Nakako Hayashi’s delicate war against big fashion

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Staff Writer

The world’s garments might be made in factories, but fashion is made in the media. In an age when trends coalesce and melt away in the time it takes to put a “#” in front of a keyword, an age when fashion has the potential to be more democratic and idiosyncratic than ever, isn’t it strange then, that so much power is still held by monolithic, archaic magazines?

The current exhibition at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito (a prefectural museum about two and a half hours north of Tokyo) presents an alternative way of approaching this system that produces “fashion,” by showing the work of a group of artists, designers and photographers, led by a softly spoken woman named Nakako Hayashi.

No, you probably haven’t heard of her, but over the past two decades this editor and writer has been waging a delicate war against the hegemony of fashion, attempting to revive the aura fading from the clothes we wear. Through her work in magazines such as Hanatsubaki, Purple, Ryuko Tsushin and Here and There, she has spelled out a DIY and personal approach to clothing; one of ownership and subjectivity.

“Fashion should be more personal,” says Hayashi, at a small cafe near her home in Tokyo’s Yanaka district. “But the media environment is pushing people to feel differently. We can enjoy a form of dressing that is more spontaneous and subjective — that’s really the message with this exhibition.”

Hayashi’s world has spilled out of the printed page and into the white cube in a new show titled “You Reach Out — Right Now — for Something: Questioning the Concept of Fashion,” at Art Tower Mito. It’s based around a book she wrote in 2011, “Kakucho Suru Fashion (Expanded Fashion),” which exhibition curator Mizuki Takahashi describes as “astounding” in her introduction to the show’s catalog.

“Even if you read it because you were attracted by the word ‘fashion,’ you found that there were almost no descriptions of fashion trends or shifts in what constituted high fashion,” writes Takahashi.

Both the book and the exhibition at Art Tower Mito feature a group of creators Hayashi has drawn around herself over the past two decades — artists, photographers and designers who “burrow holes in the fashion system,” writes Takahashi.

This group, all of whom are focused on approaching fashion and art from highly personal perspectives, includes big-name Japanese photographers Takashi Homma and Yurie Nagashima, designer Yukinori Maeda (who runs fashion brand Cosmic Wonder), members of the boundary-pushing label Bless, contemporary artist Miranda July and graphic designer Kazunari Hattori.

For Hayashi, these are people who “tell their own story, maybe through clothes or images or maybe through a bookshop.” It’s a kind of resistance that she sees becoming rarer: “Who is resistant to the fashion system now? If you really look closely, you’ll see some who are doing it, like Cosmic Wonder, but it’s a subtle kind of resistance,” she says.

This isn’t a bad thing for Hayashi, she says, as she believes that subtle is good. “I suppose I’m resistant, but it’s really different from the resistance of (controversial art group) Chim↑Pom’s way of resistance,” she says. “Quiet people should have their own way of being resistant, too. Being shy is OK. We are Japanese; we should be allowed to say that.”

Hayashi’s “quiet resistance against the fashion system,” as curator Takahashi puts it, began in the late 1980s when she was the editor for Hanatsubaki, a magazine produced by Shiseido. Part of her job was to immerse herself in the fashion world of that time.

Her exposure to events such as Paris Fashion Week attracted her to a group of Parisian art-outsiders headed by Elein Fleiss and Olivier Zahm, the two founders of a new type of magazine in the ’90s called Purple Prose. If you walk into any art-book shop today you are very likely to find a copy of Purple Fashion, the grandchild of this early magazine. Purple has now become a purveyor of the perspective it once resisted, but in the ’90s it planted the seed of “quiet resistance” through independent publishing. It was an staunchly subjective voice in the world of hegemonic fashion, in an age when “alternative” could still be a position rather than a style.

Almost every scene, movement and genre, from sci-fi to neoplasticism, has its independent media, but fashion only really found its independent printed voice as desktop publishing became accessible, according to Hayashi. Fleiss and Zahm used this to their advantage, showing only what they wanted, how they wanted. They made fashion.

After years of supporting Purple and its co-founder, Fleiss, Hayashi took the subjective approach to fashion a step further when she released the first copies of her own magazine, Here and There. It featured only her thoughts and the work of her friends.

Here and There was a subjective, idiosyncratic — even weird — voice in a sea of beauty, sexiness and luxury. It still is. And almost all the artists from her show at Art Tower Mito are contributors. Although this kind of personal content is everywhere now, with blogs and social media, it’s Hayashi’s material approach — using printed paper — that makes her difficult and sometimes inaccessible work more valuable.

“I think more and more people are feeling uncomfortable with the fashion system right now, and with the quickness of online publications,” she says. “I want to reconnect with the materiality of clothing, but that feeling is not really reflected; society doesn’t really treat clothing as a precious thing, they try to … find the way to … ” Her voice goes silent as she loses track. “I think it’s like that,” she says, quietly.

“You Reach Out — Right Now — for Something: Questioning the Concept of Fashion” is showing until May 18 at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, 1-6-8 Gokencho, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. Mito Stn. 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥800; ¥600 in advance or for groups over 20; free for children, seniors and the disabled. Closed Mon. 029-227-8111; www.arttowermito.or.jp. It will open at Mamugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art in Kagawa Prefecture in October.