When Yumi Katsura opened Japan’s first bridal store in 1964, little did she know that she was launching a quiet revolution. Despite nearly two decades passing since the end of World War II, Japan in the early 1960s was still in the first stages of economic recovery. The bridal business was soaring; people were still humble about celebrations and very much tied to traditional norms. Western attire, especially bridal clothing, was far from popular — in fact, only about 3 percent of Japanese brides wore white wedding dresses. Most opted to wear time-honored kimono.
Having grown up watching her mother turn what began as a small community gathering into a dressmaking school for over 2,000 students, however, Katsura knew that change was possible. Inspired to take fashion — a subject she had studied at the prestigious Kyoritsu Women’s University and later taught at her mother’s school — to another level, she went to Paris in search of more knowledge and inspiration. Ironically, however, she found her true calling only after returning to Japan. In the early ‘60s, after an unplanned encounter and a shocking realization, she vowed to change the status quo for a very small minority by becoming Japan’s first bridal designer. Fifty-four years later, she is one of the most renowned Japanese designers with stores in Tokyo, Osaka, the U.S., France, Canada, China and more, and a long list of achievements she is yet to accomplish.
Looking back, Katsura’s life is one of many firsts: she is Japan’s first bridal designer, the first to hold a bridal show in Japan, the first to write a book on bridal planning and introduce a ceremony followed by a reception, the first to present a kimono-inspired garment to the pope, the first to organize a bridal summit in Asia, the first to dress a humanoid robot in a wedding gown, the first Guinness record holder for most pearls on a dress (13,262) and, most recently, the first to hold a fashion show at Japan’s State Guest House. Perhaps most interesting of all — she was probably the first bridal gown designer to refuse to wear a wedding dress for her own big day.
Humble despite her success; kind and down to earth regardless of the constant spotlight; full of energy despite her tireless work schedule, and still passionate even after already achieving so much — Yumi Katsura is a legend who continues to inspire millions across the globe.
Japan Today caught up with the renowned designer in an exclusive interview that covered her history, road to success and how she managed to become a certified scuba diver in her late 60s.
Do your remember the moment you became enamored with fashion?
It was 1947, just after the end of the war, when Christian Dior unveiled his revolutionary “The New Look.” For the first time in my life I saw “romantic” clothes. Until then, having grown up during the war, we wore mostly slacks and blouses or long skirts. When Dior eventually came to Japan — I think, in the early ‘50s — everyone began admiring The New Look. I could see what an enormous impact the industry had on women. I will never forget — I read in the newspaper — about a young woman who wanted to wear Dior’s famous long skirt but on her monthly salary, she couldn’t afford it. She committed suicide out of despair. It was so shocking. It made me realize what a huge impact fashion has on people’s lives.
"I strongly hope that Japan will start acknowledging the importance of fashion on a national level."
You went to study in Europe in the 1960s at a time when it wasn’t very common for Japanese people — especially women — to travel abroad. What made you go?
I had always been fascinated with Western-style dresses. I used to read about them in history textbooks, but I had never actually seen one in person — there were no samples even at dressmaking schools. I wanted to see those dresses and learn about their history. I thought the only way to do this was by going to Paris. In 1960, I finally went.
How did your family react to this? Did they try to stop you?
No, it was the opposite. My mother was running a dressmaking school, so she was very supportive. She probably wanted to go abroad herself but it was difficult in her time.
What piqued your interest in bridal design?
I went to Paris while I was also working as a teacher at my mother’s school. There, I studied the basics of haute couture in order to teach it to my students. After returning to Tokyo, I asked my students to design a wedding dress as part of their graduation assignment. Since it was their — and my — first time, I went along with them to shop for materials and I realized that Japan had absolutely nothing on the market for wedding dresses. Wedding attire was still very much limited to kimono. It got me curious and after checking, I came to know that only about 3 percent of couples who had wedding ceremonies wore Western-style wedding dresses at the time. Given that 97 percent of the people were not going for Western weddings, there was no room for business of the kind. But I kept thinking about those 3 percent — how were they managing? I felt that someone had to open a business and help this small minority.
So you decided to go for it. How did people around you react?
Yes, I wanted to help and I saw potential despite all odds. I told my mother about my idea to start a bridal business and she didn’t oppose it. She backed me up, but warned me that I had to also maintain my position at the school and eventually succeed her. She also reminded me that I was talking about a very “unpromising clientele” (laughs). So her condition was that if one day things didn’t work out, I should give up the bridal business and focus on the school.
Tell us more about how you started your business.
After I made up my mind, and while waiting for my store to be constructed, I traveled abroad to research other countries’ wedding markets. First I went to Russia. Women there were wearing short wedding dresses and men, just regular suits — and I could see that they were not very happy with it. From there, I traveled to Holland, Spain, Italy, the U.S., Mexico and many other countries… it took an entire year. When I came back, my store — Japan’s first bridal store — officially opened on Dec. 31, 1964.
"I have not really experienced being looked down on or having someone intervene in my business because I’m a woman."
Was it difficult to run the business as a woman?
A lot of people ask me this, but in fact, in the beauty and fashion industry, as far as my experience goes, there wasn’t much of a gender gap. I have not really experienced being looked down on or having someone intervene in my business because I’m a woman.
It took a long time before the business started to turn a profit. In the entire first year after the store’s opening, we received orders for just 31 dresses. For the first 10 years, I hardly made any money. There were four employees and I could earn just enough to pay them. During that time, I continued working at my mother’s dressmaking school three times a week, from morning until late in the evening. That was my main income. But I was determined to keep going. Our flagship store in Nogizaka was built around 10 years into the business and it was around this time that the company finally started to make a profit.
And here you are now — more successful than ever. In February this year, you displayed your latest “Japonesque” collection — a series of Japan-inspired wedding dresses and kimono — in a fashion show at the Geihinkan (Akasaka Palace, now the State Guest House) in Tokyo. What inspired that collection?
I wanted to do something very unique. As a Japanese designer, I thought that incorporating kimono and Japanese motifs into fashion is that one unique thing I could do in my career. I think the Japanese kimono is one of the most sophisticated traditional costumes in the world. Since 2003, I have been displaying those Japan-inspired dresses at the Paris Collection. I kept wanting to introduce Japan’s traditional culture abroad.
What was it like to hold an exclusive fashion show at the Akasaka Palace?
It had been my dream to organize a show there for over 40 years, since I first visited it. The State Guest House is a place that perfectly harmonizes East and West. I was honored to be there and looking at my dresses, I even thought that they looked more elegant and precious than ever. But I think the best outcome was that a number of politicians were involved in the process and were able to attend the show. For Japan and the fashion industry as a whole, this was an important move.
Japanese fashion is popular overseas, but in your opinion, is Japan a global fashion country on a par with France, Italy and the U.S., for example?
I have experience working in many countries that value fashion at an entirely different level — France and Italy, for example. For these countries, fashion is rooted deeply in the culture and is an industry that is supported by the country as a whole. In Japan, however, things are different. There is no involvement and interest in the industry on a national governmental level — and even by the public, too.
In Japan, fashion is still very much limited to people who are somewhat involved in the industry — designers, students, etc. You don’t see much of it in the media either: if a celebrity sings a song somewhere, they make news out of it, but if a designer does an amazing fashion show, it’s hardly ever reported on. I strongly hope that Japan will start acknowledging the importance of fashion on a national level. So to answer your question, no, as of present, Japan is still not a global fashion country.
You constantly combine East and West in your collections. Why is this important for you and why did you start working with kimono as well?
There were many kimono designers when I started in the wedding industry, so I didn’t think it was necessary to compete. But unlike when I first started the business, from around the 1980s, many young Japanese stopped wearing kimono, which I was concerning about. So I began producing wedding kimono designs, as well, and gradually looked for ways to incorporate traditional motifs into bridal and party wear. I think that kimono is one of the most beautiful traditional garments in the world.
What is one moment in your career that you will never forget?
Presenting a formal Hakata ori (Japanese traditional woven-style kimono) vestment to Pope John Paul II in 1993. I wanted to do something to transmit the beauty of Japanese traditional wear to the world. Three months after receiving the gift, the pope wore the vestment to an Easter mass broadcast worldwide. I will never forget this.
How about that special gift for yourself? What was your own wedding dress like?
Oh, I never wore one (laughs). White isn’t a good color for me — it makes me look overweight which has always been a bit of a complex for me. So when I got married, though a bit nervous about it, I told my husband that I wouldn’t like to wear white for our wedding reception. He looked at me and said, “White doesn’t look good on you, anyway” (laughs). I was so relieved. I wore a dark green velvet dress.
You are quite a rebel and constantly challenge yourself. What do you do in your free time?
I hardly have free time, to be honest — just a few days around New Year and summer, but recently this is getting rare, too. But some years ago, I had a friend who recommended scuba diving to me once during a rare trip to the Philippines. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous idea, because I didn’t even swim. But she made me do it anyway and — oh my! — I got totally addicted. I took my time watching the fish and all and didn’t come out of the water in the 20-minute time we were supposed to have so I got everyone quite worried about me. But I was just having so much fun down there. So much so that in 2001, I got a scuba diving license at the age of 69 and did a collection under the theme of “Sea” that same year.
That’s another “first” in your life. What would you like to achieve next?
To open a museum where I can display all my works and to continue spreading the beauty of Japanese fabric and techniques to the world. I also want to make a wedding anniversary-exclusive collection.
What’s the secret of staying happy, healthy and full of life?
I’m in love with what I do. My work gives me positivity; it motivates me to keep dreaming and developing new ideas. That must be it — because I don’t do anything else.
For more information on Yumi Katsura’s brand and work, see the company’s official website here.© Japan Today