Tao Kurihara: The end of an era

Gentle maverick Tao Kurihara's autumn collection will be the last under her own name. She explains her change of direction to Susannah Frankel

Susannah Frankel
Monday 18 April 2011 00:00 BST

For those who worship at the altar of the Comme des Garçons fashion empire and all that the name enfolds, news that Tao Kurihara – who has been showing under this particular umbrella since the autumn/winter 2005 season – was ceasing production of her own label came as something of a blow.

Following in the footsteps of her mentor, Comme founder and designer, Rei Kawakubo, and Junya Watanabe, whose business is also supported by the parent company, Kurihara, whose label is called just Tao, has given the world some of the most brilliantly beautiful and proudly innovative designs of the past decade, after all.

Particularly in light of any so-called new realism, her twice-yearly womenswear collections, shown only to a small and initiated audience, as opposed to one comprising many thousands, were always a sight for sore eyes. As often as not, these took place in unassuming surroundings, with nothing but the clicking and whirring of cameras as soundtrack.

It all started with an elaborate re-working of the corset; only in Kurihara's hands this was cable-knitted and came with a ruffled and also knitted lace trim and predominantly in less than overtly feminine school-uniform grey. Witty and pretty in the extreme, it quickly came to the attention of the more discerning fashion follower who, while she might not have been quite ready to buy into this aesthetic in bulk – it was as prohibitively expensive as it was extreme – would be more than happy to see and read about it. This she could do in the pages of W magazine which, for a debut collection, is elevated coverage indeed.

The famously media-shy Kawakubo, meanwhile, admired Kurihara's work enough to make an exception to her rule of silence and comment in that magazine thus: "The Japanese don't have the habit of praising their own family, but I thought the collection was good because it has a concept and youthfulness."

This, too, for those who know just how backwards the fashion deity is in coming forwards, is quite an accolade.

Next came a collection based entirely on handkerchiefs – predominantly found, vintage Swiss handkerchiefs – and trench coats. "I was attracted to the strong, cool, definite form of trench coats," Kurihara explained of that season's offering. "But I wanted to make something very different from traditional, water-resistant and functional trenches. So I chose to work with something fragile and familiar: handkerchiefs."

Kurihara re-worked old-fashioned bedcovers too, into exquisite, rainbow-coloured stoles and, more spectacularly still, turned her attention to the wedding dress, playing off the overblown and ornamental genre with nothing more overtly feminine or obviously decorative than a classic man's white shirt. "I thought the idea of a man's shirt meeting a white dress was a beautiful one," she told me at the time. What attracted me most to that idea is how special a wedding dress is.

"That is because it is worn only once. Some people get married a few times but they don't, I would imagine, wear the same outfit or go on to wear their wedding dress again as part of their daily outfit."

For this reason, she continued, at least some of the designs in the collection were crafted in plain white paper, only pleated and folded in a manner that might upstage even the most overblown meringue. "That makes sense to me," Kurihara said. "Paper is so fragile and not appropriate for over-use. I thought a paper wedding dress would be more special than one that was crafted out of a more traditional and typically extravagant material." Someone really ought to tell Kate Middleton, although, and perhaps sadly, the future queen is likely to opt for a more conventionally ornate affair.

"I think the best way to express myself is to do a small but concentrated and very condensed collection," was how the designer explained any self-imposed limitations as far as theme was concerned. "I believe that when one sets such limitations some kind of strength occurs."

From thereon in, Kurihara based her shows on everything from 1980s gym-wear – striped, in hot pink and edged with small but perfectly-formed crushed frills – to the twisting and knotting of great swathes of fabric and the type of uniform the most sartorially discerning toy soldier might like to wear. While her work is clearly indebted to Comme des Garçons in particular and to the Japanese school of design more generally – and with that a belief that experimentation, as far as both fabric, cut and proportion are concerned, is of prime importance, her aesthetic has always also been gently feminine and as playful and light-hearted as it is clever.

What she does share with both Kawakubo and Watanabe is an uncompromising disregard for anything as obvious as a passing trend or even anything even remotely people-pleasing.

"Everything I create has to be individual," she says. "I therefore don't make clothes with what people might like in mind. Rather, I make clothes that I think are beautiful."

In fact – and in this she differs from her Comme des Garçons stablemates – Kurihara studied fashion in London at Central Saint Martin's "a few classes behind Stella and Phoebe. I couldn't find any Japanese universities and colleges where I could investigate my interests more deeply. I don't deny that my national identity is reflected in my work. I think I'm influenced by where I grew up and especially by my experience at Comme des Garçons. However, I don't think my way of working would change if I was another nationality. My standpoint would still be the same. Nationality is pure chance".

Since graduation – and based once more back in Tokyo – her career path has, as she has always said, been entirely indebted to Comme des Garçons. After graduating, she worked as assistant to Junya Watanabe and, as well as designing her own collection, in 2002, took over from him at the more accessible Comme des Garçons Tricot line alongside. She has been, she argues, "very lucky to work in an environment with 100 per cent free spirit".

Of her decision to stop work on her signature line, she says now that she was looking for "a change of my lifestyle – marriage could have been a trigger."

Kurihara is, of course, not the first or last talented designer to make such a move and, although her presence in Paris will be missed, she will continue to design Tricot, which is available in Dover Street Market in this country and enjoys a high profile in Japan. "My intention is to create the kind of everyday clothing that is new and exciting for this label. From now on, I will introduce Tao's essence into it," she says.

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