Kimonos are one of the most versatile pieces you can have in your wardrobe. They can serve as a luxurious after-bath wrap, a chic beach coverup, or a beautiful accent to just about any outfit for day or night.
But it wasn’t exactly that user-friendly aspect of kimonos that inspired sisters Tiffany and Renee Tam to launch Kim+Ono, a company that sells exclusively those silky garments of Japanese origin. It was more about their experience growing up in Chinatown surrounded by family and experiencing first hand what it was like to be an entrepreneur.
To learn all about Kim+Ono’s origin story, read our interview below where we discuss taking over the family business (and rebranding it), the Chinatown community, how they weathered Covid restriction, and more!
When did you start Kim+Ono? How did you decide to focus on kimonos?
“It’s hard to define when exactly KIM+ONO began because it’s really evolved for us from childhood. As children, my sister and co-founder Renee and I were mesmerized by kimonos. Our parents worked with manufacturers in Asia, so we would travel with them and tour artisan villages and see the production process firsthand. We were specifically moved by the artistic process — the artisans and the handcrafted nature of these traditional pieces.
Fast forward to a handful of years ago, and I was working on another creative project that was somewhat stalling out. This was at the same time Renee was running Old Shanghai Online. We started discussing the vision of a potential rebrand for Old Shanghai and bringing the kimono that we so loved from childhood to the forefront of the brand. Our parents had been selling these kinds of pieces in their own shops, but we wanted to bring a modern aesthetic to time-honored traditions, and create our own contemporary designs.”
How did you decide to open your showroom in Chinatown?
“At the time that Renee and I were discussing our visions for the rebrand, I had also been working in Chinatown at our parents’ shop Canton Bazaar, and serendipitously, a family friend presented us with an opportunity. A different space down the block from my parents was becoming available, and our family friend thought we might be interested. Since our parents’ shops have been in Chinatown our whole lives, Chinatown has always been a second home to us. With the idea of the rebrand and the opportunity for a storefront in our own community, it all seemed like perfect timing. We completed the rebrand and opened the store on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, SF in the spring of 2018!”
Were you already familiar with the neighborhood? What has your experience been like having a shop there?
“Chinatown has been a second home to us our whole lives. We used to help out in our parents’ shops and have always felt at home on Grant Avenue. To be able to grow up and bring something new to the community that has supported us our whole lives has been a dream come true. And without skipping a beat, the community in Chinatown has been so welcoming to us. It really is a special place and we’re so grateful to be a small part of it.”
How would you describe your clientele?
“Our clientele are amazing. Probably about 80% of the folks coming in are tourists and 20% are locals. Growing up, working in my parents’ stores, it seemed mostly tourists were coming in, but now there are definitely more locals stopping in, which is so amazing. It’s incredible to meet people from all over the world who are visiting San Francisco while at the same time connecting with the people who make this place home.”
How did your business and the retail community in Chinatown weather the pandemic? Did retailers band together in any organized way? Did the merchants Association provide support?
“The beginning of the pandemic was really tough for us. Our brick and mortar store was forced to close down due to restrictions. I was so grateful for the fact that we also have an online business, as it was able to help keep us afloat during that really uncertain time. Once we were able to reopen our store, the foot traffic was understandably diminished and there weren’t as many folks wandering in as there had been before.
The Chinatown Merchants Association was a huge help in driving traffic back to our neighborhood through their Walkway Weekends program. They closed down a few blocks on Grant Avenue, where our shop is located, and held different festivities and performances to invite the community back. That made such a big difference for us and we were so grateful for it!”
How has Chinatown changed since you opened your shop?
“Chinatown has always been an incredible place full of tradition. Since we’ve been here, Chinatown has certainly preserved that tradition, while also seeing an influx of younger generations of AAPI entrepreneurs and small businesses bringing a freshness and vitality to it. It’s a mix of old and new that is singular and beautiful about this neighborhood.”