Art

Mina Perhonen: Fashion has a life of its own

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

In a darkened room of “Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, there are 15 pieces of clothing treated with the reverence of masterpieces. Protected by transparent cases and softly lit, they are presented as if they were the most valuable works of the fashion brand’s retrospective exhibition.

But these are not glamorous pieces, or even antiques — they are all everyday garments, owned, worn and visibly well-loved by unknown members of the public.

Originally founded in 1995 as Mina, meaning “me” or “I” in Finnish, and adding Perhonen (“butterfly”) in 2003, Mina Perhonen may be a fashion brand, but it isn’t about fleeting trends. It’s about our relationship with clothing and other everyday items, and their enduring ability to evoke nostalgia and engender emotions.

The dimmed space, titled “memory of clothes,” is like the heart of the exhibition, designed not to wow you with outstanding artisanship — you’ll find that elsewhere in showcases of original design sketches, colorful textile samples and a plethora of clothing — but to illustrate the priceless personal value of the garments. Accompanying texts describe the owners’ poignant memories associated with each piece; there’s even one dress that its owner describes herself wearing at her mother’s deathbed.

'memory of clothes' at 'Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo | FUMINARI YOSHITSUGU
‘memory of clothes’ at ‘Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo | FUMINARI YOSHITSUGU

For fans of colorful textile designs, there is, of course, a showroom of more than 400 garments spanning 25 years of beautifully patterned dresses, jackets, coats, skirts and trousers in a rainbow of colors. A huge wall display of cushions also invites you to touch fabrics to experience their weaves, knits, velvets and other textures, while another section offers presentations of drawings, factory images and hand-painted or embroidered swatches of some of Mina Perhonen’s best-known motifs. You’ll find trees, butterflies, animals, flowers and abstract shapes, all intricately designed and celebrating the unique imperfections of various impeccable hand-crafting techniques. Even the brand’s iconic and popularly used “tambourine” design of a circle of 25 dots, reveals itself to be purposely unevenly spaced, with each dot individually embroidered to a different consistency.

The “idea and study” section fascinates the most with its insight into designer and Mina Perhonen founder Akira Minagawa’s philosophy — one that is relatively rare in the business of fashion. It goes beyond clothing, showcasing collaborations with carefully selected homeware artisans, artworks created from cut-off fabrics, and other projects, including a full-scale model of Minagawa’s architectural vision of a Fibonacci spiral-inspired future home. It is here that details of a fabric-cutting process that leaves minimum waste and an example of Mina Perhonen’s unusual patchworking repair service remind you that fashion need not be wasteful or transient. In fact, it can become more precious and valued over time. Faded colors add warmth, a rip can become a unique embroidered embellishment, while longevity gives clothing time to be imbued with personal memories.

'Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo | FUMINARI YOSHITSUGU
‘Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo | FUMINARI YOSHITSUGU

Minagawa offers his own experience of this by exhibiting collections of personal effects — button collections, small ornaments, letters — and one of his favorite pieces of clothing: a vintage quilted patchwork coat that he bought during his first trip to Lapland, Finland. A complex work of meticulous stitching, hand-dyed patterned fabrics and carved wooden buttons, the coat impressed the then 19-year-old Minagawa so much that he spent his entire trip’s budget just to get it.

Armed with the knowledge that just as much time, thought and technique is invested into each Mina Perhonen garment, it’s easy to understand why the owners of the dresses and jackets in “memory of clothes” are so attached to their pieces.

Remember when a leather jacket would only look better when distressed after years of use? Or when a rip in a pair of old jeans would be proudly brandished like a battle scar?

Perhaps it’s time we treated all clothing the same way. Mina Perhonen’s bold patterns and casual cuts may not be to everyone’s taste, but its philosophy can be applied to any garment. If you love it enough, wear it every day, wear it when it’s out of season, wear it until it’s worn thin, repair it and then wear it again.

Much of fashion may be fickle, but it doesn’t mean its consumer has to be.

“Mina Perhonen / Minagawa Akira: Tsuzuku” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs through Feb. 16; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.mina-tsuzuku.jp.