Style & Design

21st-century schizoid menswear

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

Never before has the creative schism at the heart of Japanese menswear been more evident than during the recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo.

The official opening of the week may have been marked by the futuristically utopian Mercedes-Benz Presents show from Yuima Nakazato, whose avant-garde vision was likely lost on some of the corporate sponsors, but as the week went on it was clear that conventional street and outdoor clothing was going to rain on the parade of experimental, forward-thinking fashion the organizers might have hoped to project as Tokyo’s image.

Throughout Fashion Week Tokyo, the stark contrast between these two forces proved central, and doubtlessly it is going to be the main hurdle Japanese menswear faces in defining its identity internationally.

Presenting the side that has long proved itself domestically and abroad, shows from the likes of Factotum and Whiz Limited were perfect examples of perfectionist outdoor wear. However, among the conventional shapes and romanticized visions of nature, there were some real touches of progression, with both brands making inspired use of distorted geometric folk-inspired patterns to elevate their work far above the norm.

Taking this path to its logical conclusion was Yoshio Kubo, whose collection confidently clashed mountaineering-inspired menswear with a huge selection of patterned textiles that struck a balance between the rugged outdoors and urban dandyism — a theme echoed by the show’s location in the grounds of Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in central Minato Ward.

Contrasting with this emphasis on work and outdoor wear were the Tokyo avant-garde, the popularity of which may have been ensured by last year by the likes of Lady Gaga but which this season emphatically chose menswear as their medium.

Zoo Morikawa’s brand Christian Dada, whose last show was entirely womenswear, this season placed the emphasis on menswear, with a collection that joined Yuima Nakazato’s in a search for genderless looks, placing men in wide-legged trousers that mimicked the movement and silhouette of a floor-length dress.

Nonetheless, Morikawa’s collection had clearly not forgotten its street-style roots, and by providing its captive audience with plenty of ripped “crust punk” skinny jeans and studded jackets that resembled chain-mail, the brand will have lost none of its highly visible street following.

Proving that there are still boundaries left to be explored even in Japanese fashion, Mikio Sakabe placed his male cast in a slight variation of the Japanese girls’ high school uniform where the pleated skirt was cunningly altered into shorts without losing its iconic silhouette, and the sailor collar was retained — but tempered with masculine suit jackets and jumpers.

By placing men in elements of a uniform so strongly associated with both female purity and sexuality, it was with rare eloquence that Sakabe deftly highlighted the visual power these items of clothing have in modern Japan.

It was in the work of the few designers who did not fall into either category of avant-garde or street style that we found menswear with the potential to change this status quo.

Headlining the final day of the week, Takeshi Osumi’s brand Phenomenon presented a collection that would not have been out of place in Paris, with its rich mix of perfectly on-trend quilting, exaggerated masculinity and broad, curved shoulders in a collection dubbed Nostalgia.

Defying its past, however, Phenomenon’s output conspicuously lacked the quirky design gimmicks with which the brand originally made its name, and this second consecutive season’s muted outing might signal a concerted effort to appeal to the international market.

Likewise, defying classification, cult brand DressedUndressed finally made its Fashion Week Tokyo debut with a sombre collection inspired by 2000’s movie thriller “American Psycho.” A true rarity at this event, the work from design partners Takeshi Kitazawa and Emiko Sato primarily focused on sharp monotone tailoring broken up only by harnesses across the body and elbow-length leather gloves. This unusually aggressive showing was also almost entirely unisex, which put it in harsh contrast to the softer femininity found in other collections’ shows. Considering its indubitable international appeal, all that remains to be seen is just with whom DressedUndressed will strike a chord most.

Outside of the runway shows, the major talking point in Tokyo has been the Gypsy Three Orchestra-produced The Orchestra Show, a limited shop in Shibuya open until April 15. The aim of this pop-up is to reconnect Fashion Week Tokyo with the general public and offer its designers the chance to sell to members of the public when they are most likely to be engaged with fashion.

The project was promoted with minimal information, in an intentional reference to the underground street culture of the 1990s. Time will tell whether the current generation, used to constant data inputs, will respond to this — but it has certainly brought back to Fashion Week Tokyo the generation who grew up in the glory days of brands such as Undercover and Number (N)ine.

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