Designers create fierce fashion inspired by samurai exhibition

Public invited to vote for their favorite outfits in fashion competition

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published April 15, 2014

 Grosse Pointe Farms designer Bridget Sullivan used the natural fiber kozo in the top of her dress, which was inspired by a Japanese screen with cranes.

Grosse Pointe Farms designer Bridget Sullivan used the natural fiber kozo in the top of her dress, which was inspired by a Japanese screen with cranes.

Photo courtesy of the DIA and participating designers

METRO DETROIT — From their artfully embellished swords to their sometimes elaborately detailed armor, the samurai warriors were a sight to behold on the battlefield.

And now, some modern fashion designers have risen to a challenge of their own: a competition to create outfits influenced by samurai culture, as it can be seen in “Samurai: Beyond the Sword” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. From dozens of applicants, the DIA and the Detroit Garment Group Guild (DG3) selected 10 local designers to come up with outfits inspired by the exhibition, with the public to select the winning ensemble.

Designers vying for this honor include Janna Coumoundouros, of Clawson; Loren D. Jordan, of Southfield; Bridget Sullivan, of Grosse Pointe Farms; and Deanna Zapico, of Royal Oak. Their creations — being shown as a traveling exhibition called “Beyond the Armor” — can be seen online or in person at one of several venues in metro Detroit: April 21-27 at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, 6777 W. Maple Road; April 28-May 4 at Warren Community Center, 5460 Arden Road; and May 5-12 at IKEA, 1640 Ford Road in Canton.

By working with DG3, the DIA “wants to create a way to engage visitors more closely with the art in the exhibition ‘Samurai: Beyond the Sword,’” said DIA Community Relations Coordinator Gabby Bryant by email. “By inviting local fashion designers to create garments inspired by the exhibition, we hope to make the artwork relevant in new and unique ways.”

Jordan — who designs under the moniker LOJO — likened this competition to the television fashion contest “Project Runway” and said in an email interview that she was “so excited to be in such a great competition with so many talented designers. I think we all bring something different to the table.” Her colorful outfit is something that could be worn in a movie or a play, and she said she was most interested in the use of color in samurai uniforms.

“There was lots of usage of metal and leather that I am going to incorporate in my piece,” Jordan said. “The prints on the fabrics they used was very unique.”

Coumoundouros, whose Lilacpop Studio is in Ferndale, said via email that she has always been intrigued by the samurai but didn’t know much about them outside of their portrayal on film. She said she was able to translate her own influences in the samurai-inspired piece.

“I wanted my design to have a lot of structure to it, more like a piece of sculpture,” said Coumoundouros, who also works as a professional photographer. “I worked with Inteva, a Troy company who manufactures car interior material, when I created dresses for the Main Event 20, the kickoff event for the (North American International) Auto Show. I reached out to them about using their materials again for this design, and they have been fantastic in not only letting me use their material but also they are allowing me to use their sewing lab where they sew car interiors. My design is a combination of the layered trims, shapes and armor-esque influences from the exhibit. I am a jewelry designer, and I am going to use the recycled machine parts I make my jewelry with in the design, as well, including bullet casings.”

The designer said she related to the samurai’s recycling of sword hilts into bowls and teapots.

“I take apart vintage machine parts, such as typewriters, cash registers and adding machines, and use the parts in my jewelry,” Coumoundouros said. “The samurai saw beauty in the objects that weren’t being used anymore and made beautiful things with them. I see beauty in vintage machines and turn them into wearable, modern jewelry.”

Sullivan, who is calling her work “Crane Dress,” said in an email interview she found her inspiration when she saw the painted Japanese folding screens in the final room of the DIA exhibition.

“One of the screens has flying cranes painted on a gold background,” she said. “This screen was painted by an artist who was brought up to samurai class because of his artistic talent. We were told about the importance of symbolism in samurai culture. Many of the artifacts held imagery that were believed to infuse it with mystical qualities, such as protection or strength.  Cranes are a symbol of longevity and soaring spirit.  I hope to capture the beauty and symbolism of the crane in my garment.”

Sullivan said her designs are typically “very romantic and feminine,” so she was drawn to the challenge of creating something influenced by samurai warrior culture. After seeing “exquisitely made artifacts” created using “luxurious materials,” she followed suit with her own design, coming up with a dress meant to look opulent.

“The top of my dress is made from kozo, a natural fiber which is used for traditional Japanese papermaking,” Sullivan said. “After sculpting the kozo, I added gold leaf and a wash of sheer metallic paint.  The dress is made of silk organza.”

Zapico, who lives in Royal Oak but works out of a studio in Troy, said she was most interested in capturing both the warrior side and the peaceful/cultural side of the samurai in her outfit. It’s something the designer said she could see herself wearing for a special occasion, such as opening night at the opera.

“The samurai armor from the Edo period juxtaposed (with the) beautiful art they created left me craving … an evening gown ensemble, which consists of a leather armor-inspired bustier with chain maille gauntlet-styled sleeves and a gorgeous kimono-styled, long silk skirt and Japanese-styled matching shrug,” Zapico explained by email.

And in the true artist tradition of suffering for her craft, Zapico said she needed to go to the hospital emergency room for five stitches after an antique samurai sword she borrowed from a friend for this project ended up rendering the artist a wounded warrior.

Fashion competition organizers hoped to engage the local community in a unique way with the exhibition.

“We wanted to create awareness of the samurai exhibition and, at the same time, showcase the design talent that exists in metro Detroit,” Bryant said by email. “By having the outfits on view in the tri-county locations, people can see this talent firsthand and vote for their favorite design. We also think people will be inspired to visit the museum to see the exhibition the designs were based on. ‘Beyond the Armor’ is just one of many programs we bring out into the local community, thanks to the millage passed by tri-county residents.”

“Beyond the Sword” itself can be seen through June 1 at the DIA.

To see blogs and videos posted by the designers about their experiences on this project, visit

The winning design will be revealed during a fashion show that starts at noon May 17 at the DIA. The public can vote on their favorites at the venues or online at