FASHION / Japan Ease: This year, as before, consistently beautiful clothes from the top three designers in Japan provide an elegant alternative to the thrown-together-look so favoured by the under-20s

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a rumour going around that Martin Margiela, the Belgian deconstructivist designer, is to take over as designer at Comme des Garcons. It makes some sense. Margiela is almost as reclusive as Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese woman who is the founder, the head designer and the business brain of the Comme des Garcons company. In Margiela's short time in the spotlight, he has managed to remain almost as tight-lipped as Kawakubo has been since her work was first shown in the West in 1981. Neither have ever smiled for a camera. And both design clothes that on first sight look weird.

The story, say both sides, is completely unfounded, but it's one which, they admit, has been circulating for some months. It has caught on because it's an interesting idea. Even though it's not true, it illuminates the fact that, for once, a new name still within the realms of the avant-garde, and a designer who is definitely part of the fashion establishment, are running on parallel lines and could, conceivably, meet at a junction.

This is odd. New designers rarely have much in common with their immediate predecessors; by the very fact of their assimilation into the mainstream, they're considered bourgeois and passe. But Comme des Garcons, along with Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, three companies which happen to be Japanese, have never assimilated. Although all three are critically and financially successful, aesthetically they have much more in common with the new-mood designers, of whom Margiela is emerging as something of a leader.

Margiela, fellow Belgian Ann Demeulemeester and the Austrian, Helmut Lang, don't design identikit clothes, but they make the same kind of clothes and attract similar sorts of customers - and thus are increasingly considered together. So it was with Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, who tend not to like being lumped together in 'the Japanese camp', because the work of each has a distinct signature. But the feeling for the body, for texture and for movement is similar - and quite dissimilar to anything else until these new guys with equally difficult names came along.

When the Japanese first appeared on the fashion scene in the early Eighties, fashion pundits had never seen anything like their long boxy jackets, shredded hems and torn-worn fabrics. They feared some kind of fashion apocalypse. After about a year of debate, the huge, flat, asymmetrical work of the Japanese was written off by the populists and dubbed 'Bag Lady' fashion.

But it stayed around. Hems have gone up and down, trousers have gone in and out, sequins and spangles have been declared vulgar, chic, and then vulgar again, while the Japanese have each shown four times a year (two men's, two womenswear shows) regardless. They have kept on exploring 101 different ways with monochrome, pushing fabric innovations to new extremes and coming up with some of the strangest shapes ever offered, not just on the Paris catwalks (where strange things often happen), but for sale.

Over the years, each in their own way, the three top Japanese designers have wooed a particular kind of customer: these have largely been people from the arts, the arty professions and those who want to look like they're in the arty professions. Now, though, they appeal to anybody who wants to respond to the new mood, who acknowledges that 19-year-olds are running around in aprons with old petticoats and men's hob-nail boots, and wants to respond in spirit, if not in kind.

What the Japanese provide now - to art directors, photographers, restaurateurs, film-makers, theatrical impresarios and anybody left in Cork Street with any spare cash for clothes - is a similar feel, but a more controlled, more elegant and edited interpretation of the style the young are putting together from junk shops and jumble sales.

Of course, the Comme (the 'des Garcons' is dropped by those who buy), Yohji (ditto, the 'Yamamoto') and Issey Miyake collections offer seasonal changes, just like the big French, Italian and American designers do, but they have an overall consistency of vision which encourages a lifelong addiction to their clothes. So: one goes to Comme for boxy menswear, which serious Comme aficionados buy in black and charcoal, all the time wishing that 'Rei' would reintroduce the huge navy jacket with the tiny flash of a red button-hole. (French customers in particular loved this because, from a distance, it looked like the red flash of the Legion d'honneur). Most male Comme customers don't look as if they are wearing designer suits: Karl Lagerfeld is one of the company's biggest customers and you'd never guess. Meanwhile, female devotees love it all - from the faded madras checked sloppy dresses to the deliberately crumpled long tunics and jackets in palest lemon and duck-egg blue, as well as the perennial black and navy suits.

Yohji's menswear is cut in crisp lines, and offers endless versions of a jacket in the same shade of navy every season. Most of his real fans avoid the overblown jackets or his over-zealous embroidery. For women, his severe navy and black suits with asymmetric lines and genius-cut white blouses are significantly different from Comme's only to those who are schooled to look. His Thai-inspired tribal bandings on this summer's suits and sweaters have been judged a must-have by the few who can, and I wish-I-could-have by many who can't (and there are even more of them since his London shop closed down).

Issey Miyake's customers are often more flamboyant. A Comme, a Yohji, takes some spotting - while a Miyake plisse dress in russet and canary yellow has a life of its own; it looks as if a little creature is running around underneath it. Miyake devotees say they love the way the clothes are not restricted by the human body: the disadvantage of this is that his trousers can make your legs look like the Tin Man's; the advantage is the modernity of his fabrics, anything labelled Miyake can be rolled up in a ball and never ironed.

In almost everything they do, these designers produce clothes that are completely out of sympathy with the Western 'reveal-and-conceal' tradition. And they're far too expensive ever to be mainstream. To enter the concrete bunker of a minimalist Japanese shop - in London, in Paris in New York - is to enter the world of the pounds 100 T-shirt and to declare that one is sophisticated enough to have the faintest idea why it costs so much.

In the West, you grow into Japanese clothes. It's different in Japan. There, customers, especially female customers, grow out of them and into the most pedestrian of Western-style clothes. Respectably-dressed married women will say 'Before I was married I wore Comme des Garcons' as proof that they were once radical.

Over here, the audience is older, wiser. If an Armani suit spells off-the-peg style, money and acceptability, a Yohji or a Comme suit spells nothing: they're the Om of suits - which is why white-space art directors like them so much.

For women, these are clothes for the ultra-confident. But unlike most clothes for women, they don't necessarily look best on the young. Rei Kawakubo is not appalled by the girth of a woman's hips; she is tiny but her clothes aren't. Yamamoto's womenswear can also suit many sizes and Issey Miyake's plisse work looks good on women with as many lines as his clothes. His customer base includes a score of arty octogenarians.

If the new batch of European designers talk of a 'spiritual' rather than a physical ideal; so, too, do the Japanese - who seem entirely uninterested in the injection of any pumped-up sexuality in their work. Instead there are sensuous textures and organic shapes moving on the body. Rei Kawakubo thinks nothing of taking a pair of trousers, a normal pair of trousers with two legs, then putting both legs into one leg hole so that the spare flows out like a train. Margiela - shamelessly and successfully - stitches socks together to make a sweater that has the shaped ankle sections clinging to elbows and shoulders.

Margiela and Kawakubo both insist that the clothes speak for themselves. But Margiela has recently opened up. Those who met him at his quiet, at-home show in March found him surprisingly warm and friendly. Kawakubo is neither. She has been interviewed hundreds of times since her clothes came to the West and the only adjective anybody seems able to apply to her is still, unfortunately, inscrutable. -

(Photographs omitted)