A Japanese Fashion Designer Styles a Gift List

Maiko Kurogouchi moved to Tokyo from Nagano Prefecture about 20 years ago, but her roots in the mountainous and snowy region west of Tokyo are still very present in her fashion designs. “When I go back to my hometown, I get inspired to create,” she said.

Those feminine, fluid pieces reflect her memories, travels and daily life — varied experiences that made her an intriguing person to ask for holiday gift suggestions.

Ms. Kurogouchi, 38, credits much of her professional acumen, especially respect for artisans’ skills, to her time designing women’s wear collections at Issey Miyake after graduating from Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo.

In 2010 she introduced her own women’s ready-to-wear brand, called Mame (the Japanese word means “bean” or “small,” a nickname she acquired as a student at Bunka). Then, in 2018, she changed the brand name to its current form: Mame Kurogouchi. It incorporates her signature textile looks: floral jacquard, intricate knitting and meticulous embroidery, as well as the plunging necklines and daring slits that she has said are meant to empower the wearers.

She debuted her spring 2024 collection in September, during Paris Fashion Week, at the elegant Japanese tearoom and restaurant Ogata in the city’s Marais neighborhood. The collection, called Fragments, featured embossed motifs, shimmering organza and pale tones reminiscent of the glaze and color of her favorite porcelain, Imari ware made on Kyushu, one of Japan’s southernmost islands.

Over the last few years, Ms. Kurogouchi has collaborated regularly with Uniqlo, using knitting technology to create delicate designs for soft garments that straddle the line between underwear and clothing. Recently she also designed a large curtain and screens for the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine in Fukuoka, collaborating with artisans in Kyoto who used ancient dyeing techniques for the screens.

One day in late October, a warm and beautiful time of year in Tokyo, we went shopping in the Aoyama district.

Filled with boutiques, cafes and art galleries, Aoyama draws locals and travelers alike, but has a more sophisticated and exclusive atmosphere than the nearby Shibuya neighborhood. (It is actually where I go when I want to see some of Tokyo’s best-dressed people.)

Aoyama — which means blue mountain in English — was named for a samurai who served during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) and who was said to have lived in the area.

I met Ms. Kurogouchi in Aoyama at her brand’s flagship store, which was designed by Teruhiro Yanagihara and opened in January. It is in a brick building on a quiet street, just steps away from the hustle and bustle of Omotesando avenue. Shoppers first see a miniature garden, planted with trees and moss reminiscent of the landscape of her hometown, Nagano.

Ms. Kurogouchi said that, even though her store is here, she also comes to the district when she has to buy gifts because “there are so many charming shops,” including the apparel and lifestyle store Arts & Science, and Mizuho, which makes traditional Japanese sweets.

And, she added, “I like Aoyama because you can find anything within walking distance.”

Cord Embroidery “Hanakago” Mini Hand Bag

For anyone seeking a gift, Ms. Kurogouchi said, she would recommend her “Hanakago” Mini Hand Bag, a purse with a 37.5-centimeter (14.8-inch) strap that is long enough to be slipped over the shoulder.

“I was inspired by old Japanese flower baskets,” she said, displaying the navy blue version (it also is available in black). “I was thinking that if I’m going to use those baskets in modern life, we need a softer texture so I chose those strings, they’re like shoelaces.”

She was referring to the acrylic cord that, woven and swirled in a series of patterns, was used for the exterior of the bag, which is 17 centimeters tall and 19 centimeters wide (51,700 yen, or $317 in the United States).

“It’s an embroidery technique made by craftsmen in Kanagawa Prefecture,” just south of Tokyo, she said. “I work with them quite a lot for embroidery works. It looks like leather, doesn’t it? I think it would be a good gift idea to introduce Japanese history and craftsmanship.”

But what if a handbag just isn’t the right gift?

As an alternative, Ms. Kurogouchi suggested the Lichen × Mame Kurogouchi Candle L, made of soy wax and natural essential oils, including mint and rosemary, in a jet-black Arita ceramic container with a lid. It was created in collaboration with the Japanese perfumer Lichen (¥24,200).

“This candle was inspired from the scenery in my hometown in Nagano, with the beautiful winter snow,” she said. “I wanted to express the contrast between my eyes feeling very cold from the winter scenery, but my body feeling warm from the fireplace flame or the heating. I really love this contrast.”

The collaboration also included an eau de parfum, made using wildflowers called fujibakama, known as fragrant eupatorium in English, and ethanol made from rice. “Sometimes when I try perfumes from other companies, I feel they smell too strongly of alcohol,” she said. “But this rice ethanol reminds me of the drinks we have at the shrine at New Year’s.”

Leaving the shop, we walked along a street lined with residences, boutiques, beauty salons and a convenience store — the road so narrow we had to step aside a few times to let cars pass. It is one of those parts of the capital that is so quiet, it is hard to believe you are in central Tokyo. A few minutes later, we arrived at our next stop.

Half Pearl Earring

In a way, the Shihara flagship store — housed in an L-shaped building that includes the shop, a gallery area and office — reflects the brand’s sleek and streamlined jewelry.

Rosemary shrubs and pine trees line the outer courtyard, giving it a tranquil feeling. Inside, the jewelry is displayed in two central rows of floor-to-ceiling vitrines; the staff members wear white lab coats.

Ms. Kurogouchi and the brand’s designer, Yuta Ishihara, met in Tokyo nearly 20 years ago. “When we both started out, we used to share a rented artist studio in an old Japanese house,” she said. “We started out together, and now we’re both creating different things.”

She showed me a pearl stud that the brand calls its Half Pearl Earring. “Last night I saw the full moon and it reminded me of this earring,” she said, touching her left earlobe, to show her own. “I love the shape, it’s so different.”

The seven-millimeter Akoya pearl is partly encased in 18-karat gold; five versions are offered, each has a different visible proportion of pearl to gold.

“The moon is really important in Japanese culture, so I think it would make for a meaningful gift for someone,” Ms. Kurogouchi. “Pearls are iconic in jewelry, they’re classic, very graceful and suitable for every age and gender.”

The stud is sold as a single earring, priced at ¥52,800, or $467 in the United States. Shihara’s online shop ships internationally, and the line is stocked at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and the Dover Street Market stores.

Before leaving Shihara, we stepped back into the courtyard, then entered the adjoining art gallery to admire some lighting structures by Michael Anastassiades, a Cyprus-born designer who now lives in London, and who has worked with Shihara on a jewelry collection.

Winter Wagashi

It now was time for afternoon tea, so we stopped at the Aoyama outpost of Higashiya. Tucked on a side street, the tiny shop specializes in the traditional sweets known as wagashi. There are many variations of these small treats; the ingredients vary reflecting the season, holidays and festivals.

Behind the white noren, the flag-like curtain typically hung at shop entrances in Japan, was a glass countertop display of the delicate confectionery (¥3,348 for five pieces in a wooden box; delivery available within Japan).

“This is a seasonal wagashi called kakigoromo, it’s my favorite,” she said, pointing at a tray of small plump pillows. “It’s made with dried persimmons from Nagano Prefecture, where I’m from. In the Japanese countryside, in the winter, many people hang persimmons to dry. After a few weeks they get this white coating and become really sugary.

“This one here is filled with a slice of butter and white anko,” she said, referring to the white bean paste inside the kakigoromo.

Kakigoromo are wintertime wagashi, available only between October and January. The dried persimmon has a chewy texture, and its exterior is sprinkled with glutinous rice powder.

She also pointed out yokan, a thick gelatinous confection made of red bean. “I always carry some of those in my bag in case I don’t have much time to eat.”

Minutes later, as we sat down back at her store, we ate the kakigoromo, the sweet pumpkin-like flavor of the persimmon combining with the salted butter and creamy anko paste. As Ms. Kurogouchi took a bite, she closed her eyes and said “shiawase,” the Japanese word for happiness.

“It reminds me of my grandma, she used to eat dried persimmons as snacks,” she said. “Growing up, I didn’t like them much and always wanted other kinds of snacks, but now that I’m older I really appreciate them.”

Wildflower Arrangement

Kamakura Rokusho is a gallery and flower shop that opened earlier this year, but it is in the seaside town of Kamakura, a two-hour train ride south of Tokyo. “We won’t have time to go there today, but I wanted to include this flower bouquet that I love,” Ms. Kurogouchi said, of her gift list, showing me an image on her iPad.

The bouquet looked like a cousin of the one on the shop’s ground floor, which I had seen on our way inside.

“I don’t like big, busy flower arrangements and when I opened my flagship store in Aoyama, I wanted flower displays to welcome guests and a friend recommended them,” she said, gesturing toward the arrangement, which included Japanese gentian, wild grapes and grasses. “My grandma used to do ikebana, and I like natural flowers, arranged in the Japanese way.”

Looking back at the iPad image, she said, “this particular bouquet has wildflowers from Nagano. I often see those flowers by the road when I go home and take a walk. The owner goes and handpicks them, and the bouquet comes with the vase (¥19,800 to ¥38,500).

“They can ship them anywhere in Japan. I like to send those flower arrangements to my mom and grandma for special occasions like Mother’s Day. It’s a little work of art.”

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