(By Christine Nguyen)
Take a stroll through SOHO and you’re bound to pass the latest fashions and the trendiest new restaurants. SOHO seems to constantly find a place for itself on the edge of the next big thing.
Turn the corner between Broome and Greene Street, and you’ll find yourself in front of a very different kind of store. Kiteya is a Japanese fabric and stationery store that has expanded into other businesses such as interior design, clothing, and jewelry. In the Kyoto dialect the word “Kiteya” is a casual way of saying, “please visit us”. The store’s atmosphere exudes that same simple hospitality. Kiteya is a gem of pastel colors, cute accessories, and feminine softness, easily lost in between SOHO’s city hustle and bustle.
The development behind Kiteya stemmed from a very simple, almost obvious idea. In Japan, thousands upon thousands of old kimonos are thrown away every year. New kimonos can be pricey, but when you look beyond the reduction in cost, vintage kimonos simply have more history. Many of Kiteya’s recycled fabrics have been passed down from generation to generation and have quality hand stitching and cut that is hard to find nowadays in the world of machine woven fabrics.
In fact, that unique quality was what Mai’s mother wanted to bring to New York; high-end silk and authentic Kyoto craftsmanship. I had the opportunity to meet Mai, the manager of the store and the daughter of the store’s owner. There are several designers that work under Kiteya. All of the designers use fabric and other materials managed by Mai’s mother, a tough entrepreneur who went against the grain of a patriarchal Kyoto to develop a successful company of her own. Mai herself was an almost textbook example of the modern day Asian-American businesswoman. Her politeness and sweet disposition belies her proficiency in business. When I asked her what advice she would give to other Asian businesses who wanted try their hand at breaking into America, her answer was straightforward but inspired, “…be prepared to change. Do not be offended if people don’t like your product right away. You’re working with a different market and you need to begin after doing your research and understanding what your new market wants”.
Although originally a staunch traditionalist, Mai’s mother saw the need for Kiteya to evolve. Japanese customers only make up 1% of Kiteya’s market. Kiteya is about to celebrate its fifth year since the opening of its New York location, yet it still finds itself at times adjusting to the differences in eastern and western tastes. Mai’s mother often works from Kyoto, leaving Mai in charge of Kiteya. It is Mai who watches the customers in America, figuring out what they like and what they don’t like.
Mai joked that at 60 something it was difficult for her strong-willed mother to change. Yet in spite of this, Mai’s mother remains an artist at her core, and as a fellow artist she can appreciate the innovation New Yorkers can express. Inspiration often thrives whenever a foreign tradition is brought to a fast-paced melting pot like SOHO. Customers who buy fabric from Kiteya will often come back with their creations. Vintage silk will be turned into sandals or earrings. Mai says that she is still surprised by the creativity of her customers and that this sort of interaction with her market has been incredibly rewarding. To see old thrown away fabric being given another chance, another life.
Walk past Kiteya quickly and you may just catch a glimpse of a quaint fabric shop. Take a look inside though, and learn the history of how Kiteya came to be and how it has evolved into what it has become and you’ll see one of the latest interpretations of the American Dream. The weathered and aged fabrics of a faded history cut and transformed so that it can find a place for itself in a modern world. Come to Soho to experience this truly unique and wonderful shop!
464 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013