As part of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, Dr. Joyce F. Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, and Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT — and curator of the groundbreaking “Japan Fashion Now” exhibition there in 2010/11 — visited the capital to head a seminar titled Human Power Development and Japan Fashion in the Age of Globalization.
The Japan Times was there, too hearing the pair speak about Japanese fashion and about the longstanding relationship between FIT and Japan.
Why did you decide to come to Japan, and to attend Fashion Week Tokyo?
Dr. Brown (JFB): Certainly we wanted to show support to the Japanese people. We also wanted to support Fashion Week Tokyo, so it coincided in a way that allowed us to do both.
The Japanese people have clearly been through a tragic and difficult time and have been strong throughout and set a good example to the world in terms of their ability to keep moving forward and maintain their position in the industries they are strong in. The fashion industry is certainly one of them. We also have a wide network of alumni here since the Japan FIT Alumni Association was formed in 1969. Many young people here come and study at FIT and have been very loyal to the college, so we wanted to see how they’re doing.
Dr. Steele, you were here two years ago —how has it changed?
Dr. Steele (VS): Tokyo is a city that changes constantly and notoriously. And the fashion world changes constantly. One of my favorite stores in Omotesando (10 Corso Como) has closed, but I’m dying to see Dover Street Market and the giant Uniqlo flagship that’s just opened in Ginza. Last night I went to a little trendy shop — Sister (in Shibuya) — which I don’t think had been there before, so it’s a constant change.
Dr. Steele, you curated “Japan Fashion Now” in 2010/2011 at the FIT Museum. How did you choose the brands which best represented Tokyo?
VS: I wanted to make it a virtual trip to Tokyo. I wanted people to get a sense of the amazing wide range of brands and different fashion styles. So we organized it by neighborhood. We had a lot of the high-end avant-garde brands in Omotesando like Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. And then, of course, we did a Harajuku section, a Shibuya section, an Akihabara cosplay section — and then we took Ginza and framed that with menswear, which is not strictly speaking accurate geographically. We did that because menswear is so important in Japanese fashion here and abroad.
And we also focused on more vernacular clothing — on Japanese blue jeans, which are the best in the world, and some of what you could call “real clothes” by companies such as Visvim. The process took a couple of years and involved going to Japan twice and canvassing a lot of people who live here, and fashion experts around the world, about which brands were important and to get the right variety.
What’s the perception of Japanese fashion in New York?
VS: From the exhibition and the reviews it divided into two parts. There were those who were still strongly enamored with the great brands that emerged in the 1980s. Then there were the younger cohort who were very excited about Harajuku brands. But what I wanted to show in the exhibition was that Japanese fashion transcends these high-low barriers, because both sides are constantly influencing each other.
A good example of this is the Dover Street Market/Uniqlo complex in Ginza. This would be unimaginable a few years ago. What do you think has changed?
VS: Mr. Tadashi Yanai (CEO of Uniqlo) is very clever. He’s brought in designers like Jil Sander and now Jun Takahashi of Undercover. You can’t get much hipper than Jun Takahashi. You bring these kinds of designers in and you have an amazing and winning combination.
Dr. Brown, you’re speaking about how to develop industry professionals in the global age. Can you talk more about that and how Japan can be at the forefront of creating fashion-business leaders such as Mr. Yanai?
JFB: Well, firstly, I don’t have a secret formula to produce people like Mr. Yanai.
I think what we can talk about is the opportunity to create the mindset which has a more global approach to fashion — which is what I think Mr. Yanai has done.
A lot of that has to do with being open and flexible and being able to integrate different points of view. This is what we do at FIT — It’s what we teach young people who want to go into these kinds of industries: to see how the inter-mix and integration of these different points of view translate into a contemporary approach to fashion.
How do you think Japanese fashion institutes such as Bunka Fashion College compare with U.S. and British schools such as FIT and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design?
VS: Well, I’m not sure how the curriculum differs at Bunka from FIT, but I would say that FIT gives students a sense of how you can function in the global fashion industry.
JFB: To a certain extent we are very practical and pragmatic. We look for talented students, and we have talented students, but we do teach them practical skills that they come out with and prepare them for careers in their chosen area. Some of the other schools may be more aesthetic or creative, and allow students to pursue a vision as opposed to taking a vision and applying it in a practical way.
How has the involvement of Mercedes-Benz changed Fashion Week Tokyo?
VS: Japan Fashion Week has had its ups and downs over the years, but the involvement of Mercedes-Benz is important in terms of financial support and structure. It does replicate the system where there are a lot of Mercedes-Benz fashion weeks around the world. It gives a kind of seal of approval.
JFB: Corporate support gives it a different and better infrastructure.
How does Fashion Week Tokyo compare with other fashion weeks, such as New York, and how can it be more of a global competitor?
VS: Every fashion week has its pluses and minuses. They are all embedded within the local culture. New York is wonderful and democratic. It has 300 or 400 different shows and it’s great but it’s an awful lot.
The French are very hierarchical and you have to go through all these steps to get into it and they tend to squeeze out younger talent.
I don’t know enough about Fashion Week Tokyo to really comment, but what they could do is, say, work with the likes of the British Fashion Council and learn from their experiences of improving London Fashion Week, which is a more comparable base with Tokyo. Both have lots of younger avant-garde designers and more of a street feeling. It’s not a first-tier fashion city, but it is a second-tier fashion city in terms of publicity and people coming there.
Which stores, brands or neighborhoods are you looking forward to seeing during your trip?
VS: Sacai, Matohu, Christian Dada and DressedUndressed. Dover Street Market is also on my list.
JFB: I haven’t been here in so long (probably since the 1990s) but I do want to go back to Ginza and see the changes. I also want to see the Uniqlo store and Dover Street Market.