Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion: Exhibition Notebook Part 2

Welcome back to my “exhibition notebook” on Future Beauty, the Barbican Art Gallery’s survey of Japanese fashion of the last thirty years.  I left you on the threshold between the upper and lower floors of the exhibition, ascending to the galleries dedicated to highlighting the work of key Japanese designers.  The Barbican Gallery’s upper floor is a rectangular balcony that overlooks the lower floor, giving a panoramic view of the exhibits below.  Seeing the draped fabric walls and silhouettes of the garments from above is breathtaking, and suggests a world of clouds populated by stark, sculptural and graceful beings.The Barbican Gallery’s upper floor is a rectangular balcony that overlooks the lower floor, giving a panoramic view of the exhibits below.  Seeing the draped fabric walls and silhouettes of the garments from above is breathtaking, and suggests a world of clouds populated by stark, sculptural and graceful beings.

The first of the individual designer galleries features Issey Miyake.  Many of his designs were included in the lower floor exhibits, but this display is the first presentation in Europe of his current work entitled 132 5.  The work is both a fashion collection and an installation, and presents textiles as both drawings and sculptures.  The garments are constructed of intricately folded recycled PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. PET is the chemical compound that makes polyester textiles and beverage bottles possible, and it is one of the most readily recyclable synthetic materials.  The complex shapes and chemistry of these clothes inspire reverence and appreciation for their intelligence and innovation.  And yet, when viewed on the mannequins, these garments seduce the viewer by way of their simplicity and graceful relationship with the geometry of the human form.

Installation view: Miyake's 132 5

The gallery dedicated to the work of Yohji Yamamoto introduces him as “the most poetic, romantic and discreetly erotic of the great Japanese fashion designers.” The display presents ensembles from his collections that evidence his broad range of influences from both Eastern and Western cultures.  The tension between extremes of masculinity and femininity in Yamamoto’s designs are exemplified by the ensembles chosen to represent his work.

The work of Jun Takahashi (Undercover), part of the younger vanguard of innovative Japanese designers, takes the form of a surreal installation.  Tartan, floral and fur prints are translated from the garments onto the walls, creating a total environment both unsettling and reassuring.  Takahashi cites diverse influences in his work, such as taxidermy, A Clockwork Orange and Japanese Manga, and thus his designs are a fusion of street and high fashion inspiration.

Tao Kurihara’s work for Comme des Garcons was introduced in the Cool Japan segment of the exhibition.  In the focused presentation on the upper floor, we are invited to examine the designer’s process of “self-imposed limitations that allow her to explore a single, precise idea fully.”  This concept is best illustrated by her 2007 collection of paper wedding dresses, and her spring/summer 2010 collection of garments twisted and knotted together without the use of any sewing.

Installation view of Jun Takahashi Undercover A/W 2001

Ensembles by Mintdesigns, including the cut velvet skeleton dress (right)

Mintdesigns are featured among the younger generation of designers, and a dedicated gallery exhibits highlights from their 2007 and 2008 collections of garments made of shredded and manipulated paper, and bearing bold graphic prints inspired by American cult graphic novels.  I had a tough time tearing myself away from their autumn-winter 2010 cut velvet skeleton print dress, and was disappointed it wasn’t photographed for the exhibition catalogue.  With its florid colours and bold illustration it evoked medieval woodcut illustrations, African cotton printed textiles and vintage loungewear.

The final two galleries are dedicated to Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo, both tireless design innovators who have achieved icon status in the midst of their careers.  Watanabe’s ability to diverge from current trends, while reinventing classics such as the trenchcoat or smoking jacket has defined his work of the past two decades. Known as a ‘techno couturier’ for his use of modern performance fabrics, Watanabe, also exhibits his exceptional understanding of textile behaviour with desgins such as his denim collection of 2002, in which this humble fabric was transformed into an array of sinuous and undulating forms.

Installation view, Junya Watanabe. Photo: Barbican

The extremely diverse and ever-inspirational works of Rei Kawakubo populate the exhibition’s final display.  Here we can see many of the tropes of avant-garde Japanese fashion in one room – deconstruction, the use of black, manipulation of the silhouette, gender ambiguity, and multi-cultural influence.  As much as this display illustrates these concepts, it also refutes the stereotypes, showing that Japanese fashion defies generalizations.

Rei Kawakubo, installation view. Photo: Barbican

I came to the Future Beauty exhibition familiar with many of the designers and works included.  Upon entering the exhibit, my appreciation of the designers was centred on the experience of the clothes in magazines, books and films.  I expected the exhibition to provide me with a deeper appreciation of the contexts and innovation of the designers, and it definitely did.  Through physical proximity – being surrounded by the clothes in a deigned environment – and a prolonged experience of sensing the designs, I have come to understand just how different and innovative Japanese fashion is.

I go to a lot of fashion exhibitions, both historic and contemporary, and I spend far too much time in clothing retail environments.  As much as I enjoy these ventures, they are often characterised by an anxiety, a need to see all, know all, and ultimately possess.  Future Beauty, was the antithesis of this “fashion anxiety.” It provided a meditative space to begin or continue a relationship with Japanese fashion.  It presented the clothes as artworks, and the designers as artists for whom process and experimentation are more significant than trend and commerce.  People tend to judge clothing on whether it is wearable, affordable or stylish according to the present taste.  Japanese fashion, as presented in Future Beauty, is essentially none of these things.  While the exhibition presents clothing, what it really presents is a philosophy of fashion – one that inspires the viewer to examine their own.

Future Beauty runs until February 6, 2011 at the Barbican Centre, London.

You can purchase the exhibition catalogue, which features writings by Akiko Fukai, Barbara Vinken and Susannah Frankel here. Highly recommended, and not a bad substitute for visiting the exhibition if you are not going to be near London in the next few months!

All photos by Jenna unless otherwise noted.

Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Worn Through » Book Review: Japanese Fashion Designers
    January 17, 2012 - 9:13 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.