Malaysian entrepreneur upcycles kimonos into clothes, bags and accessories

Yong upcycles damaged kimono fabric and transforms them into lovely pouches, among other things. Photos: Samantha Yong

Pre-loved clothing and clothes swapping have been gaining popularity in recent years, thanks to a growing awareness of the impact that the fashion industry has on the environment.

And as a fashion retailer, Samantha Yong, 30, is well aware of wastage and how unwanted garments and fabrics can contribute to our burgeoning landfills.

Since last year, the Kuala Lumpur-based entrepreneur – who sells and rents vintage kimonos – has been upcycling the traditional Japanese garment and transforming them into blouses, tote bags, waist belts and wristlets.

“Some of the vintage kimonos that I receive from Japan are damaged. I can’t sell torn or stained clothing.

“It dawned on me that I was importing trash from Japan. Instead of adding more rubbish into our landfills, my business partner and I decided to salvage kimono fabrics and turn them into useful items. We have been working on this project since the first movement control order was imposed last year, ” said Yong.

A wrap jacket reimagined from a kimono garment.A wrap jacket reimagined from a kimono garment.

The damaged kimonos come in different materials, including linen, silk, crepe and satin weaves. Yong assesses their conditions and determines the options available.

“Not all kimono fabrics are suitable for grocery bags. The stronger and sturdier materials are stitched into bags. Kimonos made from satin or silk are usually transformed into clutches and belts.”

It takes about 1.8m to 2.7m of fabric to make one kimono. Depending on the damage, Yong can usually make a wrap jacket, one tote bag (about 38cm in height and length), and a couple of belts from one garment.

A kimono material tote bag.A kimono material tote bag.“I try to minimise waste. The kimono collar would be detached and stitched into a stylish belt. The remaining fabric can turn into two medium tote bags (without lining). Usually, I would use another kimono fabric as the lining.”

Among all the items, Yong likes the upcycled tote bags the most because of their versatility.

“I have three tote bags which I bring to work each day. I use the extra two bags to carry groceries, a lunch box and documents.

“These bags are much more convenient because they are more durable and longer lasting than plastic. Even if they are tattered, they can be repaired by patching them with another fabric.”

European research site Research Gate’s 2020 study entitled The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion reports that the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter after aviation, accounting for up to 10% of global pollution.

The fashion industry’s impact includes over 92 million tonnes of waste produced per year and 1.5 trillion litres of water consumed.

Depending on the extent of cloth defect, Yong can make several tote bags and belts from one kimono.Depending on the extent of cloth defect, Yong can make several tote bags and belts from one kimono.

Eco textiles consultant and author Kate Fletcher, widely credited for coining the term “slow fashion”, explains that slow fashion is about “designing, producing, consuming and living better”. Quality-based rather than time-based, slow fashion is a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems, she adds.

Yong is happy to play a role in slow fashion, which has similar principles with sustainable or ethical fashion.

“I want to be part of sustainable and ethical fashion where people appreciate art and creativity in remaking or upcycling things.

“I have come across many inspiring stories of how people are moving towards sustainable living and helping communities.

“One of them is the story about an automatic pet food dispensing machine in Istanbul that helps feed stray animals while collecting recyclable waste.

“That really touched me and inspired me to contribute back to society, ” said Yong.

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