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Yumi Katsura

Sep 07, 18 Yumi Katsura

She was born 86 years ago in Japan. Studied in Paris with designers who entered into the history of Haute Couture. She became a pioneer of western wedding dress but her heart always belonged to traditional Japanese vestments. That’s why she revolutionized the kimono making it a contemporary wear.

She created a garment for the Pope and says that she’s dressed more than 700,000 brides of all faiths. She lives in Paris and presents her Haute Couture collections twice a year. We met to talk with Yumi Katsura – a live legend in whom East meets West.

The crane is a symbol of your fashion house. What does it represent?

Crane is the most important bird in the Japanese culture. It is a national symbol. Many big artists use egret in their work differently. We believe that this bird brings luck and happiness.


You started as a wedding gowns designer. How did you arrive into the haute couture?

When I started [to work in fashion] 53 years ago in Japan, most women got married in traditional kimono. That is why the majority of artists created kimono for wedding. There were only a few designers making wedding dressed in Western style. I was among them. However, I stayed always fascinated by kimono. When the situation started to reverse and the once famous kimono designers disappeared one after another, I oriented myself back to our ancestral traditional – making national [kimono] dresses. I somehow modernized the way it was put: I proposed to get rid of heavy uncomfortable coiffure and white make-up usually associated with kimonos wear. I combined two opposite traditions, European and Asian, in one more contemporary look – small ‘revolution’ which was very welcome. Still, nobody worn kimono in day-to-day life, as it was too complicated for the way people move nowadays. The unique artisanship and now-how were about to cease to exist and I could not make it happen. That’s how I launched myself in haute couture with an ultimate goal to preserve and maintain the noble tradition of kimono makers on the one hand. And get the world outside of Japan more acquainted with it on the other hand.


Your last collection is inspired by Gustav Klimt’s paintings. Can you quote any other artists or art currents that influence your creative universe?

I am always impressed and inspired by the art of Hokusai Katsushika [XIX century Japanese painter and printmaker Hokusai, best known as author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji  which includes the internationally iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa] whose non-temporal talent and genius I admire. The typical features of his art works you can find in all of my collections, the latest one is not an exception.


You studied with and knew personally the biggest couturiers of high fashion of the XX century. You saw the world of haute couture evolved. How has it been changed since your beginning [in French fashion]?

What I’m worried about is the progressive disappearance of the clientele in the haute couture. Today we can count approximately 300000 persons worldwide who still order garments from high fashion houses.  The uniqueness of haute couture is that it’s firmly associated with Paris. It can not be imported elsewhere even if other countries possess exceptional tailoring skills, know-now and more advantageous from financial point of view. When I was studying fashion in Paris, I was dreaming to become a part of this magic world.

Can you tell us about your experience of creation a garment for the Pope John-Paul II?

Well, I must admit that it was a quite incredible story. I need to say that I worked a lot with Hakata weaving [Hakata is a region in the north of Japan, famous for its traditional gilded weaving]. Once I noticed that such kind of gilded fabrics could suit well to the Holy Father. My colleagues said: all right, we will discuss it with The Vatican. Indeed, they contacted the pope’s office. We got a response that I could make and send them a garment but also emphasized that there was absolutely no guarantee that he would wear it. I started to work on it. I came to Vatican to take measurements of John-Paul. During our meeting he asked me: I’m getting aged, could you made me something lighter to put on? I said ‘ok’. You could not refuse the Pope’s request, don’t you? Even if it was extremely difficult to implement. Once back to Japan, we worked hard with Hakata artisans to elaborate a pure gold tissue which is weightless. For this purpose, we replaced heavy embroidery with gold steric jacquard with a pansy pattern, meant to symbolize Poland, where Pope John Paul II was born. When the work, which took almost one year, was finished one of the cardinal of Catholic Church is Japan had to accompany me to the Holy City to present our vestment to the Pope. Unfortunately, on the eve of our departure the Pope was shot and almost killed in an assassination attempt at St. Peter’s Square. The meeting had to be cancelled and the gilded cape was sent to the Vatican office. That was in January. You could only imagine how much I was surprised and overwhelmed to see the Holy Father wearing the ‘kimono’ I’d handcrafted for him while watching the Easter Mass in March 1993 on TV..

Though he spoke few words to me and though I am not Catholic, I must admit that the long process of creating the pope’s holy dress was “the joy of my life.” I remember how he said ‘God bless you’ in Japanese. That was something inexplicable in that man, something ‘holy’ I could sense.


Since we are talking about the haute couture and the most memorable moments of my designer carrier, I’d like to tell you how I met Pierre Balmain. In 70ths, we collaborated with him to create a wedding gowns collection in Japan. We were sharing a car to bring us to the dinner when we passed by my fashion house in Tokyo. I told to Monsieur Balmain that its my showroom. Out of sudden, he wanted to stop and visit it. That was not at all planned and I felt a bit confused. However, we stopped and visited my house. He saw the dresses and said: “In life the most beautiful thing for me is a bride. In my Parisian house I make only 2-3 wedding dresses per year – you are so lucky to do it every day! I’m so jealous!” I was totally disconcerted and touched to hear these words from one of the greatest French couturiers. Along with the meeting with the Pope, that was another most intense and unforgettable moment in my life.

Coming back to the present moment, which is not easy after such legendary stories from the past, could you tell us more about the new autumn/winter 2018/2019 collection. Is there any ‘piece de resistance’, key item?

There is no piece de resistance but few traditional Japanese themes, which I used in this collection and which you can find in many pieces. For example, the Ichimatsu-moyo (chessboard) prints which is a traditional Japanese pattern.


You have your stores all around the world. Do you create different collections for different markets?

Our main market is still wedding gowns. We sell approximately 300 pieces per year around the world and we offer a renting service too. The unchangeable is our signature: combination of traditional kimono features and modern fabrics and cut – that’s what makes our house distinctive.


Could you give a piece of advice to a young European designer who is looking forward to launch his brand in Japanese market?

Japanese have been and still are attracted by the European fashion to the point that between two brands who create similar clothes the one from France would have more success in Asia. It’s difficult to give a piece of advice, though the most important probably would be to stay loyal to yourself, follow your feeling without blandly submit to the temporal trends. Just one detail: if you want to make it work on the Japanese market be less “provocative” in the sense of less naked;-)