It’s undeniable that when designer Jun Takahashi founded Undercover — which celebrates its 25th anniversary with its first retrospective at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery — he was strongly influenced by the pioneers of deconstruction fashion Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. His first few collections from 1994-99 exhibit the unmistakable muted tones, raw edges and asymmetry that his mentors famously used to eulogize imperfections in the 1980s.
Quickly, though, he impulsively began to break other sartorial rules, with each season of lineups wildly different from the previous. He would stud military camouflage with glistening gems one year, hand-stitch disheveled fabrics the next, and then use impractical materials, such as shattered vinyl records, for another. The eclecticism would be as confusing as it is surprising if it were not for the one common thread that holds the Undercover narrative together: the dark labyrinthian hallways of Takahashi’s personal imagination — fueled by punk music, science fiction, medieval art, horror films, doll-making and so much more.
A display of fat notebooks accompanied by walls covered in detailed sketches and magazine clippings reveal that Undercover draws from the likes of Patti Smith, “A Clockwork Orange,” Ultraman, Hieronymus Bosch and other, predominantly iconoclastic, cultural sources. Such inspirations transpire into collections with titles that are almost literally translated into garments. The patchwork of jagged stitching and dangling loose threads of “Scab” are raw and awkward, while “But Beautiful” not only pairs feminine textiles with eyeball motifs, but also includes a distressed sweater and wooden skirt that, despite their apparent decomposing state, eerily remain attractive.
These collections, however, are not designed for shock value, nor do they belittle their inspirations with cutesy interpretations of the weird. Takahashi’s work is intelligent: It dismisses fashion trends to faithfully follow his artistic vision but avoids costume-like over-exaggeration — and like all haute couture the attention to detail is astonishing. The mirrored shards jutting from the coats and jackets in “Hurt,” for example, are enough to make a viewer wince, but it’s the almost imperceptible scars of irregular tucks shaping the fabric that make the garments even more unnerving.
It’s obvious Takahashi is a master of teasing the beauty out of ugliness, but what is bewildering is that he successfully retains the nagging uneasiness and humor of the uncanny. On the one hand, the resemblance of “Anatomicouture” to a human dissection and the droopy features of “Languid” are mildly disturbing, while on the other, the superhero motifs of “Summer Madness” and flat side-tabs of “Paper Doll” are nostalgically amusing.
Perhaps most importantly is that despite all these peculiarities, Takahashi doesn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s also designing clothing. Undercover garments are still wearable and several rooms of runway videos at the exhibition are testament to this. The outfits have movement and some collections reveal less showy and even a few minimalist pieces.
What sets Undercover apart from many other designer labels is the overt personal expression of Takahashi’s fantasy world — one touched by a darkness that he passionately respects, admires and finds emotionally charged. You may find that he not only wears his heart on the sleeves of his work, but he also relentlessly tugs at the strings of yours.
“Labyrinth of Undercover” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs until Dec. 23; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sat. and Sun. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp/ag/exh181/