connect this with their next opportunity, to think about, "Next time, I want to try this one on."