An enduring legacy
The Japanese fashion industry was shaken by the passing of legendary designer Kansai Yamamoto on July 21, who succumbed to a drawn-out battle with acute myeloid leukemia. Cheerful to the end, at 76 years old his relentless energy and towering charisma was summed up by his motto, “human energy is limitless.”
It was gratifying to see international media and social media channels around the world pay respects to the designer, since he resolutely avoided watering down his work in exchange for commercial success. It was critical acclaim for his bombastic “super-show” runways, and his status as the first Japanese designer to hold a show as part of London Fashion Week, that cemented his status in the industry. His iconic outfits for David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, captured the imagination of the general public, even if they never knew his name.
Yamamoto went on to dress famous extroverts such as Elton John and Lady Gaga, as well as a galaxy of Japanese stars. He was prolific beyond fashion, collaborating with all manner of disciplines and, perhaps most unusually, working on the Keisei Skyliner train which connects Tokyo to Narita Airport.
More than anything, his legacy is that of presenting Japanese culture, motifs and design to the world with unabashed confidence. His oeuvre evoked peacocking kabuki actors, the camp of the Showa Era (1926-89) music hall and the energy of a flamboyant matsuri (festival), and gave permission for a new generation of Japanese designers to take inspiration from the less-refined reaches of their own culture. In a world where Japanese designers can still be overly reluctant to expand their brands seriously abroad, the limitless energy of Kansai Yamamoto is needed more than ever.
An online streaming event, “Nippon Genki Project 2020 Super Energy!!,” had already been planned for July 31 to re-energize the fashion scene. It went ahead as planned in an homage to the great man, and it can currently be viewed on YouTube.
Opportunity in adversity
While the majority of the Japanese fashion industry and physical retail has somewhat bounced back from the disastrous sales figures during the first state of emergency, the overall outlook is still not good. Consumer needs have clearly changed, but even for brands with in-house garment factories, designing and creating products tailored for the times, and then getting them to production, is a slow process. Still, we are starting to see progress.
First is face masks. The prescient complaint about how hot they make your face in the rising humidity has inspired countless “cool masks,” which increase airflow without compromising permeability to other particles (and incidentally solve the issue of one’s glasses or sunglasses fogging up).
There’s also brand Markaware, which has designed a face mask with a neck strap, so you don’t have to worry about where to put it when you are eating. Going further still is sports brand Asics, which is introducing a mask for runners to the market next month that has even more breathability.
If you are concerned about touching things while out and about, but the very thought of wearing gloves in the Japanese summer has you sweating, then jewelry and accessory line Jam Home Made has a variety of metal utensils to help you navigate the world, including door openers and handrail grips that can also be used to push buttons in elevators, stations and when operating vending machines.
Finally, we find fashion brand Beautiful People raising money for the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development with a charity project. Its T-shirt has a constrictive elasticated strip attached that can be styled over the shoulder or around the waist and reads, “The elastic may make you sore, but this is a little action we can do to fight with COVID-19.”