Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion: Exhibition Notebook Part 1

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, Barbican Art Gallery, London

October 15, 2010 – February 6, 2011

Curated by Akiko Fukai and Kate Bush / Exhibition design Sou Fujimoto Architects

Since moving to London five years ago, I have been a chronic visitor to the Barbican Centre. Their curatorial and educational initiatives are superb, and they present a diverse array of performances, concerts and films, in addition to visual arts exhibitions.  In 2008 The Barbican’s Art Gallery’s landmark The House of Viktor and Rolf, set a new standard for the curation and design of fashion retrospective exhibitions.  It was a popular success and Siebe Tettero, its designer, received the Brit Insurance Design award for exhibitions.

Installation view: the House of Viktor and Rolf, 2008, Barbican

Currently, the Barbican art gallery is host to another fashion-based exhibition destined to linger in the memory long after its closing day.  Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, is the first exhibition in Europe to survey avant-garde Japanese fashion over the past three decades.  Curated by Akiko Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute, and Kate Bush, Head of Barbican Art Galleries, it is a tour de force of spatial and informational design, and enchants at every turn.

This was the first exhibit I visited as a contributor to Worn Through.  I took it as a good sign that I was kindly given an invite to the opening at the last minute.  My experience of the show was heightened by the increased sense of purpose, and by the opportunity to observe the attendees.  Thus, this  is less a review and more an “exhibition notebook.”  It’s also in two parts so I may describe the show in great detail, without serving up an excessively long post!

The exhibition catalogue is an impressive, well-written and beautiful volume. I suggest you add it to your online bookseller’s wish list very soon.  In the meantime, enjoy coming along with me to opening night at the Barbican Art Gallery.

As I made my way past the guest list desk and the VIPs filtering out of the cocktail reception, I stopped to locate a pen and my glasses.  When I looked up from my bag, newly bespectacled, I saw against a white expanse of space, a nexus of psychedelic colour illuminated by a flurry of flash bulbs. I had entered the threshold of the exhibition on the heels of Zandra Rhodes! How very unlikely, for this queen of exhibitionist maximalism to be my prologue to an extended experience of exhibition minimalism!

Zandra Rhodes, 2009, photo: thisislondon.co.uk

Within seconds, the cluster of people dissipated. I was alone; reading an introductory text panel printed on a swathe of translucent Japanese paper suspended from impossibly high above.  The text introduced the designers whose pioneering work forms the core of the exhibition – ‘visionaries such as Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto [who] redefined the very basis of fashion.’

The first level of the exhibition explores the defining characteristics of Japanese fashion since the early 1980s. Among them are the keys notions of of wabi-sabi, the finding of beauty in imperfection, and the spatial concept of ma.  The second part of the exhibition, which I will talk about in next week’s post, uses compartmentalised spaces to focus on the works of individual designers.

The first zone In Praise of Shadows is approached by navigating through gently swaying walls of paper.  Through them, one can discern a foggy geometric maze populated by a variety of figures, both static and slowly moving.  This initial display consists of monochromatic ensembles in blacks and whites spanning from 1983-2010.  The minimal exhibition design, with featureless white mannequins, and short texts printed at the feet of the figures, enhances the visceral experience of the clothes, and invites reflection and insight.

In Praise of Shadows, installation view

The second zone Flatness explores flatness exhibits garments by Rei Kawakubo on  mannequins paired with large format photographic prints of the same garments by Naoya Hatakeyama.   The images are stunning, and the display is a poetic example of the impact of viewing a thing and its representation simultaneously.

Hatekeyama's photographs with Rei Kawakubo ensembles. Photo: fadwebsite

Miyake’s A-POC concept garments are installed brilliantly as uncut lengths of fabric perforated and worn by a group of mannequins. This effect was  intensified by the fact that there were more than six people in the gallery  wearing Miyake Pleats Please garments.

Issey Miyake's A-POC, installation view

A highlight of the next section, Tradition and Innovation, was Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garconnes’ non-woven dress from the autumn-winter 1990-91 collection. The fvoluminous, full-skirted dress is constructed of what is “quilt batting” in America, and “wadding” in the UK.  Immediately this called to mind the methods and materials of archival costume storage. The dress seemed to me a garment with its own preservation built in, while appearing insubstantial and ghost-like.

Installation view showing Kawakubo's 1990-91 white dress of non-woven fabric

This zone also addresses the traditional Japanese kimono as a point of inspiration for designers Kenzo, Yohji Yamamoto and Hiroaki Ohya.  This is the only Kenzo piece in the show, which struck me as strange and rather disappointing, until I was reminded that Kenzo came to prominence in the 1970s, before the scope of this exhibit.

The influence of the kimono and Japanese printed textiles

The lower level of the exhibition also houses a screening room playing a documentary by Wim Wenders and Yohji Yamamoto entitled, Notebook on Cities and Clothes.

Then, the exhibition takes a stylistic turn, and moves away from material concepts and towards social ones, in the Cool Japan zone. In the realm of Cool Japan, mannequins wear playful ensembles and appear as puppets or dolls in a landscape installation made up of  candy packaging, manga books, and  toys.  A mirrored corner of the room replicates the scene to infinity and also gives the spectators a view of themselves in the environment.  The designers in the pantheon of Cool Japan include Jun Takahashi/Undercover, Tao Kurihara for Commes des Garcons and Naoki Takizawa.  The installation is foregrounded by a brief explanation of the phenomenon of Japanese youth style tribes or zoku. It explains that the work presented has been selected for their iconic use of manga characters, punk and goth aesthetics and cuteness or kawaii. The chosen garments exemplify the dialogue between Japanese street and avant-garde runway fashion styles.

Installation view of Cool Japan: punk and goth influences

The first level of the exhibit concludes with a video triptych composed of interview, process and runway footage from Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. This area was a trifle overcrowded when I came upon it, and I was eager to head up to the second part of the show.  Truth be told, I was also distracted by the bookshop and resisted stopping in to buy an exhibition catalog before seeing the rest of the show.

That brings us to our intermission, and if you can’t wait to visit or know more about the exhibition, check out the events calendar. There are a myriad of lectures, films, performances and parties being staged over the duration of the exhibit.  Until then I hope you may consider this post in the framework of wabi-sabi and consider its temporary incompleteness as a virtue.

In the meantime, check out Monica’s interview with Zandra Rhodes from earlier this year: Click here.

All photos Lyndon Douglas for Barbican unless otherwise noted.

Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Worn Through » Book Review: Japanese Fashion Designers
    January 17, 2012 - 5:25 am

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.