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How mother-daughter duo Susu Smythe and Nancy Smythe Clair are giving vintage kimonos refreshed flair

How mother-daughter duo Susu Smythe and Nancy Smythe Clair are giving vintage kimonos refreshed flair
March 2024

The styles are gender nuetral and one-size-fits most

Susu Smythe and her daughter, Nancy Smythe Clair, launched Kiku Refashion in 2022, transforming vintage kimonos into more modern styles.

Nagagi, dochugi, tomesode, yukata, komon, homongi—no, this isn’t a sushi menu, but a few of the 50-some terms Susu Smythe shares from her glossary of all things kimono. For the attorney-turned-fashion entrepreneur, the 1,000-year-old culture and evolution of Japanese kimono is endlessly fascinating. “Kimonos have social rankings; for example, one with three family crests ranks higher than one with only one crest,” she explains. “Until the late 19th century, only the upper class could wear silk.  When working women were able to buy silk kimono, they picked meisen, a machine-loomed sturdy ikat silk that often had a modern, art nouveau design.”

Beyond the richly layered history, it’s the extravagant beauty of vintage kimonos—the brocades, the intricate hand-tied knots of shibori dyeing, the gold- and silver-leaf appliqués, the exquisite birds, dragons, and flowers often hidden inside of the garments—that initially hooked Smythe, who became enamored of Japanese culture as a high schooler when her family lived in Okinawa for a year. In more recent years, Smythe, one of the first women to make partner in a Charleston law firm decades ago, once again found herself charting new territory—scouring eBay for kimono deals and building up a Mount Fuji-sized stash. 

Today, those elaborate antique textiles are fodder for Kiku Refashion, a collection of Charleston-made robes, jackets, and scarves crafted from vintage silk kimonos. Smythe and her daughter, Nancy Smythe Clair, launched the brand in 2022, after creating patterns to alter the traditional 60-inch-long robes into more modern styles. “They’re perfect for throwing over a T-shirt and jeans. Or add this to a black dress, and you’re done—and you’re sensational,” says Smythe, holding up what once was a shimmering emerald green, heron-bedecked furisode (a long sleeve kimono worn by unmarried women) transformed into a glamorous one-of-a-kind scarf. 

The mother-daughter duo divides and conquers, with Smythe curating silks from her collection and doing the initial sewing, while Clair brings a youthful eye and retail savvy. Both love that Kiku—Japanese for chrysanthemum, the national flower—honors the enduring artistry by making the textiles relevant for today. “It’s sustainable, slow fashion,” says Clair. “We’re creating unique works of art that are versatile and wearable for years, giving new life to vintage Japanese silks.” An unexpected boon for today’s consumer: Kiku styles are gender neutral and mostly one-size-fits-all. 

(Left to right) Susu Smythe and her daughter, Nancy Smythe Clair; Kiku Refashioned presented a runway show at Charleston Fashion Week in October.

Merchandise sold quickly at their launch event in April 2022 for the Gibbes Museum of Art, where Smythe served on the board. “I thought, well, this is going to be a breeze,” she says, after friends bought jackets similar to those they’d seen her wearing for years. “But it turns out the learning curve is pretty steep.” SEO and SKUs are now in her vocabulary, “and social media continues to be a hungry beast,” adds Smythe. Thanks to mentoring by many, and the serendipity of finding a seamstress who’s a Shopify and web-design expert, Kiku is going strong. “It’s my antiaging project,” says Smythe, who’s 74 and practicing law. “I plan to be going strong well into my 90s, and Kiku is teaching me new skills and keeping me around young people.” Watching her mom orchestrate a runway show assures Clair that the benefit runs both ways: “Millennials are amazed by how organized she is.”

■ 3: The number of runway shows and counting 
■ 260,450: Knots hand-tied to make an all-shibori kimono
■ 820: Hours spent sewing in 2023 to refashion Kiku items
■ $9,225: Amount of money donated to five local charities in the first year and a half of operation