Bridal Designer Yumi Katsura, Who Revolutionized the Industry, Dies

Yumi Katsura, the first bridal designer to create Westernized wedding gowns in Japan, died April 26 in her home country.

Katsura, 94, died at her home in Tokyo of natural causes while working, according to Paulette Cleghorn, creative director of Yumi Katsura NYC.

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Katsura, whose given name was Yumi Yuki, revolutionized the bridal sector during her six decades of working in it. An omnipresence in the industry, the hands-on designer was the face of her namesake company as recently as March, when she presented her most recent collection of 70 wedding gowns in Tokyo. More than anything, she “got a high from doing a fashion show. She felt that was part of her mission and what she was here to do. It wasn’t like a job for her. She saw it as passing on the Japanese culture to people all around the world. That was her mission in life,” Cleghorn said.

With her oversize round eyeglasses, knotted pearls, polished ensembles and coordinating head wraps, the designer’s preferred look could easily pass as the perennial wedding guest. “I have been with Yumi from the early morning until well after midnight, and she was always impeccably coiffed. I actually asked her one day if she slept in her clothes. Her turban always matched her blouse, or jacket and scarf. Her nails were always done,” Cleghorn said.

During an unmatched career, her accolades extended beyond the bridal industry, having once been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the wedding dress with the most pearls — 13,262 genuine Akoya cultured ones — and on another occasion having designed vestments worn by Pope John Paul II for Easter mass.

In adherence with her wishes, a memorial show and commemoration event will be held in lieu of a funeral.

Born in Tokyo, Katsura graduated from Kyoritsu Women’s University and earned a degree from the department of apparel science studies. She then relocated to Paris, where she enrolled in Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de La Couture Parisienne to learn haute couture techniques.

Yumi Katsura Bridal Spring 2022
Yumi Katsura Bridal Spring 2022

After further developing her skills, Katsura opened her namesake company and became the first bridal-specific designer in Japan. The following year she opened the country’s first bridal salon and presented the first bridal fashion show ever held in Japan.

Pioneering as she was, the designer incorporated traditional Japanese techniques in bridal fashion. During the course of her career, her signature wedding gowns have been worn by brides in more than 30 countries. In terms of firsts, Katsura had many, including staging the first bridal fashion show in China and organizing the first Asian Bridal Summit in Tokyo. In 1993, she reached another personal milestone by creating the papal vestments for Pope John Paul II. Her record-setting wedding dress with the most pearls was shown in 2012 at a public display in Bunkyo, Tokyo of the “Yumi Mariee Princess of Mikimoto Pearls” wedding dress.

Yumi Katsura Bridal Spring 2019
Yumi Katsura Bridal Spring 2019

Taking the lead in the industry, she soon published “The Bridal Book,” the first Japanese book that focused on bridal fashion. The designer went on to publish many more tomes about her work. In October, another title, “Yumi Katsura” by Cori Coppola, is scheduled to be released.

Yumi Katsura Fall 2019 Bridal
Yumi Katsura Fall 2019 Bridal

As her business developed, the designer ventured into the U.S. market and expanded distribution in France and England in 1981. Her collection quickly gained ground, with 41 stores carrying the line made from duty-free silk. Leading retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus carried the line. The savvy designer had set up production in duty-free approved factories with the approval of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. In 1982, imports of raw silk and silk fabrics to Japan were restricted under the government-controlled program to protect Japanese farmers and keep domestic prices very high, WWD reported at that time.

Yumi Katsura Bridal Fall 2016

Yumi Katsura Bridal Fall 2016

In the high-flying, free-spending 1980s, she designed dramatic full-skirt bridal gowns with a short jacket, silk satin wedding dresses with detachable trains and slender column dresses in Japanese prints with every conceivable neckline. Always versatile, Katsura understood that no two brides were the same and that personal preference could be a key selling point. Undeterred by the bridal industry’s preponderance for white, she also offered pastel options as early as 1982.

As a sign of her recognition as a pioneer and established name, Katsura unveiled the Yumi Katsura Bridal Museum in Kobe in 1988. Despite its self-congratulatory-sounding name, the museum showcases an assortment of authentic traditional bridal gowns from all over the globe.

In 1994, she broadened her reach Stateside by opening a signature boutique on Madison Avenue, offering a 120-style collection that retailed from $2,500 to $15,000. Within three months 32 wedding gowns had been sold, as well as an unspecified amount of eveningwear. The Madison Avenue boutique has since closed. The Yumi Katsura collection continues to be sold in specialty stores like Kleinfeld Bridal of “Say Yes to the Dress” fame.

In the late ’90s, Katsura’s niece Erisa joined the company and created the Erisa Katsura for Yumi Katsura label to offer a more youthful and affordable assortment. Meanwhile, Yumi Katsura served up such ultraluxe styes as a $250,000 hand-crocheted gown with 100,000 Swarovski crystals.

Over the years, she received various honors, including the Foreign Minister’s award and the Dalian honorary medal. The designer also became the first Asian member of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana in 1999. Katsura staged her first fashion show in Paris in 2003. She also headed up such organizations as the Federation of Asia Pacific Bridal Associations and The Japan Bridal Association.

Her 60-year-old company will go forward. A succession plan, which of course Katsura was involved with, has already been put in place with Ayako Fujiwara, Yukinori Morinaga and Keiko Iino taking on the creative reins in keeping with Katsura’s spirit and standards. Each has more than 30 years of experience and had worked closely with the founder. In addition, the American division will continue to maintain its creative direction under Cleghorn, who has been in that role for more than 10 years. Nick Yeh, chief executive officer of Ashdon Brands, will continue to oversee the U.S. division’s management team. Ashdod signed a North American license for the brand in 2011.

Takayuki Kurano, managing executive officer of Yumi Katsura International Co. Ltd., described Katsura as  “a visionary, who was deeply passionate about enhancing the beauty of brides and advancing Japanese bridal culture. Her relentless pursuit of excellence and love for beauty will forever inspire us to uphold her legacy…we aspire to build a company that stands the test of time, lasting a century as Yumi Katsura envisioned.”

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