Naomi Kaneko preserves and modernizes a Japanese decorative tradition with exquisite painterly craftsmanship.
Yuzen, an ornamental painting technique from Kyoto and Tokyo, uses elegant Japanese form, richly-hued color, and natural inspiration to embellish traditional Kimono dress. In an artisanal tradition heretofore performed by men, Naomi Kaneko has pioneered her vision for 35 years with both conservative respect and magnificent flair.
Naomi Kaneko is known to lose herself in her creations. Working on fine silk, with a set of pigments concocted expressly for her skillful practice, she paints images of nature that are so vibrant, detailed, and poetically rendered they become a dream space apart, a near living representation.
While her detailed decorations grace a small collection of home interiors, Kaneko's work principally adorns kimonos. She takes great pains to express the individual character of the woman who will wear the kimono, incorporating cultural and personal symbols into her unique pieces. This master craftswoman uses inks that will last for over 100 years, and she takes sometimes three months to produce a single piece. Naomi Kaneko's works are veritable heirloom pieces and part of a cultural preserve, a production somewhere between fashion, craft and fine art.
Masterworks of Edo-Yuzen (Edo being an ancient name for Tokyo, where one school of the craft is practiced), Kaneko's artisanal productions in ornament are the ultimate luxury - in their refined rarity, in their deep respect for tradition, and in their personalized and passionate artistry.
Naomi Kaneko's definition of luxury:
Traveling abroad once a year. The rest of the time I rarely leave my studio, even to visit around Tokyo.
Nothing. I am not particularly interested in objects.
Space. The space in nature where I find energy. The energy of the earth, waterfalls, the forest - all of this gives me the desire to create.
People of true quality give me life force. People like the Nobel Prize winners Leona Ezaki and Yasunari Kawabata. For me, they cast a light on the spirit of life.
The moment when I create Yuzen.
You do not use sketches or notes before beginning a creation. Do you ever get stuck in the middle of a creation, and if so, what do you do?
Perfection doesn't exist, though I find pleasure in progressively raising the standards toward perfection, in its pursuit. I never get stuck in the middle of a creation. But, when my apprentices take over some of the projects, sometimes the original creative direction changes. I need to look elsewhere for energy that will correct or rectify this change, as everybody's approach to work is different. After I take the time to resource in nature, I return to the material and begin to paint again.
You are preserving a very old craft, yet this form of artisanal work is traditionally performed by men. How do you find being a woman influences your designs?
Traditionally, men create by imagining the specific woman who will wear the piece. I, as a woman, create so that the women will appear more beautiful, thinner, in order to refine and enhance her elegance.
What are the ways in which a woman inspires you when you are designing for her?
I engage in a conversation with her, I discover her preferences. I take her favorites and enrich them with a story that I base on what I learn about her; I integrate her preferred motifs into something especially for her. It's important to integrate the themes surrounding personal memories (flowers, for example). I love the spirit of generosity toward each client.
What are your childhood memories of Japanese traditional dress?
When I was seven years old, my parents bought two kimonos (one red, one mauve) for me and my little sister for the celebration of the new year. I really loved the color mauve, but I was so shy that I let my little sister make her choice first. When she chose red, I was very happy!
What sort of younger Japanese clientele do you have? Do you find that there is a renewed interest in this tradition from the young?
I have clients between 19 and 20 years old, usually to create a kimono used in a traditional ceremony celebrating their adult age, which takes place every January. I also have the young students in my academy, who are learning the craft of Yuzen.
Rain, for example, is simply captivating in your unique designs. Could you talk more about the use of natural themes and the effect of movement in your designs?
I calculate the movements of women. When women walk, there are waves. Leaves, when painted on a woman's kimono, can almost be seen to shake. There are the religious temples, the boulders, the air. It is traditional custom that one dresses differently according to the four seasons. I try to integrate all of these ephemeral moments. Movement in my creations is the poetry that expresses an ephemeral moment. For example, the moment when you look at a flower with a fleeting expression. This type of expression is particularly used in Ukiyo-e painting.
Do certain natural elements represent certain things in traditional Japanese culture that could help us understand the meaning behind some of your designs?
In the old tradition, there are certain symbols for joy, others for happiness. The hexagonal form (the form of a tortoise shell) signifies long life. A symmetrical form signifies development. These are motifs from traditions that have existed for over 400 years and are very strongly fixed in our culture, so much that they have endured until now.
In 2005, you collaborated with Laurent Mercier for his Paris Collection. How did you get involved with such a collaboration, and would you do something like this again with Western designers?
This collaboration was very interesting - the fusion of Eastern and Western fashion. The fashion cycle of creation is very short in the West, which doesn't correspond to my manner of working, as I take a significant amount of time to advance in my work. But I have already promised a Bulgarian designer an eventual collaboration.
Have you collaborated with any modern Japanese designers or considered doing so?
I've produced a body of work with a Japanese musician. He played a piece that used sea birds as thematic inspiration; I created a piece with an identical theme. I've been asked to collaborate with Tokyo Art University, but I don't have enough time.
Could you explain how the colors you produce are so rich and filled with such nuances? How have you chosen the dye that you work with?
My colors are the extractions of the best colors of nature. I try to imitate colors that I have memorized in my mind. There are rules for choosing colors within the traditional practice - if one doesn't respect these rules, the overall coloring of a piece is considered vulgar. Our precursors really understood color, how to marry forms and colors in Japanese culture with the impression of weather, for example.
You will be at the Salon Maison & Objet in Paris this year to present your work on home interiors. What are you particularly excited to show to this part of the design world?
I would like my clients to take time to appreciate my collections. The more they take time to understand the process and the creations, the more they will find a profound meaning within them.