Kotome’s sustainable Asian American threads


Kotome’s reversible hanten kimono jacket. photo courtesy of Kotome

Kotome’s reversible hanten kimono jacket. photo courtesy of Kotome

Last year, when time seemed to slow to a halt and no one was sure how long the uncertainty and fear would last, two friends a world apart set out to make something sustainable and timeless, and they called it Kotome.

Marketed as an environmentally conscious luxury clothing brand, Kotome is the brainchild of East Bay native Sachi Yoshii and Los Angeles-born Naomi Hwang.

The brand launched last year after the two spent hours and hours of early morning and early evening Zoom calls, workshopping their first garment; a quilted reversible hanten kimono jacket with large pockets designed for comfortable indoor living.

In many ways, the jacket they envisioned came out of their own experience working from home as a result of the pandemic.

“During my day-to-day, I’m mostly at my computer. Maybe I’ll go on a walk, maybe someone will come by, but mostly I’m home on my computer on a Zoom call,” Yoshii told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “In the Bay, it’s cold in the morning and evening, and I wanted something that was nicer than a sweater or hoodie to put on during my meetings. When I was describing this thing that I wanted to Naomi, she knew exactly what I was talking about.”

As a Korean American, Hwang recalled her mother wearing a cotton quilted garment as a house coat. “Oh, my mother has that,” she would tell Yoshii and proceed to sketch and research Japanese kimono and Korean hanbok to further influence their design.

In this way, the Kotome line is also a product of Hwang and Yoshii’s Asian American heritage. A Yonsei, Yoshii explained that her mother used to hand down silk kimono that were too fancy and delicate to wear, but were nevertheless, inspiring.

Hwang, a professional fashion designer and design consultant, grew up surrounded by clothes, as her Korean immigrant parents owned a dry cleaner in the States. Recently moving from Paris to Amsterdam, Hwang has reflected on her own understanding of her identity and what that means for her work.

“Living in Europe, it’s been interesting recognizing that I am clearly 100 percent Korean and 100 percent American and now I’m figuring out how to put that into a personal brand,” Hwang told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Every brand you create is a reflection of you and your company.”

This is exactly what the two friends achieved through the creation of Kotome, a multicultural pan-Asian experience told through a single garment. Even the fabric itself reflects this intention through its sourcing from India.

After eight months — from workshopping the concept, researching, sketching, designing, finding suppliers and a boutique factory in Paris — Hwang and Yoshii launched their versatile high quality jacket online.

While the process itself took eight months, the idea to start a brand together goes back at least 10 years, to when Hwang and Yoshii shared an artist loft in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan in New York.

Not only were they living in the heart of the fashion industry in SoHo, but Yoshii was earning her masters of business administration at Columbia University and London Business School and Hwang had recently completed a bachelor of fine arts in fashion/apparel design at Otis College in Los Angeles.

For years they had talked about creating a brand together, so when the pandemic hit, and Yoshii was telecommuting from her home in Oakland, Calif. to her job as the vice president of strategy and external relations at East Bay Community Foundation, and Hwang was in Paris doing consulting work on sustainable resourcing and practices with different brands, they knew it was time.

And their end result was a garment they made from deadstock or discarded fabric, that was for themselves, their families and their heritage.

For more information about Kotome, visit KotomeLiving.com. Hwang and Yoshii plan to donate five percent of all of their proceeds to their philanthropic initiative, Kotome Philanthropy.

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