The greatest changes to the fashion system were probably brought by the Japanese wave.
Kenzo and Issey Miyake gained international acclaim in the '70s and, in the following decades, the tradition continued with the arrival on the scene of a new generation of designers, comprising Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
Through their work they challenged the most established principles of Western fashion, twisting, altering and morphing the shape of the body.
The exhibition “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion” - on until tomorrow at London’s Barbican Art Gallery but then reopening in Munich - moves from this main point to explore also the work of the newest generation of designers hailing from Japan.
If you’re heading there today, you’ll actually also get the chance of joining in a design class on flatness and form with designer Julian Roberts focusing on innovative pattern cutting techniques.
I visited the exhibition a while back and really enjoyed it since it's structured in a clever way. Divided in different sections and curated by the Kyoto Costume Institute director, Akiko Fukai, and Kate Bush, head of art galleries at the Barbican, “Fashion Beauty” provides a great insight into Japanese fashion.
The first part of the exhibition looks at the way Kawakubo and Yamamoto’s use of asymmetrical and deconstructed garments calls to mind the principles found in the 1933 book In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki and mainly conceals the figure rather than revealing it.
Among the examples showcased in this section there are Yamamoto’s plain weave designs and Comme des Garçons’s loose cotton jersey blouses with cotton appliqués (from their Spring/Summer 1983 collections) and Comme des Garçons’s S/S 1984 black linen dress.
These designs are juxtaposed to more recent ones such as Undercover's Jun Takahashi’s linen coat made with circular appliquéd fabric (S/S 2006) and Matohu (design duo Hiroyuki Horihata and Makiko Sekiguchi)'s blue-black coat and jacquard dresses from the “Kabuki-mono” collection, influenced by the art and style of the Keicho Period (1596-1615).
Examples are provided via Issey Miyake’s 1988 "Pleats" series, with its finely architectural pleats of flat panes of fabric creating geometric shapes and silhouettes.
Naoya Hatekeyama’s photographs of Comme des Garçons’ A/W 1983-84 and A/W 1992-93 designs reveal instead the simplicity of forms behind Kawakubo’s garments, while exploring the flatness/form dichotomy and showing how these items liberate the wearer from notions of gender, age and shape.
Seemingly complex forms reveal themselves in these images as simple and basic panels, Möbius strips of fabric that, wrapped around the body in different ways, create dynamically voluminous looks.
More experimental designs are explored in the part dedicated to tradition and innovation.
Among them there is also Miyake and Dai Fujiwara’s innovative A-POC (A Piece of Cloth) concept knitwear, created without using needle and thread construction but feeding the yarn into a computerised loom programmed with structural patterns that the consumer could cut along perforated lines, obtaining form-fitting garments.
Watanabe’s A/W 2000-01 "Techno Couture" collection, with its honeycomb or bell-shaped structures and exaggerated yet ethereal ruffs in blue, yellow and red polyester organdie, follows this innovative tradition.
The design was used as a costume for the main character of Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film The Pillow Book.
Yet this is not the only cinematic connection in this event: one of the best films ever made about fashion, Wim Wenders’ Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) is indeed screened in a special room of the lower floor.
Among the most original designs there are definitely those ones that, moving from Japanese traditions and culture, tried to bring innovations through new construction, pattern cutting, printing and dyeing techniques, from Yamamoto’s S/S 1995 silk crepe kimono coat to Hiroaki Ohya’s polyester film cape that could be folded like a paper lantern (View this photo) from “The Wizard of Jeanz” collection (S/S 2000 - inspired by The Wizard of Oz) and Tao Kurihara polo shirt and craft paper skirt referencing origami art matched with cotton gloves (S/S 2007 - View this photo).
The final part of the lower floor displays is a joy for the “kawaii” fans since it looks at the influence the Shibuya and Harajuku districts had on global youth and includes designs with popular characters such as Astroboy (Ohya's S/S 2004) and Hello Kitty (Zucca’s A/W 2009) and Naoki Takizawa’s creations for Miyake featuring prints by Aya Takano, a member of Takashi Murakami's Kaikai Kiki.
Tao Kurihara’s knitted lingerie in this part of the exhibition relates to the Lolita and Gothic Lolita trends, while one of the cutest yet over the top designs is Fumito Ganryu/Comme des Garçons's S/S 2008 ivory polyester knit dress featuring thirty-three cotton dolls.
If you want to take a rest you can also watch on the lower floor clips of fashion catwalk shows and extract from Merce Cunningham (1919–2009)'s dance performance "Scenario" (1997), inspired by Kawakubo’s S/S 1997 collection.
One of my favourite sections from the upper level gallery is the one dedicated to the latest Myake project, entitled "132 5" (please refer to my previous post mentioning it) and featuring a series of folded polygons in recycled PET that can be turned into garments (View this photo).
Rei Kawakubo’s features her iconic dresses in stretch nylon fabric with internal extreme padding from the "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body" collection (S/S 1997) in which the designer challenged traditional notions of the fashionable silhouette (a theme that came back also in her recent A/W 2010-11 collection) adding bumps in unexpected areas of the body, almost unifying body lines with the dress while also proposing a new aesthetic.
Junya Watanabe’s gallery is instead a journey through different materials and techniques including a nylon dressed trimmed with acrylic resin circles (S/S 2001), distressed denim designs (A/W 2002), a padded polyester orange, red and black dress (A/W 2004-05) and more recent creations from the S/S 2010 collection that mainly featured tailored trouser suits.
People into construction will enjoy Yamamoto’s innovative designs in rigid felt (A/W 1996-97) or in polyester printed with grey stripes (S/S 1999), but, if you are into clashing patterns and prints, Jun Takahashi’s "Melting Pot" (A/W 2000-01) collection, inspired by tartan and tapestry, is definitely not to miss.
The next generation of Japanese designers completes the displays on the upper floor. Here you will find Tao Kurihara’s S/S 2010 garments, made without the need for sewing, but with the fabric twisted and knotted together using a technique similar to traditional macramé construction, and Mintdesigns (duo Hokuto and Yao Nagi)‘s creations characterised by strong graphic prints of paper-chain dolls and newspapers.
Designs by Chitose Abe (Sacai), Kazuaki Takashima (Né-net) and Tame Hirokawa (Somarta) are maybe more light-hearted compared to Kawakubo or Yamamoto's, but they still display an equal interest in experimenting with body shapes, silhouettes and materials.
In a message written by Kawakubo in 1997 and commenting about Comme des Garçons' Spring/Summer collection, the designer stated: "Not what has been seen before, not what has been repeated; instead, new discoveries that look towards the future, that are liberated and lively."
Looks like the new wave of Japanese designers is definitely following the values and rules set by this special fashion gospel.
The exhibition is accompanied by the volume "Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion" by Akiko Fukai, Barbara Vinken, Susannah Frankel and Hirofumi Kurino and Rie Nii.
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