From Comme des Garcons to Somarta, Japanese fashion excels at weaving past, present and future


Staff Writer

In 1981, while Western designers focused on shoulder-padded power suits, bright colors, sharp stiletto heels and statement jewelry, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo sent their models down the runway in defiant black, voluminously draped garments, accessorized with nothing but flat shoes. It was the Paris debut of both Japanese designers, and they utterly confused and stunned their peers. Yamamoto’s garments were dubbed “crow-like” and “monastic,” Kawakubo’s “Hiroshima chic” and “post-atomic.” And the critics loved it all.

“Back then, Western fashion focused on body-conscious looks in beautiful colors. But Japanese fashion was monotone — almost all black — and some garments even had holes or looked worn out and old,” says Akiko Fukai, the lead curator of “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion,” now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. “Before, Japanese fashion didn’t have an identity abroad. After 1981, people could actually say ‘that’s Japanese style.’ “

This is where “Future Beauty” begins, with Yamamoto’s minimalist looks and Kawakubo’s distressed fabrics alongside works of other Japanese designers who, from the ’80s onward, continued to surprise the West with garments that defied existing trends, while creating new ones. The first section of the show, titled “In Praise of Shadows” after author Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay on light and dark in Western and Japanese aesthetics, reveals a diversity of details emphasized by the monotone. The pieces may have a similar overall aesthetic, but up close they reveal techniques that set them apart.

Yamamoto’s off-white dress in heavy cotton is made delicate with embroidered cutwork of irregular shapes, while Kawakubo’s asymmetric cuts are crumpled, frayed or twisted into unusual forms. There’s a clear progression in the section from the loosely draped and disheveled looks of the ’80s to the sleek and structured designs of the 2000s.

It was just before the famous Paris shows that Fukai became fascinated with fashion. After seeing a 1977 Issey Miyake show in Tokyo, she not only chose to predominantly wear Japanese labels, she also applied for a job with the Kyoto Costume Institute, which opened in 1978. In 1989, she became chief curator and has since acquired 12,000 items of clothing for the institute’s collection, written numerous essays and books, as well as curated a number of exhibitions, several of which have traveled internationally. “Future Beauty” began at the Barbican in London in 2010, after which it showed at the Haus deer Kunst in Munich in 2011.

“Many people in Japan don’t really know much about fashion in the 1980s, even though it was a seminal moment for Japanese design,” Fukai says of the exhibition’s run in its homeland. “Japanese fashion is not just about girlish kawaii (cute) styles,” she insists.

The middle sections of the exhibition — “Flatness” and “Tradition and Innovation” — are testament to Fukai’s comment. In an explosion of color and unusual shapes, they portray the imagination and artistic intelligence behind recent Japanese designs. Focusing on shape, form and textiles, some works are based on simple geometries that are only visible when laid out flat, while others are constructed from cleverly manipulated fabrics. New textiles are also introduced, including Somarta’s seamless bodysuit, made famous by Lady Gaga, and Akira Naka’s subtle but incredibly clever gradation knit that melds cable-knit wool into woven material.

In comparison, the final and new section, “Virtuality and Reality,” which Fukai has been curating since the run of “Future Beauty” at the Barbican, seems understated — a showcase of young designers’ works in mostly neutral grays, browns, creams and blues. The earthy tones and casual appearance of cotton, linen and jersey, however, exemplify what Fukai suggests may be the future of Japanese fashion: a focus on functionality and philosophy rather than showy individuality.

“Clothing is no longer something to show off to other people — our relationship with it has changed,” Fukai says. “It’s now influenced by the Internet, social media, anime and manga.”

She mentions fast fashion and online shopping, how they have popularized good style, making it accessible to almost everyone, and how information technology has given the general public a forum to express their opinions.

“Young people now want to wear clothes that they feel happy wearing on a daily basis,” she says. “And designers are happiest when their clothes are bought by people who understand them.”

ASEEDONCLOUD, for example, presents its collection of country-house-style jackets, pants and pinafore dresses alongside dreamy illustrations by animation artist Kunio Kato, an inspiration for the label’s designer Kentaro Tamai. Eatable of Many Orders, whose 2012 Spring/Summer collection pieces are each named after stars, constellations and astronomers, presents strong story lines behind all of its quirky comfort-oriented collections. Hatra, on the other hand, redefines the ultimate casual fabric — jersey knit — and turns the common “hoodie” into highly stylized fashion-wear.

“Maybe for me, fashion in the ’80s was a way to present myself, to present my identity,” Fukai says. “But for the younger generation it’s about communicating the personality of the clothing. Or it’s about transforming your identity; for example, into a manga character.”

Whether from the ’80s or this season, all the works at “Future Beauty” are held together by what Fukai describes as “Japanese DNA” — an affinity with Japanese tradition, culture and identity that manifests itself in design or concept details. “Fashion now has no real way to develop,” says Fukai, explaining that innovation becomes more difficult with time. “Everything has already been done, so for today’s designers, such details are extremely important.”

We have five pairs of tickets to give away for this exhibition. See the Ticket Giveaway beneath the Art Openings for details. “Future Beauty: 30 Years Japanese Fashion” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs till Oct. 8; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon.

Young Japanese fashion designers find new ways to connect with their fans


“Virtuality and Reality,” the new section of “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion,” presents young designers who have become popular without showing at Tokyo Fashion Week. The Japan Times asked two of them why runway shows may not be as important as they once were, how they promote their works, and what is their “Japanese DNA”? (M.Y.)


● One day, I’d like to express myself through a runway show. But what I am communicating through my current collection is actually more appropriate for showing in an exhibition.

● The Internet has made it difficult to control the image of a brand, so in this day and age it’s important to express yourself honestly and openly. I’m interested in using new information tools, and I use social networking sites, including Facebook.

● It’s hard to define my clothing’s “DNA,” but I have an affinity for the philosophy behind mingei (traditional Japanese crafts). On top of that, storytelling in the form of Japanese anime or manga is a big influence on my work.

Koji Arai: Eatable of Many Orders

● I think Tokyo Fashion Week has become a place of self-expression, rather than somewhere to show clothing at its best. I think that’s related to problems in fashion education — you’re taught that you must do fashion shows.

● Eatable of Many Orders is not based in Tokyo but in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, so I’ve had to think about ways to publicize from the countryside. I also think it’s important for customers to see how we make our products, so we are re-designing our ateliers to also function as shops.

● We respect workmanship and materials, and there’s a story behind each of our collections. This November, we are also planning a show with the Atami Theater of Geisha, which will mix fashion with Japanese traditions and, we hope, redefine what fashion is.”