As the quest for a unique style at summer events heats up, Catherine Turnbull meets two designers who guarantee total individuality with their bespoke kimonos. Pictures by Olivia Brabbs Photography.
Meiji Designs’ kimonos are as vibrant as a butterfly wing, a fusion of East and West. When founders Natalie Herbert and Ruth Gibbs were in the final week of their fashion degrees, their passion for Japanese dyeing techniques and their desire to wear one-off pieces led them to launch their own business. Five years later, the pair, based in York, collaborate with clients to create bespoke kimonos, shimmering in colour.
“We couldn’t find the clothes we wanted to wear and we both loved the Japanese shibori hand-dyeing technique and the ideology that the kimono is seen as a second skin, an outward expression of the individual personality from within. We love to get the clients involved in as much of the process as they want,” says Ruth.
“There weren’t many jobs in fashion in the area, so we decided during our final week at the University of Huddersfield in 2013 to launch our own business and work in unrelated jobs to pay our rent.”
Ruth graduated in Fashion Design with Marketing and now also works in HR in engineering, while Natalie studied Costume Design, which she has put to good use as a textile artist in the costume department of Opera North. Coincidently, the company recently staged the Japan-based opera Madame Butterfly.
Both 28, they have experimented with hand-dyeing in the shibori fashion, in which fabric is twisted, tied, sewn and clamped, before dyes are applied. They have evolved to use screen-printing on silk and viscose blends, adding devoré (burnout) cut-out detail, which necessitates mixed fibres, and stencilling, painting and sponging.
“We start with a blank white canvas,” says Natalie. “We use a dye bath to add block colour and then build up the multi- colour sections. We love making with our hands – we only use a machine to stitch the garments. Each is unique and can’t be replicated.
“Our kimonos are statement pieces and an investment. We want them to endure and be treasured like antique Japanese versions. And if you haven’t worn a second skin, you are missing a great experience.”
The process is a messy business and Natalie and Ruth have ruined more than one carpet in bedrooms. They have moved to various studios when affordable options have been available, although finding suitable space is tough for young entrepreneurs.
Mass-produced kimonos have been worn as dressing gowns for decades. However the bespoke handmade version is so versatile it would suit a summer garden party, a wedding, a day at the races, the beach or dressed down more casually with jeans. Wear one open over a simple shift or tied with a belt as a dress.
“We can make them any length and use any palate of colour. We are particularly inspired by rust, pink, purple, teal and charcoal, but the choice is up to the individual,” says Ruth. “We invite customers to look at our previous work and pick their own colour combinations. Our brand is about luxurious original pieces.”
The designers benefitted from enterprise support and also presented University of Huddersfield patron the Duke of York with a matching scarf and pocket squares when he visited the Duke of York Young Entrepreneur Centre at the university. “We were very proud that we were selected to have a stand and make gifts for the duke,” Ruth says.
“We started out making scarves and pocket squares and added large scarves and dresses to our portfolio. The scarves can be as large as you like and make a bold statement. We’ve also created wall hangings and would like to do more.”
Because of the bespoke nature of Meiji Designs’ pieces, there are no fixed prices for kimonos, though you can expect to pay between £275 and £350. A hand-dyed blanket costs around £250, with scarves priced at £150-£250 and pocket squares £50-£70.
The duo have their sights set on expanding Meiji Designs to a full-time operation and hope to train more people to keep the traditional techniques alive. They recently ran a devoré scarf-making workshop at York Explore library as part of York Fashion Week.
“We have run workshops in a studio too and absolutely loved it,” says Natalie. “This is definitely an area that we want to develop. We had amazing feedback from those that took part and would love to get more people involved in creating something beautiful. It is so satisfying.”
Find out more about Meiji Designs’ online bespoke service at meiji-designs.co.uk.