April 01, 2020 • All / Editorial

Emi Ito is the great-granddaughter of a tea master, the granddaughter of a calligrapher, and the daughter of a koto and shamisen player. She is also a mother and proud public school educator. A few years ago she became passionate about sustainable fashion and began speaking out about the cultural appropriation of the kimono in fashion. She also founded and co-moderates the Instagram page @buyfrombipoc, which celebrates Black, Indigenous, and other people of color creators and innovators in the sustainable, slow, and ethical fashion communities. You can find her @little_kotos_closet on Instagram and on Patreon.

What role does clothing play in your life?

"As a person who experienced destabilizing early childhood trauma, clothing has always been something I could have a sense of control over, predict and lay out the night before, seek a physical comfort from, and sometimes even seek a sense of joy from when I was wearing an outfit that looked just right. As a teenager and young adult, clothing became a way for me to express my political views, so I grew a robust political T-shirt collection! But clothing really came to mean something completely different when I became a parent. I slowly realized that I was dressing more and more like my own mother. I was not only channeling what her parenting advice might be, but choosing items that reminded me of what she wore when I was a child. 

My parents died from AIDS when I was eight and ten years old. Becoming a mother was without a doubt the most thrilling event of my life: that moment of holding a living piece of my parents in my arms and seeing my bloodline reflected back in her little face was...indescribable. Dressing like my mother, which was an unconscious act at first, makes me feel closer to her, especially when the few clothing items I have of hers fit so seamlessly into my wardrobe now. Her elegant but practical style inspires how I choose to dress for my work as an educator and a human handkerchief for my toddler.

And now, as we shelter in place, I wear her handmade haori and remember her resilience and grace as she navigated being quarantined when she first became ill, her strength in facing racism and AIDS-phobia as her illness progressed, and her abundant kindness as a continuous thread through it all. Embodying a piece of her spirit—wrapped in something she wore—assures me that we will endure so that we can continue to build a better world for our children."

Emi is wearing the Artist Dress in Amber Linen Gauze size OSM, the Asawa Tie Belt in Amber Linen Gauze size OSM, the Clyde Trench in Fawn Heavyweight Wool size XS, the Scarf in Fawn Lightweight Wool, and the Andy Trouser in Terra Midweight Linen size XS-Regular.

How is clothing political to you?

"Clothing is political for me because it is not just a reflection of my individual self, but of who I come from. Several of the pieces that I inherited from my mother are traditional Japanese garments. These haori and kimono are not just culturally significant, but are also some of the only tangible personal items she left behind. I have worn my mother’s kimonos to mark sacred life moments and celebrations; her haori were hand-stitched by her own hands and were pieces she wore almost daily. So when I see white fashion designers and makers, who already benefit in our white supremacist society, take 'inspiration' from such sacred items and then misname and profit from them without much thought or care for the people who have very real cultural, historical, and emotional ties to these garments, it hurts. 

I’ve written and been outspoken about the cultural appropriation of the kimono for over a year now, and it is because clothing is political and has such personal meaning that I felt compelled to approach brands and ask them to rename 'kimono' garments that do not resemble kimonos. Little did I know there would be a huge reckoning of what many wanted to brush aside as a simple 'fashion term' when Kim Kardashian made the mistake of using the word for her shapewear brand.

These words matter. These garments matter. Japanese heritage people of the diaspora outside of Japan, who have generational trauma that often connects to incarceration during World War II and the lived experience of racial discrimination, see cultural garments that were taken from us, labeled as too foreign if worn by us or our family members, and then somehow acceptable, fashionable, and exotic when worn by white people. This is a form of erasure—an erasure of histories that are mostly not taught in our schools, an erasure of the hardships of our ancestors and families, and an erasure of our stories.

It’s not just clothes. It’s who we come from. It’s our history. It’s part of who we are."

As a person who lives within many intersections and within a politicized body, how do your clothes express these lived experiences?

"As a multiracial Asian American woman, I have always been very aware of the hypersexualization of people like me—those confused, up-and-down looks that signal someone is trying hard to work out 'what' I am and the blatant harassment and questions about 'what' I am and 'where' I am from. So for a long time I have dressed in ways to mitigate the white patriarchal gaze. While I am naturally drawn to drapey linens and comfortable clothing, the protection that I feel when I wear airy styles is part of the draw for me. One of my favorite types of clothing is outerwear exactly for that reason: I can wrap it around me and feel that there is a protective layer between the world and my body."

Emi is wearing the Harper Jacket in Clay Cotton Canvas size OSM (see a similar style) and the Florence Pant in Flax Midweight Linen size XS-Short.

What is one step clothing consumers can take to move the industry needle towards inclusivity? 

"Our voices matter, and offering feedback to makers and brands about more equitable and humanizing practices, size inclusivity, and representation makes a difference. I have been moved and humbled by the mostly positive responses I have received from many white makers and brands when I have asked them to do better on issues of cultural appropriation. While some feedback has been ignored or labeled as 'bullying,' there are more and more people who are willing to listen and make changes, and those are the makers I choose to invest in."

What is a political issue you are passionate about?

"My Japanese mother and white Irish American father met in Japan in the 1960s, got married against the wishes of their families, and moved to the US. The residue of anti-Japanese racism from World War II greatly impacted how my mother and I were treated, and the visceral racism I experienced from childhood will never leave me. When I learned in high school about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, everything started to click together and make sense. I began to understand some of the root causes for the discrimination we experienced.

As an educator, I have been passionate about teaching young people the history of Japanese American incarceration, and now the present-day parallels to the incarceration and mistreatment of immigrant and asylum-seeking individuals, children, and families is horrific and cannot be ignored. We are also witnessing virulent racism on the rise against people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage because of COVID-19; this racism has a painful historical context that connects to why and how over 120,000 Japanese American, Japanese Latin American, and Japanese heritage people were incarcerated during World War II.

I am involved with an organization called Japanese Americans for Justice, and we are part of the movement to #CloseThe Camps. We are fiercely demanding an end to all US immigrant incarceration camps, and we are calling out racism and xenophobia with the stories of our families and ancestors in our hearts and the words 'Stop repeating history!' on our tongues."

Emi is wearing the Clyde Jacket in Black Midweight Linen size XS, the Georgia Tee in Moss Silk Crepe size OS, the Serpentine Wrap Belt in Black Midweight Linen size OSM, the Harper Jacket in Clay Cotton Canvas size OSM (see a similar style), and the Florence Pant in Flax Midweight Linen size XS-Short.

What is one concrete way you want people reading this to take action today?

"If you have not already done so, I ask you to consider signing our Japanese Americans for Justice petition. This petition demands that the US government close all detention and incarceration centers that are imprisoning immigrants and asylum-seeking individuals, children, and families. We will deliver this petition to federal representatives, and when it is safe to do so, we will participate in Tsuru for Solidarity’s historic pilgrimage of Japanese Americans with our allies and comrades. Together we will go to Washington, DC to march, rally, and drum with over 100 taiko drums lining the streets to #CloseTheCamps. The Japanese American survivors of the World War II US prison camps will lead the march and give voice to why we must stop repeating history!

By signing the petition, you will also receive up-to-date information on how to continue being involved in the movement to #CloseTheCamps. With the outbreak of COVID-19 in ICE detention centers, these demands are more urgent than ever before. As an AIDS orphan who lived through the AIDS epidemic and as a parent living through this COVID-19 pandemic, I see the time is now to enact community care and cultivate the world we want for one another. 

Political acts do not always have to be big and in the streets to make an impact. When we contribute small acts of resistance and disruption in a steady and intentional manner, change happens. The trick is committing to those small acts again, and again, and again."

Learn more from Emi's suggested readings:

This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Teaching Tolerance
Zinn Education Project
The Conscious Kid
"An Open Letter to White Makers and Designers Who Are Inspired by the Kimono and Japanese Culture" by Emi Ito on Ysolda.com
"Untangling the Threads of the Kimono: Japan's Colonial History and Cultural Reparations in Fashion" by Emi Ito on MatterPrints.com
"Honoring Culture and the Slippery Slope: Lessons from #Kimohno for the Sustainable Fashion Industry" by Emi Ito on MatterPrints.com
"Bill of Responsibilities for Multiracial People of Color with Light Skin and White Passing Privilege" by Emi Ito on LittleKotosCloset.com
"Learning and Unlearning: An Interview with Emi Ito on Cultural Appropriation" on PomPomMag.com
"Cultural Humility: People, Principles, and Practices" video from Melanie Tervalon Consulting