Kimono Sheila on the Kimono Revival and Experiencing Tokyo on Foot

Sheila Cliffe is a kimono influencer and Professor Emerita at Jumonji University. A lover of fashion and an avid walker, she explains how Tokyo is influencing the current kimono revival and shares some of her favorite Tokyo walks.
Sheila Cliffe first came to Tokyo in the 80s and was drawn to the energy of the city.

—What is it about Tokyo that has kept you here since the 1980s?

The energy. I think in the beginning it was literally the energy, the kind of friction that is created when something old and something completely new are positioned side by side. That is just something you don't really find so much in UK cities. It was very exciting that the old and new could coexist in an incredible way. And of course, then I discovered kimono and the kimono flea markets.

—What attracted you to the kimono?

Western clothing, even more so now than when I was first here in the 80s, has become a uniform almost, it's really dull and boring and unexpressive.

When I saw my first kimono, I didn't even know what it was to be honest, because there was no internet in those days. I just saw this incredible item of clothing, pieces of fabric hanging on hangers—it was so bright, and the quality of the textiles so beautiful. And the patterns were like nothing I'd seen on western clothing. I was hooked straight away. And then I got to find out a lot more about the kimono, its three-dimensional aspects, how it's passed on between families, how nothing is thrown away when it's made.

There are so many aspects that were so interesting that 20 years later I wrote my PhD with the University of Leeds on how the kimono embodies fashion as well as tradition. I can't imagine my life now without the kimono. And Tokyo is important because, although they're making a lot more of certain types of kimono in Kyoto, the market in Tokyo is much, much bigger. And it is in big urban centers where you see new fashion developments, not the countryside.

It is very inspiring to see young people in Tokyo beginning to wear kimono again as casual wear, not as a uniform. When I first came here in 1985, the people wearing kimono were those going to weddings, or to tea ceremonies, and that was about it.

—Do you think that the kimono has something to teach us about sustainable fashion?

Yes. When you make a kimono out of a long roll of cloth, nothing is thrown away, so it can be restored to that long length of cloth and then you can start again. Because it is able to be resewn and because it is a wrapped garment, the fitting is done not when you cut, but when you actually dress someone, so the same item can fit different shapes and sizes. You can take a piece of wrapping paper and wrap an enormous number of different shapes of gifts with one piece of paper. It's the same principle. You wrap the body.

Western fashion theorists have said the kimono ignores the human body; they have so misunderstood this garment. As I want to see the art of the kimono as a living culture transferred to the next generation and not dying in some museum somewhere, I think it's very important to teach people about its value.

Sheila Cliffe says walking in Tokyo is her favorite way to see Tokyo's combination of old and new.

—Where is your favorite place in Tokyo to spend time?

Rather than loving one particular place, I am a walker who just loves walking. I live on the Seibu Ikebukuro line in a city called Higashikurume and yesterday I walked home from Ikebukuro, it is 16 kilometers. I walk across Tokyo as well; I walk from Nihombashi to Ikebukuro and then get on the train home. I really enjoy all the different types of scenery and buildings and nooks and crannies. I can't really afford to go out to fancy restaurants but I enjoy seeing all these little interesting eateries everywhere. It's absolutely fantastic, I just love walking in Tokyo. I also like the walk from Shibuya to Ikebukuro, and in the last two years I have joined the Yamathon—a charity walk that follows the Yamanote Line. Lately I go to the east side a bit more, around Ueno and down to Hamacho. I sometimes go to Asakusa to see all the kimono shops around there.

Walking in Tokyo is just fascinating and, like I said, it's that thing about the old and the new juxtaposed with each other. It just has a feel-good energy.

—What is your favorite time of year to walk in Tokyo?

Autumn is absolutely great. Spring is lovely of course, with the blossoms, but I like the temperature in Autumn and the blue skies, and I'm a fan of falling leaves.

—What is your favorite thing about life in Tokyo?

The graciousness of people, the way people wait patiently and follow instructions for the good of others. People's honesty. The variety of high-quality food, not just Japanese but from all around the world. And of course, kimono.

Sheila Cliffe

Sheila Cliffe, aka Kimono Sheila, is a kimono influencer and Professor Emerita at Jumonji University. Born in the UK, she has lived in Japan since the age of 24, much of the time in Tokyo. She has appeared widely on TV and in the media—you may also have seen her on NHK's 'Journeys in Japan'—and has published books on kimono and Japan. Recently she was chosen as the Tango Chirimen (a type of crepe silk) 300 Year Anniversary Ambassador. She has over 50K followers on instagram, @kimonosheila.
Interview and writing by Patrick Balfe and Gary Dexter
Photos by Gejo Yumi