Excerpts from a review of the book, Japanese Fashion Designers
by Tove Hermanson. The full review can be seen here
along with photos and is well worth a read. So is the book if you have the opportunity.
The major Japanese designers discussed all create clothes with many flowing layers and with a dominance of the color black, a shocking counterpoint to colorful Western collections. But to the Japanese, black is not drab but rather indicative of restraint and dignity. Samurai were highly respected, fierce and skilled (male) warriors, and in the late 17th century their role changed from military to bureaucratic. Accordingly, their luxurious custom kimonos morphed into darker palettes — black was associated with self-discipline — and with expensive elements hidden, such as decorated silk linings. Subtle — or even private — luxury became preferable to typical Western in-your-face glamor. Ms. English astutely points out that dressing down to dress up, as these understated Japanese textiles and clothes aim to accomplish, was seen in late 18th century England when the landed gentry imitated workers’ dress; the same comparison could be made to pre-revolutionary France when it was actually dangerous for the aristocracy to flaunt their wealth sartorially.
This preference for subtlety is rooted in Buddhism which emphasizes the appreciation of poverty, simplicity, and acceptance of imperfection. Challenging the Western artistic conventions of attempting perfection (symmetry, hemmed edges, corsetry to mold an “ideal” figure, etc.), the Japanese typically encourage the (human and therefore fallible) hand of the artist to peek through. Simplicity and perishability are echoed in the Japanese tea ceremony, an everyday task that became an artistic ritual, symbolic of the import of simplicity and the appreciation of perishable goods (as evidenced by the kimono detail below, literally depicting tea ceremony objects).
Along these lines, Comme des Garçons, founded by Rei Kawakubo in 1969 with Yohji Yamamoto collaborating shortly afterwards, presented “shrouds” at Paris Fashion Week in 1981. Unprepared Westerners dubbed the distressed look the “aesthetics of poverty.” Tellingly, Yamamoto and Kawakubo both grew up in the poverty of post-WWII Japan and perhaps saw beauty in that poverty, because as designers, both favored black, irregular shapes, hugely bulky, layered, torn, uneven and un-stitched hems. This style was later called “deconstructed” and fashion theorists have alternately claimed it represents post-WWII Japan, homelessness, or is a reaction to contemporary global recessions. A perceived affront to the existing ostentatiously glamorous and feminine Paris fashions, it was icily received by the press with harsh headlines smacking of racism, like “Fashion’s Pearl Harbour.” This anti-fashion — asexual and loosely fitting with signals of status overturned — was clearly hard for European audiences to appreciate, but “hifu” is a familiar concept of anti-style, confusion and disarray to the Japanese. Select European artists have, however, experimented with this concept as well. Yamamoto has sited as an influence photographer August Sander and his project of documenting the poor everyman; the Arte Povera art movement of the 1960s also embraced the art of everyday living and the rejection of everything shiny and new as representative of The Establishment.
Textiles, as the building block of all garments, are central to these Japanese designers, resulting in collaborative experiments with textile artists. (I actually wish Ms. English had opened the book with the textile artists, as it seems all the fashion designers themselves approach their clothes by addressing textiles first.) Miyake, for example, frequently works with Makiko Minagawa, a textile “artist-engineer.” Miyake has been known to give Minagawa such obtuse and deliberately vague instructions as “Make me a fabric that looks like poison.” While traditional Japanese clothes have been made of natural fibers such as cotton, silk, and paper (for warm linings), Miyake emphasizes the ancient interest and import of industrially produced clothes with synthetic materials, effectively harnessing the past, present and future with such textile breakthroughs as multi-directional pleating , metallic skin encasement, collaged crazy quilt material, and inflatable trousers. Kawakubo, too, is known for her laissez faire collaborative methods and cryptic instructions, like providing a textile designer with a crumpled a piece of paper for inspiration (!!), encouraging others to contribute to her initial concepts.
Another trademark of Japanese fashion seems to be a conceptual approach (as evidenced by obscure textile inspiration), and a questioning of the Western fashion system. Miyake broke boundaries of season-driven conventional fashion and the cult of the young, using older and non-professional models, as in his 1995 “Beautiful Ladies” collection where models were between 62 and 92 years old. Yamamoto’s 2008 collection (the first year of the US depression/recession) included “gauzy rags sewn together with simple white stitches” as though for a funeral procession, according to Eric Wilson of the NYTimes. Comme des Garçons’ Spring/Summer 2002 collection involved models with helmets made of Le Monde newspapers with Taliban war headlines. In spite of the overt political references, Kawakubo claimed it was a last minute decision with no political meaning; she could not protest as strongly in 2003 when her clothes were emblazoned with slogans like “the majority is always wrong,” and “long last the 1 percent.”