Megumi Project Brings New Life to Old Kimonos

Today I’m stepping back and letting social enterprise, Megumi Project, share their story. I’m really excited about their commitment to upcycling, sustainability, and cultural awareness and I hope you enjoy learning more about the brand. Thanks to Megumi Project for sponsoring this post.

Megumi Project – Restoring Beauty

Megumi Project is an ethical fashion social enterprise that provides employment and community to women in post-tsunami Northeastern Japan. At our production site in Onagawa, vintage kimonos donated from all over the country are recycled and recreated into one of a kind scarves, bags, journals and accessories. We sell both online at and at our brick-and- mortar shop in Onagawa. 

In Japanese, “megumi” means grace/and or blessing. This word reflects our ethos as we desire to be a source of grace and blessing in the town of Onagawa where we are based, a town that has suffered much loss in the past five years. This small port town was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which swept away 8% of Onagawa’s population, along with 80% of the town’s infrastructure and housing. In the wake of these disasters, Megumi Project was started by a Christian group of American, German, and Japanese relief workers in cooperation with the local Onagawa community, as a way to support the economy and community-building of the town. 

Megumi Project currently employs seven women, mainly young mothers, who were all directly affected by the tsunami. 

None of the Megumi artisans, except for one, knew how to sew initially. Two years into operation however, we’ve developed a rich assortment of skills in sewing, product design, photography, marketing, administration, computer know-how, customer service, and English communication, through learning from and encouraging one another. One recent way our progress is reflected is in the launching of our recent kimono accessory collection. This collection, which utilizes scraps of leftover kimono fabric to make earrings, hair pins, and brooches, was spearheaded entirely by two of our staff- members who, very successfully, brought their product design ideas to completion. 

In the wake of the disasters, many people left Onagawa to start new lives elsewhere. Many young people in particular have left Onagawa in search of better job opportunities and more hospitable environments to raise families. In response to this, Megumi Project seeks to support the community of young families in the area by providing a workplace for young mothers that is flexible and understanding of the specific demands and needs as a parent.

So why kimonos? 

The recycling of kimonos is a creative response to the decline of the traditionally worn kimono in Japan. While the kimono continues to be a valued part of Japan’s aesthetic and cultural heritage, it has largely disappeared from general everyday usage, and only appears at formal occasions (weddings, funerals, coming-of- age ceremonies). The detailed knowledge of how to dress oneself properly in a kimono is also declining amongst the general population. With the kimono being reserved for only the most formal of occasions, many heirloom kimonos, handed down through generations, are left sitting in closets all over Japan, only to get moth-eaten or stained. In fact, according to an article written for Fashion Revolution’s Japan website, the estimated value of unused/unworn kimonos is 3000 billion Japanese Yen, which converts to roughly 30 billion dollars. This is where innovative new usages for kimono fabrics becomes a need. However, even before this current time of an overabundance of kimonos, a tradition of repurposing and reusing kimonos has already long existed in this country. 

The inherent design of the kimono, which is made from a single bolt of fabric divided into straight strips of fabric, is such that it can be disassembled to wash, repair or replace individual panels, or be altered altogether. In Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), kimonos that had become too threadbare to be worn, were recreated into futons, cushions, bags, rags or diapers, and at the very last stage of their lifecycle, were turned into ashes, that were then used in fertilizer or soap-making.

In other words, repurposing and recycling are built into the very DNA of the Japanese kimono. 

This careful, environmentally responsible usage of the kimono embodies the Japanese ethic of mottanai, or the refusal to be wasteful. At Megumi Project, we love that we are part of this tradition; not only honoring the cultural and artistic heritage of the Japanese kimono, but also exercising an ethic of responsible production and care for clothing. We have so much to learn from the generations that came before us, the generations that modeled practices of repairing, altering, recycling, and repurposing. 

What we do embodies a slow fashion ethic as we prioritize sustainability and ethical practice in fashion by taking fabrics that would otherwise be unused or tossed out, and by giving them new life as contemporary fashion items. We receive all of our kimonos as donations from people from all over Japan. Many of these generous people reach out to us with stories of their mother’s and grandmother’s kimonos that sit unused, but of course are much too precious to throw out. We celebrate the distinct culture of Japanese kimono and are grateful that we can share a bit of Japanese culture through our products with customers from all over the world. Through our online shop, we’ve been able to send our unique kimono products to customers in 18 countries, and counting! At our brick-and- mortar shop in Onagawa, we also enjoy meeting tourists from all over Japan and sharing our unique story of restoring beauty.

Most importantly, we want to uphold the dignity and nurture the personal development of each staff member, as we grow together as a social enterprise community in the remarkable town of Onagawa.

Megumi Project fair trade in Japan

Follow up Questions:

Do you have additional products or designs in the works?

Yes! We are planning to launch a bolero collection later this summer. The design is similar to our turtleback shawls, but with a petite body type in mind, with a simple design that makes it easy to throw on over a range of outfits for some extra warmth and elegance.

We will also be launching infinity scarves (pictured to the left) in the fall that utilize both kimono fabric as well as a soft fleece lining. Cozy and one-of-a-kind!
P.S. Our fold over bags are also quite new, and we are proud of them too! 

Are there broader efforts in Japan to keep the tradition and skill of kimono culture alive?

Yes! There are movements to encourage the wearing of the kimono in more ordinary settings. In our neighboring city Ishinomaki, there is an organization that offers tutorials on how to wear kimonos, and plans concerts and gatherings which people attend wearing kimonos. I think this is reflective of the cross generational interest in keeping the culture of kimono wearing alive.There were also recent trends of wearing kimono items in non-traditional ways amongst younger people–a kind of fusion style of Western clothing with kimono items.

Along with that, the culture of repurposing kimonos is very vibrant. There are workshops all over Japan on how to turn kimonos into new clothing items or bags. Vintage kimonos can be found reasonably at many used clothing stores in Japan, which people purchase to recreate into new items. For anyone out there interested in procuring vintage kimonos, Etsy and eBay both have great assortments!  The prices for vintage kimonos probably average around $50, which is significantly less than the $2000 price-tag of a new kimono! 

Thanks for the introduction, Megumi Project. Looking forward to watching you grow and flourish over the years

Shop Megumi Project here.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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