Redesigning Tradition

Mottainai is a Japanese word that refers to that feeling of regret when something is wasted. It is this spirit that drives Clare Smith, the creator and designer behind Moniko (The Closet on 81 Xuan Thuy, D2; Facebook: TheClosetd2), to create beautiful clutches and accessories out of vintage kimonos and obis (the sash worn around the waist). Her first introduction to Japan and its culture was in 2008 while visiting Kyoto with a friend. The two experienced a geisha makeover and during the trip Clare became intrigued by the precision and attitude of the Japanese culture to design and presentation.

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“I come from a design background and have collected numerous textile articles, from sarees to carpets, while on my travels,” she explains. “In the following years I bought several vintage kimonos, hung them round my home. For years I often walked around in them, and generally adored them a great deal. But it was in 2011, when I was feeling particularly brave, that I decided to remodel one of these beautiful kimonos and introduce it to my sewing machine. The result was not especially beautiful, but after a few attempts, and after becoming re-acquainted with the art of sewing, the results began to flourish like the first sakura cherry blossom of spring.”

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To make a clutch or purse, Clare first carefully selects kimono fabrics for their design and heritage. “For example, the patterns used are highly significant and were used to indicate the wearer’s age, wealth or social status. It was also believed that the symbols on the garment could bring good fortune. Many designs would feature scenes inspired by nature, with flora, fauna and seasonal motifs being especially popular. Others featured traditional emblems or family crests that would have been passed down through the generations. Highly regarded objects, such as fans, or drums, were also often incorporated into fabric designs.” Every Moniko bag is fashioned from the traditional garment, or from the accompanying obi.

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Most kimonos currently available date from the 1980s, while the obis tend to be around a decade older. Clare has found older examples, dating back to the 1920s, but is often apprehensive about cutting these up. “Sometimes the older fabrics can be too fragile to use, and some are simply so beautiful that they must be appreciated as a whole.”

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Since 2012 the company has entered into partnerships with social projects in Southeast Asia. “It is very rewarding, it allows Moniko to increase capacity and grow as a business while supporting groups with particular social and physical difficulties.” In Cambodia, the company works with disabled individuals affected by polio or land mines, while in Malaysia they partner with local groups that aim to empower low-income women.” – Alex Green

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