It was the vermillion that caught his eye. There it was, this fabulous thing hanging in the window of a secondhand shop in Greenwich Village.
That thing was a Japanese kimono. More precisely, the item that started the 1,000-piece Alexander Kimono Collection was an uchikake, a floor-trailing, elaborate kimono worn as a cloak by upper-class women. Its bright orange silk was heavily embroidered with cranes and flowers and embellished with gold thread.
That was in the 1960s; Alex felt like a pioneer as friends praised the exotic “wall art” in his tiny apartment. In those days, the cellist-turned-bassist traveled the country with various ensembles, giving him opportunity to scout out more kimono. But his collecting didn’t take off until 1978, when he attained that New York City nirvana, a two bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan.
Collectors often compare their behavior to drug addiction, and kimono (the noun is both singular and plural, meaning “something to wear”) can hook you for life. Alex compares the experience to hearing the artistry in music and then being struck by the technique of individual performers. With kimono, your eye is ravished, before your mind is awed by the formidable craftsmanship that go into the production of a single piece.
Spinning and weaving the fabric is merely the start. The textile is handed to dyers, painters, embroiderers, gold embossers etc., and finally, to sewers, to complete the robe. All these steps involved highly skilled handwork in former times, and these vintage wearables are what fascinate kimono fanciers.
Alex’s first “crush” was the flashy hand embroidery on uchikake. “I loved that showy stuff---still do. I’m still a child at heart,” he admits. “Then I fell in love with kasuri,” [Japanese ikat style weaving, with threads pre-dyed to produce specific patterns as the cloth is woven.] I looked at ikat everywhere.” By this time, his collection included obi, the essential sash that wraps around the wearer and keeps the kimono together. “I opened an obi once---this thing is made like tapestry---unbelievable work!” Today, examples of this hand-loomed brocade, a specialty of the Nishijin area of Kyoto, grace many surfaces in his home.
Traditional Japanese design elements particularly appealed to Alex, who claims a mystical connection to nature. Inspired by the spirit of Shinto, with its veneration of nature, the Japanese have made an art of making abstractions from natural phenomena. Graphic representations of leaves, waves, flowers, birds, even octopus tentacles, are employed in ingenious ways to decorate fabric, lacquer ware, ceramics and other everyday objects. As well, the Japanese sense of color beguiles the eye. Combinations that would clash in Western clothing seem gracefully harmonious on kimono.
While Western art, particularly painting, is “too self-aware” in Alex’s view, art not meant to be art has a homey quality that makes them comfortable to live with. “A kimono softens a room,” he observes, “it changes the acoustical atmosphere.” In his home, Alex changes his kimono displays seasonally and has no need for drapes. He enjoys a rotation of beauty, products of a culture that does not differentiate between craft and art; excellence is the measure. The swordsmith is placed on the same plane as a screen painter, a kimono hand dyer is as revered as a printmaker. This tradition has consistently produced objects that have an aesthetic dimension beyond their function.
Trips to Japan, not solely for kimono gathering, nevertheless resulted in accelerated accumulation. Temple fairs are the kimono lover’s candy stores. Those held in Kyoto to this day can yield exciting finds. Alex always bought what he loved, but occasionally, he confessed, he bit more than he could chew. A seller once offered him a bundle of fifty kimonos for such a good price that he took them all, although he desired only five out of the fifty. His plans to sell off the others---all of good quality---never happened. Internet sellers provided more temptations to the addict. Soon, kimono threatened to take over his home space and he had to find storage space elsewhere.
Folded flat, these robes have the advantage of taking little space. However, they do need an insect-free, humidity and temperature controlled environment. Alex was fortunate to find such space within four blocks of his apartment, so he has easy access to his treasures.
The collection spans four eras of Japanese history---from Edo to mid-Showa---roughly from 1700 to the 1960s. Prime examples of the varied techniques of textile production and decoration are represented. Among prized items are numerous kabuki costumes, which appealed to his taste for colorful design. Many kimono have obviously outlived their owners, and as Alex contemplates retirement and the path beyond, he thinks it is time to pass these pieces to others.
I’m betting that there is one kimono that will be among the last Alex will let go. It is a gossamer ceremonial robe of damask weave with wide sleeves, glowing softly with dusty apricot and rust tones. It hangs like a benediction on the living room wall. At sunset, even the ardent eye seeks softer colors.
(Full disclosure: the author is also a kimono enthusiast.)
Note from the Author
I was eleven when I first visited Japan. It was spring and the cherries were in bloom. To view their favorite flowers at Tokyo’s Ueno Park, many women wore kimono, their flowing sleeves adding enchantment as they fluttered along with the ephemeral petals in the seasonal breezes.
Half a lifetime later, toiling as an editor-writer for Opera News and Ballet News in New York, I spotted a kimono in a Greenwich Village shop---it was a simple black jacket-length haori, pink petals scattered randomly on its back. That first purchase began an education on the delights of kimono that has led to a modest but very personal collection.
My continuing fascination with kimono also led to an acquaintance with Alex Murray, and we started a conversation that we plan to continue to share with others on this website and beyond. Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga