V&A spotlights the sartorial and social significance of the kimono
For the latest endeavour of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk explores the evolution of the iconic Japanese garment
Stepping into the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibit is like being catapulted back centuries and across the ocean into 17th century Japan. Centre stage in the first room sits an intimate tea house, crafted from spun paper, which is set against a matcha green backdrop where freestanding bamboo accents punctuate the space; over the speakers, a custom audio was created to evoke the sounds that might have been heard at the time — horses clacking against rudimentary roads, china cups clinking and the sound of feet shuffling across tatami mats.
The immersive space is the handiwork of London-based set designer Robert Storey and his team, who were tasked by the V&A to bring the exhibition — which charts the kimono’s cultural relevance from 1660 Japan to today — to life. ‘We always think, "how do you create moments of wow?"’ says Storey, referencing the tea house which has a circular peephole where visitors can peek inside; an identical window on the opposite side gives a view of a kimono in the adjacent room. (It’s just one of 300 items on display, from Paul Poiret’s flapper-era gold tunic to a 2015 wrap coat by Nigerian-born, London-based designer Duro Olowu.) ‘It’s a beautiful visual that goes all the way through it,’ he says. ‘It’s a moment within the tea house, but the other window gives the excitement of what’s coming next. Our work is all about storytelling, and we had to create this narrative to make the exhibit feel discoverable.’
Some eight months in the making, it’s perhaps surprising that this is Storey Studios’ first ever exhibition; the Dalston-based team more frequently work with brands like Hermès and Nike on store windows and shop fits. But Tanya Eskander, lead designer on the exhibit, insists the two go hand in hand. ‘We approached it like we would a fashion show or like a store in a way,’ she says. ‘Of course, we had to be sensitive to the objects and their history, and consider things being behind glass. But rather than it being a pastiche exhibit nodding to too many traditional things, it was important to reimagine it in a contemporary way.’
Key features of Japanese design are present throughout; from gravel taken from rock gardens to bamboo and woven flooring; even the graphic signs were printed on Japanese paper scrolls affied to beechwood structures. Within the exhibit, a mirrored ceiling and an angular mirrored column create all the drama of a runway show; reflecting and refracting the dozens of technicolour kimonos that decorate the walls. ‘The idea is that the kimono is coming from Asia to Europe, and it’s this idea of the kimono being reimagined and how they were reinterpreted,’ says Storey. ‘So we created this meeting point of them looking at each other, reflecting them off each other within this central column, to symbolise that.’
The exhibition’s set follows the chronology of the kimono’s sartorial history, with three rooms each communicating a different era. ‘With the tea room, the aim was for it to feel intimate in the beginning based on how the kimono was worn in a more private setting. Then we have the kimono in the world, which is its transition into the West,’ says Eskander. ‘Lastly we have the kimono transformed, which is the kimono in theatre, dance, performance and film — it’s a future-ish, white space. The exhibit starts more private and opens up as you move through it,’ she says, referring to the garment’s transition from ceremonial garb to becoming a mainstay in popular culture, seen in films like Star Wars and on the runways of Alexander McQueen. ‘It shows that the kimono is constantly evolving and changing,’ she says. §