The Japanese designers Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo are the main players of a movement that, since the early 1980s, has entirely overturned our notions of dress. Later this month, at the Barbican Art Gallery, the exhibition Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion will focus on their ground-breaking work, as well as that of the generations that came after them, including Comme des Garçons-supported Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara and Jun Takahashi, creator of Undercover. Curated by the fashion historian and Kyoto Costume Institute director, Akiko Fukai, the show is the first of its kind in this country.
In fact, the designers in question are resistant to the idea of being pigeon-holed as a result of their nationality. "I don't deny that my national identity is reflected in my work," Kurihara, who trained at Central Saint Martins in London once told me. "I'm influenced by the environment where I grew up, especially by my experience at Comme des Garçons. But I don't think my way of working would change if I was another nationality, my standpoint would be the same. One can't help but be influenced by the way one has grown up and from the place where one happens to live, but nationality is pure chance."
With this in mind, any aesthetic closeness, or indeed disparity, aside – each designer is clearly informed by both Japanese culture and clothing, however lateral their take on it may be – there is a unifying spirit here that is intent on innovation and challenging preconceived notions of beauty. It's small wonder that this is fashion embraced by those who wish to stand out in a crowd.
As compared to the bourgeois values of French fashion in particular, these designers fly in the face of any conservatism, eschewing the ideal of an hour-glass woman dressed in body-conscious (and restrictive?) candy-coloured chintz and tottering on talon heels in favour of a rather more thought-provoking and indeed thoughtful silhouette that tends, with notable exceptions, to envelop the body more than expose it, creating an intimate dialogue between garment and wearer. Notions of status, too, are undermined: power, in each of these designers' hands, is expressed in more complex a manner than, say, the padding of a shoulder or breadth of a lapel.
All also share both technical expertise and the desire to experiment with fabric, cut and proportion – theirs is a pioneering viewpoint. In a world ruled by corporations saturating an already over-crowded market with homogenous styles, the fruits of their labours are a sight for sore eyes.
Comme des Garçons
Boiled wool, deconstructed tailoring borrowed from menswear and black as fashion's (non-) colour of choice over the past 30 years are just some of the contributions Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has made to fashion since the start of her auspicious career.
Remarkably, she had no formal training. Instead Kawakubo, who was born in Tokyo in 1942, started out in the marketing department of a chemical manufacturer and, when she couldn't find the clothes she needed to style advertising campaigns, designed them herself.
Kawakubo first showed in Paris in 1981. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that so upset was the audience by her designs that some fled in tears. Kawakubo appeared to be uninterested in clothing that was conventionally flattering. Instead her designs were oversized, distressed and worn with flat shoes.
The radical aesthetic was swiftly adopted by the design-conscious intelligentsia and it wasn't long before the principles behind her early work were as much a part of the fashion lexicon as pencil skirts and stiletto heels. Kawakubo has attached frilly pink dresses to the fronts of black jackets; experimented with padded clothing. Here we see an example of how she transforms a body, as opposed to simply adorning it.
There are only a very few designers working today who rival the pattern-cutting skills of the Comme des Garçons protégé Junya Watanabe; born in Tokyo in 1961, he is respected for his tailoring the world over. Reinventing classics is central to the viewpoint here, and in Watanabe's hands wardrobe staples such as the trench coat or the trouser suit become objects of beauty both on the body and off it – extremely complex, they are moulded via intricate panelling and a web of seams.
Like Miyake, Kawakubo and Yamamoto, Watanabe shows little interest in passing trends. Instead, he takes an idea that captures his interest and imagination every six months and develops it. So one season the point of the exercise is an exploration of waterproof clothing; the next, patchworked denim may be the order of the day. These, plus garments cut in so many layers their hems resembled the pages of antique books, a Chanel bouclé wool suit in acid colours, a belle époque-line skirt, and more, have all made their way down this designer's catwalk. Watanabe's interest in American heritage clothing has also led to past collaborations with the Levi Strauss company.
As for the styling... Watanabe has, in the past, wrapped models' beautiful faces in studded black gaffer tape or perched bouquets of dried flowers on their heads. Marvellous. Pictured here is a seminal look from the designer's current collection, a study of military clothing that went to prove, like none other before it, that this can be as beautiful and even tender as anything more obviously feminine in nature.
From the mighty Comme des Garçons stable of designers is Tao Kurihara, who was born in Tokyo in 1973 and raised in the city. She worked at Comme des Garçons as assistant to Junya Watanabe and, like him, also as designer of the Comme des Garçons Tricot line.
For the autumn/winter 2005 season, Kurihara launched her own line, shown in the modest, bright and resolutely utilitarian environs of the Comme des Garçons Paris showroom in Place Vendôme. No soundtrack or elaborate choreography was needed to establish this then bright young name as a rising star. Kurihara's knitted lingerie-inspired looks were captured in the pages of W that same season, so sweet, witty and technically accomplished were they.
From thereon in she has given the world pretty white trench coats made out of vintage Swiss handkerchiefs, and paper wedding dresses that made any past attempts at the art of origami pale into insignificance. Then there was 1980s-inspired sportswear and a collection of blankets and stoles wrapped around the body to ever more lovely effect. Of all the Comme des Garçons designers, Kurihara's work is perhaps the most youthful, although she shares with her cohorts a desire to create highly individual fashion that has little to do with passing trends. Also, while many designers are resorting to nostalgia, this is fashion that eschews the detail and decoration of past decades, referring instead only to itself.
There is a profoundly poetic quality to the work of 68-year-old Yohji Yamamoto, who is still based in his native Tokyo, and who debuted on the Paris catwalk alongside Kawakubo.
Japanese workwear – and men's workwear in particular – lies at the heart of his aesthetic, although for the past 15 years a more overtly feminine and couture-like quality has infused his label with an unparalleled romanticism.
Yamamoto, too, made his name designing dark, oversized clothes, principally in black, although he has also favoured navy gabardine. Both shades, he has said, are used to ensure that all attention is focused on the intricacy of cut and proportion over and above surface embellishment that is, for the most part, kept to a minimum.
A Yamamoto trouser suit is always a thing of great – if rarely entirely conventional – beauty. The jacket may be so roomy it is indebted to the Zoot suit, or tiny and curvaceous with the most narrow sleeves in the industry; the accompanying skirts and/or trousers tend to be roomy and long.
Yamamoto is not interested in clothing that is sexually blatant. Instead a subtle eroticism is expressed by the exposure of a narrow back, for example, or merely the flash of an ankle, although these are often clad in thick black socks and shoes that are as resolutely flat and heavy as his touch is elsewhere light.
In particular, Yohji, as he has been known since the mid-1980s, creates extremely beautiful coats and long dresses (the thinking woman's evening attire) that may appear entirely classic, but are almost always idiosyncratic. The coat pictured here, for example, may look simple on the hanger. Move in it, however, and the profile of a woman is somehow cut into it to brilliant and quite moving effect.
Born in Hiroshima in 1938, Issey Miyake rose to prominence in the 1970s, opening his own design studio at the beginning of that decade. He trained in the traditional French manner and worked both at Guy Laroche and Givenchy in Paris before moving to New York, where he was employed by Geoffrey Beene.
Once working under his own name, Miyake's designs had little in common with the aforementioned designers. Instead he explored bamboo and rattan bodices, waxed-paper jackets and hats, and pleated designs, famously captured as geometric still-lives by the unflinching eye of Irving Penn.
So successful were the latter they resulted in the launch, in 1988, of the Pleats Please line of separates which made Miyake's name the world over. Twenty years on, in collaboration with Dai Fujiwara, Miyake introduced A-POC (A Piece Of Cloth), comprising a single, brightly coloured roll of fabric, complete with dotted lines – outlining a sweater, a shirt, skirts of varying lengths – that the customer was encouraged to cut out and customise herself.
Miyake stepped aside in the late 1990s and Naoki Takizawa was named designer of the main line. In 2006 Fujiwara, whose work is seen here, took over and upholds the Miyake aesthetic to this day. But last month in Paris the house's namesake, an irrepressible septuagenarian, launched a new project, 132 5 – computer-generated, sustainable clothing, some of which will be seen in the new show.
'Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion' is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 14 October (barbican.org.uk)
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