The cutting edge: fashion from Japan

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Since the 1970s and 1980s when Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto established themselves as influential designers in international fashion, Japanese fashion has been acclaimed for its ability to challenge fashion conventions, embrace technology and to point the way forward. The cutting edge: fashion from Japan celebrates the craftsmanship, experimentation and innovation of Japanese fashion. Of particular interest has been the works by a new generation of designers who are little known outside Tokyo fashion and art circles.

The pioneers of Japanese fashion were Hanae Mori, the first Japanese designer to show abroad, in New York in 1965, the designer known as Kenzo, and Issey Miyake.

Issey Miyake (born 1938), whose name is perhaps the most well known in the west, established the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo in 1970 after serving an apprenticeship in Europe and New York. Along with his interest in utilising aspects of Japanese folk culture and traditional textiles, Miyake’s preoccupation during the 1970s was the development of a garment that was reduced to its simplest elements. Drawing on the tradition of the kimono he produced garments he called ‘a piece of cloth’ (A-POC), which were, essentially, square or rectangular in shape with sleeves attached, garments that could be wrapped and draped around the body.

Over the years, Miyake has collaborated with weavers, artists and poets, choreographers and photographers as part of his exploration of what clothes can do and be made from. In the mid 1980s he staged a series of exhibitions aimed at exploring the relationship between the body’s form and the garment. Entitled Bodyworks, the exhibition contained installations of moulded plastic bustiers (a corset-like garment) with sci-fi connotations, and rattan and bamboo bustiers reminiscent of samurai armour. While these sculptural creations were more at home in a museum or art gallery, Miyake’s innovative pleated clothes, developed in the 1990s, have realised his aim of creating practical, modern clothes that are beyond trends. Similarly, his current preoccupation, A-POC, a long tube of stretch fabric that doesn’t require any sewing and is cut by the customer without wasting any material, shows an ongoing commitment to progressive design.

It was the impact of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s collaborative catwalk shows in the early 1980s that really created an intense awareness of Japanese fashion. Kawakubo and Yamamoto’s garments were characterised by intentional flaws, a monochrome palette, exaggerated proportions, drapery, asymmetry and gender-neutral styling.

The clothes and models looked shabby, in stark contrast to the power suits and fantasy evening dresses, paraded on immaculately groomed models, in vogue at the time. Although the clothes by these two designers were just as new looking for the Japanese, it has been argued that the aesthetics of traditional Japanese culture, particularly of wabi sabi (beauty that is imperfect, impermanent or incomplete) and of the kimono were inherent within their work. Initially the response to these Japanese designs was hostile and derisory but within a few years the new aesthetic came to have a major influence on mainstream fashion.

Rei Kawakubo (born 1942) studied philosophy and literature at Keio University, Tokyo, and worked in advertising and as a stylist for fashion shoots before establishing her own clothing label, Comme des Garçons (which means ‘Like the boys’), in 1973. The label was commercially successful in Japan before she teamed up with Yohji Yamamoto to present her controversial collections in Paris in the early 1980s. Kawakubo’s often-quoted remark, ‘I work with three shades of black’, belies the fact that since the mid 1980s she has departed from her original sombre palette and her collections throughout the 1990s and early this century have often incorporated bright colours. Over the years her clothes have ranged from sombre, asymmetrical and loose fitting to colourful, light hearted, romantic and structured. While her designs have changed a lot and her collections are unpredictable, in Kawakubo’s attempts to defy conventional beauty her clothes are still inclined to offend Western assumptions of taste and tradition. Her stated aim is to avoid conformity and to do something new each time she creates a collection.

Yohji Yamamoto (born 1943) shared a parallel vision with Kawakubo in the first half of the 1980s, the years of their Paris collaboration. The son of a seamstress, Yamamoto completed a law degree at Keio University before switching to study fashion at the Bunka Fashion College and working for his mother before setting up as designer in the late 1960s. Since parting ways with Kawakubo, Yamamoto’s collections have been characterised by romanticism more in tune with Western aesthetics. He is renowned for working mostly with black and white. Yamamoto’s clothes often have a sculptural quality and he likes to combine unusual materials with a recognisable silhouette’for example, an evening dress made from a felt similar to that used for billiard tables. His clothes are marked by historical references and a sense of renewal, seen in his blending of culture and history.

Now in their 60s, Miyake, Kawakubo and Yamamoto are based in Tokyo where they head large, commercially successful companies that produce clothing lines for the local market, as well as participating in Paris at the twice-yearly prêt-a-porter collections. Their creative dominance remains unchallenged.

The new generation of designers have often begun their careers working for these three main fashion houses. Junya Watanabe and Jun Takahashi, for example, have been protégés of Kawakubo, while Kosuke Tsumura and Hiroaki Ohya have developed their own labels within the Miyake group of companies. The use of technically advanced fabrics, craftsmanship and technical ingenuity, and an interest in experimentation and innovation characterise the work of the next generation.

Junya Watanabe (born 1961) is the most celebrated of the younger generation of Japanese designers. Like his mentor, Watanabe is interested in innovative textiles and construction techniques, describing his designs as ‘techno couture’. The first collection to bring him international acclaim was in 1995 when he showed slim-lined knee-length tunics and pantsuits made from a polyurethane laminated nylon in bright colours inspired by the cellophane used in theatre lighting. Although the garments had simple silhouettes, the construction is visibly complex with folds, tucks and pleats emphasised at the joins of the body to make the outfits more comfortable.

Jun Takahashi (born 1969) began his design career as a cult figure in Harajyuku, Tokyo, the centre of Japanese fashion subculture and in 2000 under the aegis of Rei Kawakubo ‘ he debuted his Undercover label in Paris to much acclaim. Detail, layering and eclectic use of colour and pattern are characteristic of Takahashi’s work who describes his signature designs as lying between high fashion and street wear.

Hiroaki Ohya (born 1970) cites Issey Miyake as the designer who has had the greatest influence on him as he ‘learned the spirit to always seek or create something new from him’. An example of this is his work The Wizard of Jeanz, a remarkable series of 21 cloth ‘books’ that fold out into clothes. Drawing both on origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, and the book The Wizard of Oz, The Wizard of Jeanz is a technical tour de force that allows a book to transform into a ruffled neckpiece, a pair of jeans or an elegant evening dress. The Wizard of Jeanz series came about in part as a reaction to the ephemeral nature and relentless cycle of fashion collections. In line with other Japanese designers, Ohya rejects the notion that fashion need to beautify the human form.

Kosuke Tsumura (born 1959) also questions the role of fashion in today’s society. Since 1994 the signature piece for his label Final Home has been a transparent nylon coat with up to 40 multifunction zip pockets conceived as a final home in the case of natural, or man made disaster. For example, to protect against the cold, the wearer can stuff newspapers into the pockets, or they can equip it with survival rations and a medical kit. Or even, with soft toys which can be used to comfort the wearer’s children so they won’t be scared during a natural disaster. Tsumura was motivated to rethink his attitude to fashion by the growing number of homeless living in Tokyo. The combination of the simplicity of Tsumura’s designs, coupled with their humourous functionality has made the Final Home label a top label in Japan among the young.

The exhibition The cutting edge: fashion from Japan was held at the Powerhouse Museum from 26 September 2005 ‘ 29 January 2006. It featured the work of 19 designers, drawn from collections of the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Powerhouse Museum. The accompanying book The cutting edge: fashion from Japan is available from Powerhouse Publishing.

This article was first published in Powerline, spring 05, the magazine of the Powerhouse Museum.

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