Standing amid the exotic kimono garments in Jan Fuller’s shop, you may suspect its front door is a “Twilight Zone” portal.
One moment, you’re in Wabasha, Minn., strolling past Hardware Hank and Eagle Valley Chiropractic. The next, you’re in Kyoto, Japan, contemplating cherry blossoms.
Yet Wabasha, known as an eagle sanctuary and setting for the 1993 movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” also is home to what’s likely the largest private retail collection of Japanese wedding kimono in the world.
It’s like stocking Lake Wobegon with koi.
“This is a place unique for Wabasha, Minn., but even for the world,” said Fuller, who added that even she sometimes wondered at her husband Richard’s claim of having an unparalleled collection. “I thought, ‘Can this be true?’
“Then one day a couple in their 80s, from Japan, came in — both interior designers — and she said there is literally no shop like this in Japan.”
Fuller shrugged and smiled: “So I became a believer.”
She also became a reluctant proprietor about two years ago, when her husband fell ill and could no longer direct the gallery he named Wind Whisper West.
Yet she rose to the occasion, steeping herself in history of kimono, and the extraordinary degree of symbolism that’s literally stitched into these ceremonial garments.
(A note on the word itself: Kimono literally means “thing to wear.” And, as fish serves as both singular and plural, so kimono means one or many.)
These kimono are not the stuff of preening rock ’n’ rollers or old Fu Manchu movies. They’re not to be worn as fashion, but contemplated as art.
For one thing, they’re 6 feet long, and often have thick padded hems, designed to help fend off cold drafts of the Japanese climate. For another, they’re considered fine art — often used to adorn walls or stairwells — and are priced as such. Fuller’s most expensive kimono was valued at $90,000 when it was created, and many are in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. Yet her actual prices are a fraction of such figures.
“We are a retail shop,” she said. “Not just a museum.”
Weddings go Western
Richard Fuller was the collector, having become enraptured with the artistry of traditional wedding kimono while a Marine intelligence officer in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia from 1958-1964.
“He lived the culture,” Fuller said. “He’s the type of person who gets deeply involved with a place.”
Even as a boy, the Far East captivated him. But after his stint in the Marines, he never returned. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison with degrees in finance and Far Eastern studies, and had a long career in insurance and banking in Chicago. Jan Fuller worked in marketing research for 40 years.
Yet retirement prompted him to revisit his interest in kimono. That’s when he learned that the 1,500-year-old tradition is a dying art, partly due to fewer skilled artisans willing or able to do the fine embroidery work or hand-paint the designs.
A New York Times article in 2003 quoted a longtime kimono shop owner who said that fewer than 60 of the 500 craftspeople with whom he’d long dealt were still working, and that 80 percent of Japan’s retail shops selling high-end textiles for kimono had closed.
Mostly, though, the demise of the kimono is due to Japanese brides opting for Western-style wedding gowns.
Changing tastes play a role, but so does cost: We may marvel at how U.S. weddings average more than $26,000. But a traditional wedding in Japan, with its multiple changes of kimono, or uchikake, can top six figures.
So Fuller began buying languishing inventories. And buying. And buying.
In the meantime, the couple moved to Wabasha, where Jan Fuller grew up and still has relatives.
“I suggested that maybe he open a shop and share these with people,” she said. So in 2003 they bought a storefront on Main Street, hung a kimono in the window and became the only retail shop for traditional Japanese wedding kimono in the world.
Wind Whisper West keeps a low profile. Rio Saito, program manager of the Japan America Society of Minnesota in Minneapolis, couldn’t find anyone within its membership who’d been to the gallery.
The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends, but Fuller encourages visitors to call before coming or make an appointment (1-651-565-2002 , windwhisperwest.com).
Most of the gallery’s customers are interior designers seeking unique art for a client. But people also wander in off the street. Some are drawn by the occasional mention in a travel article, or are there to see the eagles.
Others are simply perplexed. Kimono in Wabasha?
But Fuller sees a commonality among global cultures.
While the luminous silk kimono beg to be caressed, they’re almost impossible to clean, so touching is off-limits — not unlike a certain Minnesota treasure.
“Many people here are familiar with quilt shows, and how you shouldn’t touch the displays,” Fuller said. “So I just say, ‘Behave as if you were looking at quilts.’ ”