Cyber Okan, Japanese designer breaking all the kimono rules

Cyber Okan in one of her kimonos on the streets of Akihabara in Tokyo. Instead of keeping it traditional, she adds LED and neon lights to it, as well as other cyberpunk elements.
PHOTO: Twiiter/1_design

Even amid the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, with its dazzling lights in all the colours of an electric rainbow, Cyber Okan stands out.

She is wearing a deeply untraditional kimono in bright green, overprinted with electronic circuitry, an exposed motherboard and the interior of a mobile phone.

The “obi” – the belt around her waist – is made up of the black-and-yellow angled stripes more often seen at the site of an industrial accident, and her face is obscured by one of the dark visors worn by middle-aged women in the summer as they try desperately to avoid a tan. This one has been modified with a row of glowing green lights around the edge.

Even that, though, is not the most eye-catching part of her fashion ensemble – strapped to her back is a see-through cube containing two blazing scarlet neon characters for “den no ”, meaning computer.

A freelance graphic designer by day, 43-year-old Cyber Okan says she has always had a passion for fashion but that her need to take the kimono on an unlikely tangent is a consequence of the rules surrounding this quintessentially Japanese garment .

“Ever since I was a child, I have loved the style and grace of the traditional kimono,” she says. “Unfortunately, the kimono is very difficult to put on and wear perfectly and, often when someone is wearing one, kimono purists – known as ‘kimono patrols’ – approach them and criticise the way that it is being worn.

“I have seen them become really quite angry if they decide that the person wearing the kimono is not wearing it appropriately or in a different way. It was so bad that when I was younger, I was very afraid of being picked on by a kimono patrol, so I only ever wore ordinary clothes.”

After completing high school in Osaka in Japan’s Kansai region, Cyber Okan studied graphic design and joined a local company, but felt more drawn to science fiction, anime and fashion – although she was reluctant to wear her fashion heart on her sleeve.

Strapped to Cyber Okan’s back is a see-through cube containing two blazing scarlet neon characters for “den no”, meaning computer.
PHOTO: Twitter/1_design

“Many people in Japan don’t like clothes that they consider to be ‘strange’ and I guess I was afraid of being disliked. But then, two years ago, I discovered that I could pair LED [light-emitting diode] panels or neon signs with a kimono of my own design. I was tired of being worried about the kimono patrol, so I decided to do my own thing,” she says.

“Japan’s traditions are great, but I decided that only sticking to the old way of doing things narrows our horizons. I wanted to make and wear something that is a long way away from the traditional way of wearing a kimono and – very importantly – I wanted to enjoy myself.”

She first chose to attach LED panels to the rear of the kimono in the place of the obi, depicting changing images, patterns or characters.

Since discovering this new form of self-expression, she has looked for places to buy the materials for her quirky designs. The green-and-computer fabric design was from a specialist digital printing outlet with a catalogue of more than 7,000 patterns, she said – but she was the very first to purchase that particular design.

“Bringing in the science-fiction element, which is a big part of me, it fits perfectly with my world view,” she explains. As well as the electronic or neon obi and souped-up sun visor, Cyber Okan also carries a purse made of kimono fabric and a traditional fan.

Although her creations initially incorporated LED screens, she has since experimented with old-school neon.

PHOTO: Twitter/tokyo_ff

“The LED screen was very well received, but I felt that the world today is full of LEDs and I wanted to use old-fashioned neon, in the same way it was used in cyberpunk science fiction stories that I know,” she says.

“LEDs are convenient and easy to handle, but I feel there is more humanity and warmth in neon ,” she adds. “To me, there is an appealing humanity in the main characters that appear in cyberpunk stories. It might be slightly old-fashioned, but neon really shines in this kind of futuristic tale.”

PHOTO: Twitter/tokyo_ff

The demise of neon in Japan means that there are only around 50 craftsmen left in the country making neon signs. Cyber Okan works with the artisans at Aoi Neon in Tokyo to create portable signs. One sign takes about three weeks to complete and she has a collection of around eight at present.

Appropriately, she chooses to show off her designs surrounded by some of the bright lights of Tokyo that have been her inspiration.

“I usually go to Akihabara to wear my kimono, or sometimes Shinjuku or Shibuya,” she said. “Akihabara has dozens of tiny electronics parts stores in the backstreets, there are maid cafes, advertisements for anime characters. I think it’s the most cyberpunk district of Tokyo.”

PHOTO: Twitter/JapanCandyBox

Designing and wearing a futuristic kimono has also had an unexpected effect on Cyber Okan, she admits.

“It has made me understand that I enjoy experiencing Japanese scenery and the sensations that are unique to this country much more than I realised,” she said.

“Today, the number of people who wear kimono on a daily basis is decreasing, but I thought that being able to enjoy wearing a kimono without being bound by the requirements of tradition is important and a legacy to leave for future generations.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.