There is an identity crisis at the heart of Japanese fashion. It has two contradictory faces that it would like to reconcile — both domestically and abroad. On one hand, the image of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu acolytes posing on the streets of Harajuku prevails and yet, at the same time, the word “Japanese” invokes the image of traditional garments — regrettably reduced to just the kimono in most minds, simply a fixed aesthetic locked in time as a national costume rather than a fashion object.
This contradiction is all too apparent in the majority of media coverage of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, often giving more space to pre-selected eccentric street style, rather than the content of the catwalks, and seeking out subcultures at every turn while ignoring the dominant fashion culture.
However, the fact remains that the week reflects the city — filled with countercultural ambassadors, but defined as exceptions against the governing fashion focus on conservative elegance, quality and craft. This is exemplified by the likes of Tamae Hirokawa’s Somarta, which presented its latest collection in a museum gallery setting befitting of the designer’s technical couture oeuvre. Elsewhere, Hiroyuki Horihata and Makiko Sekiguchi’s Matohu channeled a more overt Japanese traditionalism, the collection illustrating the natural beauty of un-dyed textiles and the ageing process that time exerts on such fabrics.
It would be a mistake, too, to assume that the kimono was entirely absent from the week, and lone flag-bearer Jotaro Saito‘s still fighting for a modern definition of fashion that includes the garment. His fashion week collection was orchestrated as a duet with his father, Sansai Saito, a modernist kimono designer who paved the way for Jotaro by introducing dyeing methods and materials from outside the fixed repertoire that once governed the garment. Attendees were treated to a wealth of contemporary but respectful riffs on traditional garments, interspersed with a smattering of pop-culture illustrations. A number of designs coaxed shock from older guests and admiration from the younger attendees, not least in the form of a seemingly stoic men’s design that kicked open with every step to reveal a flamboyant floral lining befitting of Tokyo’s dandies.
This fascination with the traditional was not solely confined to older end of the market, with the youth-focused Ne-Net from Kazuaki Takashima opting for a Japan-themed collection for its 20th anniversary, even going so far as to create a tatami-covered catwalk for which the models had to remove their shoes to walk on. When questioned on his Mount Fuji and hinomaru-inspired collection, he responded: “I didn’t want to create a ‘wa’ or Japonism-themed collection. Instead, I wanted to show that there is more subtlety to Japanese aesthetics than those absolute ideas.” Time will tell whether his unique splicing of happi-collared worker jackets or kimono-cut cotton shirts will make it on to the streets but, if it does, it could be the start of something very special among Tokyo’s youth.