Asian Chic

The sumptuous colors and fabrics of Memoirs of a Geisha spark designs for women's clothing and fashion accessories


Some movies seem destined to inspire fashion. Memoirs of a Geisha, which opened in Baltimore Friday, is one of them. Critics have given the lush romantic epic mixed reviews, but they have nothing but praise for the sumptuous costumes by Colleen Atwood, who won an Oscar for her work on Chicago.

The movie version of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel is filled with brightly colored, beautifully embroidered kimonos, some of which were rented, others which took months to create. They are more than just costumes; at least two important plot twists revolve around them. Expect to see elements of these gorgeous works of art -- the fabrics, the prints, the decorative details and the silhouettes -- turning up in a department store near you, not only as dresses but also as fashion accessories.

"The Memoirs film will allow women to be romanced with Asian chic ideas," says Tom Julian, a New York-based fashion trend analyst with Fallon Worldwide. "I'm looking at a gift shop here [in Seattle] -- lots of little silk Japanese print handbags. All floral and dainty with wood handles!"

Unlike the book, praised for its historical accuracy, Memoirs the movie is a romanticized version of pre-war Japan. It follows the life of a young girl from a fishing village who becomes a famous geisha, a woman trained in traditional Japanese social arts to serve clients in teahouses.

There has been a lot of fuss about the fact that the leads in the movie are played by Chinese actors, not Japanese. No one seems to mind that the geisha's traditional makeup and dress have been altered to be more appealing to Westerners. During a scene set in snowy Kyoto, for instance, the wicked Hatsumomo (Gong Li) sweeps out in a wonderful coat with a chinchilla collar. It's something no real geisha would have worn, but who cares? The designer says it's one of her favorite pieces in the movie.

Altogether, Atwood and her crew of 30 created about 150 kimonos for her three leading ladies. Another 400 were rented for the rest of the cast, some from collectors of antique examples of the traditional Japanese dress.

The designer and the film's director, Rob Marshall, decided to dress the female leads -- Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh -- in a slightly sexier version of the kimono. Memoirs of a Geisha has Hollywood glamour in abundance, and the costumes are a big part of that.

"The real geisha's kimono is very simple and very muted," says Atwood. "We wanted them to be a little more graceful to the modern eye."

That involved elongating the silhouette of the kimonos, which in turn meant putting the actresses in platform shoes. Colors were deepened and brightened and often reflect the characters' temperaments. The shape of the traditional obi, the wide band of fabric around the kimono's middle, was altered to give the wearer more of a waist.

To create her costumes, Atwood sometimes bought traditional kimonos and recycled their silk. They were then hand-painted and embroidered, using embroiderers in three countries. It was not an inexpensive proposition. The glorious blue kimono that lead character Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) wears in one important scene cost about the same as a couture dress: $30,000.

The details, colors and beautiful silks of the movie will be alluring to any designer of contemporary clothes, Atwood says, but don't overlook the accessories. "It will be huge for accessories. The shoes are really fun. I think people will pick up on them."

Like the little Japanese-inspired purses that Julian saw in the Seattle gift shop, Memoirs is filled with beautiful combs and other hair decorations, the split-toe sock called tabi, and high platform shoes. Using traditional motifs seen in the film -- like the chrysanthemum, goldfish and hummingbird -- a designer can suggest a Japanese sensibility without being too "costumey."

Other movies have inspired clothing fads. There were Tom Cruise's sunglasses in Risky Business, and the run on everything pink after Legally Blonde came out. Titanic spurred sales of romantic Edwardian-style clothing and jewelry.

"We didn't have a big fashion film this year," says Julian. "Jessica [Simpson] in Daisy Dukes [The Dukes of Hazzard] was a bust."

Memoirs of a Geisha could change all that.

Elements to look for include Asian prints (predominantly florals), sash-tie wrap blouses, kimono sleeves, Nehru or Mao collars on jackets, and frog closures. Expect an eclectic mix of Asian rather than purely Japanese elements, as was true of the licensed Geisha collection put out by Banana Republic for the holiday season. Key pieces included a satin kimono dress, a velvet chinois jacket, tasseled handbags and jewelry.

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