Thoughts from a Japanese on Kim Kardashian West's Kimono Underwear Line

A few days ago, Kim Kardashian announced her brand new shape wear line to the world on instagram. Named ‘Kimono' ⁠— which as you may know, refers to a traditional Japanese overgarment — she has proceeded to apply to trademark not just the word itself, but around eight different variations of it too.

Kimono Shape wear's campaign, photographed by Italian performance artist and photographer Vanessa Beecroft, features women of various races and skin types posing in the new line. 

Needless to say, this launch has ruffled a few feathers and been deemed by many as culturally insensitive. 

Appropriation of my native Japanese culture is nothing new. However, the frustration I feel each time I see another brand or celebrity pull these stunts hasn’t changed, especially as I aspire to work in marketing one day. Kim’s move here is so problematic and how it points toward deeper, underlying issues of ethics in the fashion industry. 

So, what’s the issue?

Where do I even start? The biggest issue here — one that has me and thousands of other individuals around the world riled up — is that Kardashian has the audacity to apply to trademark the word “kimono” as if it were her’s to take ownership over in the first place. 

Kimonos have existed since the 16th century. Kimono-making itself is a dying craft and the artisans involved in it are ageing. A lot of the discourse surrounding Kim’s new shape wear is on social media, a place most of these elderly makers will not be frequenting, so their voice and opinion on this wouldn’t be heard, even though they will be the ones that are most affected if the trademark is approved. 

Wearing a kimono is also an art form. Ahead of my coming-of-age ceremony this year, a traditional Japanese ceremony that celebrates turning 20 years old, my mother educated me about the art of wearing a kimono, from the way the obi belt is tied at the back which, if done well, signifies how ‘stylish’ you are and the length of the sleeve (traditionally longer for young people, shorter for older people). I’m not here to trivialise underwear, but it needs to be pointed at that first and foremost, a kimono is a traditional formal wear in Japan for special occasions — not underwear. 

A history of ‘borrowing’ 

The marketing, PR and fashion industries have a long history of blatant cultural appropriation. Remember the Dolce & Gabbana advertisement of a Chinese model eating pizza and pasta with chopsticks that sparked outrage? The marketing agency behind the ad and Dolce & Gabbana itself are equally culpable — the former for creating the infamous ad and the latter for allowing it to represent their brand. 

Another example of a fashion label being culturally insensitive happened relatively recently when Gucci released a line of Sikh turbans. The problem lies in the fact that there is simply no diversity, specifically ethnic diversity, both within the marketing agencies that they outsource their advertisements to and among the executives working at these fashion brands.

If Kim and her marketing team are aware of the controversy her underwear line could cause, it’s even more problematic. Publicity stunts work for many brands. For example, Missguided recently launched the £1 bikini, using the outrageous price to shock consumers into purchasing their items. Despite an outcry from the sustainable fashion community on social media, it’s since sold out. 

At the end of the day, if a celebrity influencer like Kim promotes a new product to her large network, there will always be consumers who overlook the problematic aspects  (or worse, don’t see them) and make a purchase. She will always gain more than she loses. 

A hypocritical message

Kim cites that she was inspired to create her line because she “couldn’t find a shape wear colour that blended with my skin tone”. She’s marketing her brand in a positive light, campaigning for inclusivity but I feel that message is completely lost due to ignorance toward Japanese culture. 

Her argument makes me think of unethical fashion brands selling cheap t-shirts with slogans that endorse female empowerment. You cannot campaign for female empowerment while wearing the clothes that exploit them. Likewise, you cannot be inclusive if you’re undermining the culture of people who could potentially purchase your products. 

"You cannot be inclusive if you’re undermining the culture of people who could potentially purchase your products." 

While I understand that most of her customers would not have been Japanese in the first place, the whole point of inclusive marketing is to be inclusive to everyone, regardless of where they come from. 

And yes, people are criticising Kim but what about the numerous celebrities endorsing the brand in the comment section of her Instagram and Twitter posts? It’s unlikely that they will be on the receiving end of the criticism, even though they are supporting Kim’s decision, including her choice to name the label “Kimono Intimates”. 

Complimentary or controversial?  

I cannot deny, however, that the fashion industry is established upon the idea of imitation. Is anything truly original? Designers don’t get ideas off the top of their head; they’re Inspired by what other people are wearing, including traditional clothing. The kimono silhouette has been used to create jackets and gowns and obi is now a universal term to describe a fabric belt. I’ve been quite open to the idea of designers using the term ‘kimono’ for their pieces, partly because although being wearable over garments they look completely different from the authentic design and they don’t rip off the original craft. 

But Kim obviously crossed the line here because she applied to trademark it. If there was one good thing that came out of this controversy, it is that it has served as an opportunity for me to reevaluate my appreciation toward my own culture and question what the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is. I hope this serves as an opportunity for Kim Kardashian and her supporters to rethink their cultural values as well. 

**Update: Kim Kardashian West has since responded to criticism in a statement made to the New York Times. She clarified that her line is “built with inclusivity and diversity at its core,” and that she never meant to disrespect the traditional Japanese Kimono. However, she has no plans to rebrand the products and will continue to wait for trademark approval.

***Update: In response to mounting criticism and an open letter from the mayor of Kyoto requesting for her to respect the fact that the kimono is a "traditional ethnic dress", Kim Kardashian West has announced her decision to rename the brand in a series of tweets. She stated, "My brands and products are built with inclusivity and diversity at their core and after careful thought and consideration, I will be launching my Solutionwear brand under a new name."

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  • Susannah

    Hi Gaha, sorry we haven’t seen your original comment on this article. Could I trouble you to repost? Thank you.

  • Gaha

    Why haven’t you published my comment? Too relevant for your blog?

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