A wedding dress embodies many things: love, elegance and hope. It isn’t just an expensive piece of fabric but also a woven dream. Think of the Cinderella story. A downtrodden girl mistreated by her stepsisters who only wished for a smidgen of tenderness and then – POOF! – along came a magical figure to conjure up a special outfit with a chance to make that happen.
This is the ethos of the iconic wedding designer Yumi Katsura. And for many people she is their real-life fairy godmother.
Growing up, Katsura’s life was a stark contrast to this fairy tale. She lived in a war-ravaged Tokyo where poverty was rife and there was no spell to wish away her troubles. But she still thought of Cinderella from her childhood and so began stitching her ideas into place.
Flash-forward to now, when Katsura will soon be celebrating 55 years of her brand’s affluent history, with over 80 stores globally and her work showcased in the world’s fashion capitals.
She has numerous impressive accolades under her belt. She is a Guinness Book World Record Holder for the most pearls adorning a wedding dress; charity ambassador for her relief work with engaged couples after the Hanshin earthquake; designer of Easter vestments worn by Pope John Paul II.
However, we should not forget her most notable achievement: the first person to ever open a bridal store in Japan.
Since that first store opening in 1964, she has transformed Japanese wedding traditions. Up until the ’60s, 97 percent of brides wore the traditional wedding kimono. Katsura instilled the idea of wearing not one, but two outfits in succession on this special day: a kimono and a white wedding dress.
Her influence came through her writing. Her work, The Bridal Book, was the first of its kind in Japan; this was tempting for a nation that had continued to become an increasingly Westernized society. She hasn’t stopped there, having also lent a hand in the launch of bridal shows and stores around the world including in India, Vietnam and China.
One particularly significant year – not only for the pioneer but for the global bridal industry – was 1981. It was the year that 740 million people tuned in to watch Prince Charles and Lady Diana marry. Before this day, Japan had never seen such opulence in a wedding ceremony, and they were hooked.
It was also the year that Katsura participated in her first New York fashion show. Her signature Yumi Silhouette and penchant for lace and pearls caught the interest of big names in the industry. Though it was not the bouffant ’80s style of Princess Diana’s dress, her slender line that accentuated the figure became a hit amongst college-age Japanese women.
Katsura has also been an advocate for the preservation of wedding traditions and ceremonies from varying cultures. Having established a bridal museum in Kobe, she is the organizer of the Asia Bridal Summit that encourages knowledge of other nations’ customs.
Today, at 87 years old, Katsura is as enchanting as ever. She is never seen without tinted glasses perched upon her nose or hair wrapped in her trademark turban of silk. Her signature look is timeless; it is not hard to imagine her as a charming manga character (another enterprise into which she has in fact delved).
Her latest addition to an already impressive resumé is an e-book titled Yumi Katsura: Behind the Scenes. It tells the story of the her brand’s 55 fantastic years through the eyes of eight creative women, all of whom have been inspired by Katsura’s drive and success. The book gives an insight into what makes this strong-minded innovator tick, and is the first time she has ever produced an English-language book.