Material Girl

Piece by piece, Dawn Yanagihara of Portland’s Kiriko stitches ancient textiles into story-telling pocket squares, bandannas, belts and more in the coolest, most enduring version of hand-me-downs that we’ve ever seen.
Photographs by David Engelhardt

In a city buzzing with creative spirits, it’s tough to be a standout in the fresh-and-original category. Then we discovered Portland’s Kiriko studio, where Dawn Yanagihara and her team are reaching way back into ancient Japanese textile arts to create fashions for you and your home to wear that are soulful, style-forward and sewn to last.

Hearing Dawn Yanagihara talk so expressively about textiles, it’s hard not to feel a practical need for one of Kiriko’s fabulous bandannas. For Dawn, who is creative director and co-founder, along with business partner Katsu Tanaka, it’s a heartfelt mission to share the stories and rich tradition of the cloth used to fashion each handcrafted belt, blanket or any item in this quietly and quickly expanding line. She has a connection to each item, and she’d love it if you did as well. “Our biggest goal,” she says, “is to create pieces people will cherish and hold on to…and even pass down.”

Once we were finished fondling their fabrics, we sat down for a chat with Dawn. Here’s how it went.

Naturally: You are clearly a woman who loves and appreciates textiles. How did that happen?

DY: Growing up in Hawaii, where there is such an active Japanese community and the influence of Japanese culture is really apparent, I grew up seeing a lot of these fabrics and particularly remember the patterns. Having that foundation—of seeing something without really knowing it—then later in life, when you’re old enough to understand the significance, learning about the processes and the history behind them is even more impactful. Every time I go home I still love to go through my parents’ and grandparents’ closets. There’s a reason why they held onto these pieces: a particular pattern, the feel of the material and the quality of the craftsmanship. These aren’t just pieces you have for a season; they’re items you hold on to that become a part of you.

Textiles tell a story, and we do everything we can to share their story with unique, well-crafted pieces you hold on to. -–Dawn Yanagihara

kirikoN: How did that passion for fabrics with a past evolve into Kiriko designs?
DY: I was reintroduced to them when I lived in northern Japan after college. It was a more rural part of Japan, and there were a lot more traditional pieces and artifacts around than what you see in larger cities. And finally it came full circle when my business partner started bringing in these traditional kasuri fabrics, and when I saw them, they represented so many memories and parts of my life. When he shared his vision to do something else with them, something beyond their traditional usage, it became so obvious to us that we also needed to share the story and history behind the patterns and processes used to create them.

N: What role do you play in the company? Do you and your business partner design and hand-sew pieces for your line, or do you have people for that?

DY: We’re still a very small business, and everyone on our team wears many hats. The role that my business partner and I value the most, and I feel what is most apparent in our brand, is the creative direction. My business partner is from Japan, and I’m a fifth-generation Japanese American. In a lot of ways, it’s created a very personal connection to what we create because it’s so representative of who we are, not just our aesthetic sensibilities but our cultural identity.

N: Here’s a tough one: Can you boil down the Kiriko philosophy to one sentence?

DY: Textiles tell a story, and we do everything we can to share their story with unique, well-crafted pieces you hold on to.

N: So that wasn’t that hard! Can you tell me more about the Japanese concept of boro and why you built your designs around it?

DY: The concept of boro is such a timeless sentiment. In Japanese, the term is “mottainai” or “waste nothing.” Boro literally means rags. In Hawaii, we call very old clothes your “boro boros.” I think boro textiles have such a unique beauty that comes from the fact that many of the pieces have lived many lives. They could’ve started as a jacket, then once that jacket became too worn, they were used to patch a pair of pants; when the pants started to wear, they were sewn into a blanket. Nothing is wasted. In the context of design, it’s a bolder statement—almost a challenge—but one we take seriously and willingly. When we create pieces in this way, our goal is to make things people keep—items that someone will cherish and not want to let go of, because something that’s well made and that carries a real history of craft is timeless.

kiriko-3N: We’re all about inspiring and celebrating sustainability. What is Kiriko’s take on that?

DY: When we work with such beautiful textiles from family manufacturers who have dedicated their lives to creating and perfecting these materials, we want to do everything we can to use every piece of fabric. A lot of our design is directed by how we can save and reuse our material. Our belts are inset with pieces of fabric that are left over from our scarf, bandanna and pocket square production. The leather tabs on our knit caps use cutout leather pieces from our belts. Our modern quilts use the leftover pieces of fabric from, well, everything. It’s a tradition and mindset we’re doing our best to uphold and live by with what we create.

N: Your line has expanded dramatically recently into soft home furnishings and many more fashion items for both men and women. Where is Kiriko going next?

DY: We’re always looking for new and unexpected ways to use our fabric. New pieces and designs allow us to showcase different aspects of the fabric, and we want to do as much as we can to use every piece. Going forward, we want to do as much as we can to carry on this tradition and share the story of these textiles.