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Coronavirus crisis threatens to unravel Japanese artist’s kimono ambitions

Takahashi has tried to regroup by selling handmade masks sewn from kimono fabric.

“My designs are kind of strong, so there are people who resist the idea of wearing them in something full body,” the 42-year-old said. “But they’d love to wear it as a mask.”

But the masks are a long fall from her original business. Noted for her bold, unisex prints for both kimono and yukata, a lighter kimono, and her refusal to accept conventional limits on wearing them, Takahashi this year was part of an exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She also has a contract to provide yukata for a new, luxury hotel as Japan gears up to host the Olympics.

Success took time. When she began, traditional dyers hated her designs and refused to work with her. When she called to check on progress, they’d hang up.

“Being a woman and young can make it hard to work in Japan,” she said.
She persisted until she was selling 100 to 200 made-to-order yukata a month – remarkable success in an industry so steadily declining that sales now hover around 16 percent of what they were in 1981, according to government data.

The coronavirus changed everything. Department stores shut for weeks, the Olympics were postponed until 2021 and the hotel opening was put off. Summer festivals and fireworks displays, usually prime yukata-wearing occasions, were cancelled nationwide.

“We have absolutely nothing,” she said. “I’ve done nothing new this year. No new designs, no new colours.”

Though Takahashi is teaching and eking out income making kimono fabric masks, her income has taken a major hit. Her yukatas started at 60,000 yen ($566) and kimono at 3 million yen, but the masks go for just 1,400 yen each.

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