lifestyle

Cameroon designer reinvents the kimono

15 Comments
By Lena Schnabl

When Omotesando Hills held a market for innovative kimono designs last month, one particular corner stood out. Indigo-blue cotton with vivid splashes of orange, undulating patterned fabric ornamented with shiny turquoise cubes next to earthy ochre and brown textiles: the second collection by Wafrica certainly puts a distinctive twist on traditional Japanese clothing.

These African kimonos are the brainchild of Odasho, a well-regarded kimono maker with a 150-year history, and Cameroonian concept car designer Serge Mouangue. “In the beginning, it was just a game,” says Mouangue, who now lives in Tokyo. “I was like a kid that was interested in creating a new thing by putting things together to find answers to questions that I was asking myself. It was the reaction of the Japanese that encouraged me to provide more.”

Aby, a Senegalese hairstylist, also played an important role: “It was when I saw her that I thought, ‘Wafrica is possible now.’”

However, merging two very different approaches to beauty hasn’t been an easy task. “The African aesthetic is about pulse, rhythm and strength,” says Mouangue, while “the Japanese one is based more on absence, detachment and withdrawal to create presence.” By combining these, he wants to create a third aesthetic, a conversation between two ancient and strong identities: Japan and Africa.

Wafrica clothes are more than just beautiful items: the patterns tell stories and African fairytales, which Odasho has to be careful not to alter when sewing the garments. The kimono maker is currently working on dyeing fabrics with Mouangue’s graphics, which would also allow the designer to make the stories easier to understand. He shows us one of his recent drafts, depicting a West African tale about a beautiful woman crossing the desert together with magical animals.

Mouangue has been interested in aspects of Japanese culture, like calligraphy and cinema, since his youth. He took courses in Japanese language and culture while studying art and design at l’ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris, meaning that he wasn’t completely unprepared when automaker Nissan offered him a job as a concept car designer three years ago.

When he arrived in Japan, Mouangue was instantly drawn to the kimono and the attitude it creates when worn. Though it was once considered everyday clothing, the garment is now usually reserved for formal occasions, and he aims to design a more casual version that is appealing to younger generations. “I want to create an urban and more wearable type of kimono, just like jeans were the urban version of leather pants traditionally worn by cowboys,” he says, sitting on a light wooden bench that he also designed. “The use of cotton already gives the kimono a new vibration and a more relaxed feel.”

As he talks, Mouangue sketches a kimono that pursues this idea even further, with a zipper on one side, a hood, an obi that functions as a laptop holder, and a shorter hem that lets women show their legs.

Though reactions to Wafrica have generally been very positive, the designer has also faced a bit of criticism. “I had one very aggressive email, maybe a year and a half ago,” he recalls. “It was a bit shocking, and at the same time it makes you think that you really have to be careful when you use this kind of icon: you don’t want to break them. I understand that some people can have that kind of reaction, because they feel you are taking something out of their culture and messing with it. But that is not the objective. It’s more about harmony, ambiguity, complexity, [a] new story, new aesthetics.”

And the “African kimono” is only the first step. Mouangue says he’s working on a variety of designs, including lacquer masks shaped like the ones found in West African villages, but manufactured by Japanese craftsmen using traditional techniques. He is also preparing to show his designs outside Japan, with an exhibition at the New York Museum of Arts and Design this November, followed by a display at the World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal.

For more information, see www.wafrica.jp and www.odasho.co.jp. Wafrica will participate in “Tokyo Diversity” at 3331 Arts Chiyoda until Aug 29.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

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15 Comments
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i would love to work with him and design a nz inspired kimono :D

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Japan & Africa should unite!

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@AfroSensei1, NEVER!!!!

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n second Africa is not a country with one culture!

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It almost looks like a kite.

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Looks like a flying doll in this kimono .

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The design looks great, like the pattern.

Cool photos here: http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/wafrica-kimono

The makeup on the model unfortunately reminds me of Al Jolsen or Rats And Stars.

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The fabric used seems to have a very elegant flow to it. It drapes nicely on the model.

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Japan takes ideas from around the world and adapts them to Japan. There's no reason why people around the world can't do the same with Japanese ideas. This guy really isn't hurting anyone. Who knows, maybe he can come up with something better?

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Is there a meaning behind the Wafrica name? It sounds a LOT like "Wapanese", which isn't exactly a compliment. :/

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Is there a meaning behind the Wafrica name? It sounds a LOT like "Wapanese", which isn't exactly a compliment. :/

I imagine the Wa bit is 和, used to indicate traditional Japan. Nothing uncomplimentary about that. Quite the opposite, in fact. Japanese people like Wa.

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n second Africa is not a country with one culture!

true. seems people don't refer to specific countries within africa often. they just lump them all together. it would be like, for example, "the economies of brazil, taiwan, belgium, africa."

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@afroengineer, Whatever!

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It's about time somebody did this. The yukata is also lighter in weight, like cotton, but cotton from African regions tends to have less elasticity, and so sits well on a kimono. Id be interested how it ties together too, is it the same or more street-worthy. For any Japanese styled clothes, what Ive been seeing in fabrics, have been deteoriating in quality. And the better quality J. fabrics are just up-yourself expensive, inflexible on design, and terrible to wear. I love the sleeves!

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It should not be called a kimono anymore. It should rather be called an Afromono. The model in the picture fits the name too.

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