When I was first confronted by the Barbican’s exhibition of pioneering Japanese fashion designers, the first thing that struck me was how remarkably reminiscent they were of our very own A/W ’10/’11 and S/S ’11 collections. The first outfit I encountered came from the Comme des Garcons A/W ’83/’84 collection, designed by Rei Kawakubo, and I was surprised to see before me a chunky-knit, over-sized jumper, strikingly similar to those that more recently appeared in the A/W ’10/’11 collections of European designers such as Michael Kors and Stella McCartney. This outfit made an immediate statement: “Not only was Japanese fashion of the 80s influential then, it is just as influential now.”
The exhibition continued to baffle me with its diverse range of textural technique and method. The deconstructionalism that is most commonly attributed to Japanese fashion designers was conveyed in Yoshi Yamamoto’s work; majestically modern, Yamamoto smashed all expectations with his white cotton cut-work jacket and trousers for his S/S ’83 collection. Whilst exhibitions of Yamamoto’s work seems to transport us into a modern future far from here, Issey Miyake’s S/S ’89 collection transports us back to an ancient time of rich Japanese culture and clothing. Miyake played a fundamental role in the fashion revolution of the 80s by re-thinking tailored and sculptured silhouettes, and instead dressing his models in loose garments in order to create a flat form. The woodblock sandals and loose white garments which appear in his S/S ’89 collection are reminiscent of the Japanese traditional sport, Karate, and achieve the “flat form” he aspired to create.
As Yamamoto was told at Japanese Art College, “White is the absence of colour, black is the presence of all colour.” The colour black remains a prominent theme throughout the exhibition, as it does particularly throughout the career of Rei Kawakubo, herself – her ‘black shock’ Paris début defined her fashion career, and was what originally gave the colour black the ‘chic’ status it sustains today.
Another notable addition to the exhibition were the net figures of the garments framed behind the garments themselves (See image below). The ability to see both the silhouette of the material, and the garment as it is meant to be worn, makes it easier to understand just how cutting edge the shapes and designs really were. These nets are obscure shapes which require complex folding akin to the Japanese art of origami in order to create the finished garment of clothing. This technique was later developed by a circle of younger Japanese designers and in the second half of the exhibition, it is possible to see the older techniques combined with mixed materials and further cultural reference. Polyester material and honeycomb construction, for example, are prominent in many Japanese designers’ works of the noughties. The colourful works of Jun Takahashi and Junya Watanabe can be seen to employ these techniques. Exhibited next to Rei Kawakubo’s work from the late 90s, we see that perhaps the work of these younger designers is a testament to her, as her extravagant off-white polyester dress is clearly a direct influence. Junya Watanabe stepped up to join Kawakubo at the top, at her label, Comme des Garcons.
Perhaps most relevant to today’s British Pop culture, Hiroaki Ohya’s S/S 2000 collection is exhibited towards the end of the tour. He takes shoulder pads to the extreme with a red polyester film cape almost three times as wide as the model (See image below). With this design, originally inspired by the 1900 film production of The Wizard of Oz, he paved the way for the likes of Gaga and Rihanna, who have been seen to sport rather large shoulder pads themselves. The exhibition ends, however, with a nod of the head to today’s Japanese Pop culture. Japanese Street Fashion, an ever-growing community of young Japanese designers, are best-known for paying tribute to iconic manga characters such as Hello Kitty and Astro Boy. They engage themselves in a practice known as ‘costume play’, sporting styles such as Lolita and Gothic Lolita, which now have an international following.
A must-see for anybody with an interest in design, fashion history, or foreign culture!