Sebastopol couple Yasuko and Ira Bloom create fashion, literature

Yasuko and Ira Bloom are one creative couple, rescuing vintage kimonos and remaking them into chic fashions. Ira Bloom, meanwhile, is preparing for the release of his first published novel, "Hearts and Other Body Parts."|

Yasuko Bloom remembers a time when her mother would wrap herself in a kimono simply to clean the house.

She did it without complaining or questioning the effort or practicality of assembling a complicated and multi-layered outfit that included two types of underwear and tying a tight, wide obi sash around the waist of an elegant, floor-length robe - all to wipe and scrub and sweep.

A half-century later, Japanese women have largely liberated themselves from the time-consuming and constricting kimono that had been a Japanese tradition for centuries. Many young Japanese are trendsetters.

The fashionable Harajuku district in Tokyo is filled with teens and twentysomethings sporting free-spirited, candy-colored confections that are 180 degrees from the formal kimonos their grandmothers wore, although some like to experiment with fun mashups. Think kimono with Converses.

But Bloom and her husband, Ira, share a love for the stunning silks and other textiles of the old kimonos. The Sebastopol couple rescue the vintage material from a multitude of vintage kimonos stored away in Japanese homes. Yasuko re-cuts the precious material and remakes it into chic fashions she designs herself and sells wholesale and in her eponymous boutique, Yasuko, in Healdsburg, where she also features her one-of-a-kind creations.

Because historically, the kimono remained fairly standard in style literally over centuries, all creativity was poured into the lavish textiles, which themselves ranged from casual to elegant, said Yasuko, whose 40-year career began as chief designer for a fashion house in Tokyo, where she studied design.

So reimagining the beautiful old fabrics comes naturally to the 60-year-old mother of two. But for Ira, the rich world of Japanese textiles was one to discover and learn after he met Yasuko in her hometown of Kurashiki, back when he was teaching English in Japan in the 1980s.

Now they work at their unique trade side-by-side, out of a loft studio in the rafters of a converted barn next to their rural home west of Sebastopol.

The daughter of a kimono dealer, Yasuko grew up surrounded by the gorgeous hand-loomed and hand-dyed silks.

“I didn’t mean to go into this career, but I love textiles and I’ve always enjoyed working with them,” she said.

Even on a winter day, light streams in from skylights into the studio. A giant wooden cutting table consumes most of the second-floor workspace. Everywhere are stacks of rolled fabrics, paper patterns, kimonos and finished samples of shirts and jackets that have both contemporary styling and Old World elegance.

Although there are countless old kimonos stored away in Japanese homes, the finest are being discovered and grabbed up by collectors. At the same time, kimono fabrics have also become popular sources of material for quilts and other crafts. Some of the finest date to the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, with a lapse in the 1940s during World War II and a resurgence in quality in the 1950s, Ira said.

But by the 1960s, Japanese women were beginning to shed the elaborately constructed costume, in favor of comfortable western clothes.

Yasuko reimagines these luxurious vintage textiles into one-of-a-kind designs like Mau-style blouses of recovered shibori silk, sleeveless dusters, vests and jackets fashioned from obis of silk brocade. They don’t cut truly fine quality vintage kimonos, which they see as works of art to preserve. But many from the 1970s are gaining new life in more contemporary forms.

Some garments are assembled from pieces of several different kimonos.

“We can spend a week just laying out kimonos and organizing them,” said Ira. After the combinations are put together the pieces are bundled and sent to a sewing contractor in Los Angeles for assembly.

Yasuko also designs a line of garments sewn in Los Angeles using domestic fabrics, as well as a line of separates made of 100 percent cotton and hand-dyed and stitched in Bali. In addition, she imports ready-made haori kimono jackets from Japan.

The Blooms launched their clothing line in Washington, D.C., then moved it to Los Angeles before settling in Sebastopol 19 years ago with hopes it would be a more wholesome place to raise their kids.

At the time, Max, now 22, had been diagnosed with a genetic disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, that creates developmental delays and an insatiable appetite that can lead to obesity. He now lives in group home. (Daughter Isabella is a senior in high school.)

“People are really compassionate in this community. They’ve been really understanding of him,” Ira said of his son. “He didn’t get bullied.”

That’s not the case with the teenage hero of Ira’s first published novel, “Hearts and Other Body Parts.” Slated for a March release by Scholastic, the Young Adult novel is a mashup of witchcraft, monsters, the macabre and teen romance, all served up with humor. One of the chief characters bears more than a glancing resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster, and is taunted when he arrives as the new kid on campus.

Ira, who turns 58 right around the time his first book comes out, has had a lifelong dream of being a writer.

“The first thing he said to me is, ‘I want to be a writer,’” Yasuko remembered. “But then life goes on.”

A native of Annapolis, Ira was the son of an appellate court judge, Theodore Bloom, known for his erudite literary quotations from the bench. Ira studied English literature at University of Maryland and set his sights on becoming a teacher so he would have summers free to write.

In addition to teaching English in Japan, he spent three years as a junior high teacher in South Central L.A. in the 1990s, which gave him a window into the teenage mind and adolescent reading habits.

“I like writing about people of that age and how they’re discovering things. It’s an exciting time, their world just opens up,” he said.

He started out by trying his hand at stand-up comedy routines and performing them in Marin. But he came to realize that having a gift for writing is only a small part of being a successful writer.

“The people who do it well are doing it all the time,” he said. “Just like anything else you have to do it all the time. So I got into the habit of coming in here and writing.”

So the barn became a creative incubator for both design and writing. His first novel was a 300,000-word behemoth.

“I couldn’t get an agent for that for good reason. Looking back, it is kind of a mess. I realized I just hadn’t done it right. But in the six years I was writing it, I learned the craft of writing,” he said.

His second novel, a fantasy about an elf prince, was much better, he believes, and he hasn’t given up hope it may someday see print.

His third however, a novel that hits all the teen high notes from humor to horror, was snatched up by an editor at Scholastic who works under David Levithan, the acclaimed editor of “The Hunger Games.”

He credits the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, for creating books that kids can’t wait to dive into. He hopes young readers find his books page turners.

“I taught regular English and I had a hard time finding any book I wanted to teach,” he lamented. “I want to create that kind of excitement.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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