Book Review: Japanese Fashion Designers

Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo

by Bonnie English

Berg Publishers (2011)

 

Soon to delve into research of my own in the area of Japanese fashion (specifically deconstructed styles), I was delighted to sink my teeth into Bonnie English’s Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. English’s writing style was concise, with fun extra Notes and a thorough Index for quick lookups. The first half covers the Big Three designers listed in the title, plus the “next wave” including Naoki Takizawa, Dai Fujiwara, Junya Watanabe, Tao Kurihara, and Jun Takahashi, all of whom lean heavily upon technological textile development and textile collaborations. The second half covers textile artists who dabble in or collaborate with fashion designers.

Issey Miyake

Kawakubo and Yamamoto

 

English offers 1970 as the jumping off year when Japanese fashion infiltrated Western dress, initiated by Issey Miyake, but she highlights an inherent and long-standing Japanese dual interest in tradition and progress. In fact, Western clothes like bowlers and high-collared shirts infiltrated wealthy Japanese society in the 1890s, and in the 1930s Japanese businessmen adopted the Western suit for the office, reserving the casual summer yukata kimono for home wear. In the print below you can see Empress Shōken dressed in black (a repeating Japanese fashion theme as you’ll see) in the Western style of dress; this print was actually promoting the wide but temporary adoption of Western dress, including written instructions and illustrations on Western dress construction (for details, see an informative blurb on Lina’s Lookbook).

Empress Shoken promoting western dress, 1887 (click to enlarge)

 

Japan adopted Western items (again) in the 1940s in part, I’m sure, due to the lingering post-WWII U.S. occupation, but in the 1960s there was a reversal and a re-embracing of traditional Japanese culture. Though Western dress certainly influenced them, most of the contemporary Japanese designers’ inspiration was somehow rooted in the oh-so-Japanese kimono, Samurais, paper arts, the tea ceremony, and Buddhist concepts.

kimono construction

"ma" of the kimono

 

A recognizable image connecting Japan to its heritage, the kimono has been essential to all these Japanese designers. Its simple construction (8 rectangles connected by straight seams) has helped make it accessible to every social strata of Japan. Boxy as it is when flat, the kimono nonetheless drapes pleasing layers around the human body loosely, with ample space between the body and cloth (called “ma“), as opposed to the Western standard of tailoring closely to the contours of the body. The kimono embodies the Japanese preoccupation with anti-structural layers, allowing freedom of movement with a simplicity of cut. Issey Miyake acknowledged the influence of French couturier Madeleine Vionnet on him, who minimized cutting, abandoned tailor fits, and created patterns and texture with pleats of the fabric itself. Paper arts have a religious significance in Japan, and Miyake experimented with paper-like pleating in linen crêpe, woven cotton, polyester, and jersey, seeking functionality with interesting texture. In his “Pleats, Please” collection of 1993, he revised Fortuny’s Delphos and Peplos gowns of the 1930s, incorporating more sculptural origami pleating effects to Fortuny’s distinctly Grecian versions. To illustrate how freely a body could move in them, dancers modeled the collection rather than professional models.

draped Madeleine Vionnet gown with rough hem, 1917

Fortuny "Delphos" gown, c. 1930

"Pleats Please" collection, Miyake

 

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.

black kimono with discreet red lining, early 20th century

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).

kimono detail with tea ceremony utensils, 19th century

Issey Miyake was one of the first post-WWII Asian designers to infiltrate the French fashion system, working in Paris in the late ’60s. Sometimes called “anti-fashion,” his clothes favored asymmetry, folds and pleats, exposed stitches, “found” objects, accidents — Kawakubo worked with textile artists to create such “accidents” by loosening bolts on looms, deliberately dropping stitches in knits and other strategies to create irregularities in the industrially produced goods:

deliberately unravelled sweater, Comme des Garcons

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.

Comme des Garçons “bag lady post-Hiroshima” look, 1982

As kimonos are worn by the wealthy and the masses alike, so are they worn by both men and women, and the discussed Japanese designers all played with concepts of gender roles in their contemporary designs. Kawakubo, having experienced a surge in Japan’s feminist movement firsthand (Japanese women were only granted suffrage in 1946, in part due to pressure from the occupying forces of the United States), often questions Western body ideals, beauty in simplicity vs. over-the-top European glamor. Kawakubo and Yamamoto don’t rely on the body shape as the focal point of attraction, breaking from young models in favor of unconventional beauties, non-professional models, and mature women. Kawakubo’s “Bump” collection (Spring/Summer 1997) showcased garments with oddly padded lumps, effectively critiquing the idealized feminine shape. Yamamoto frequently deconstructs the Western business suit, removing the padded shoulders, lining, expanding the armholes, or making it asymmetrical. In his 2002 collection, draped skirts with frayed threads replaced pants, crossing gender barriers. His softer shapes and deconstructed techniques questioned the ideal masculine angularity; his skirts for men questioned the Western sexual silhouettes.

Comme des Garçons Bump collection, SS97

Yohji Yamamoto SS12 Menswear

 

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.”

"gauzy rags" in Yamamoto's Spring/Summer '09

newspaper hats in Comme des Garçons SS02 collection

You might also remember the controversial photographs taken by Yuriko Takagi of Miyake’s pleated clothes taken in a remote Indian village where locals who could not actually afford such garments modeled them, which could be commentary on the artificiality of traditional studio fashion photo sessions, but was widely lambasted for exploiting the poor to attract publicity for designer garments. Whatever your feeling on that example, editors have widely attributed socio-political commentary to the clothes of Miyake, Yamamoto, and Kawakubo with those designers’ consistent breaking of barriers between sexes, high and low culture, and Eastern vs. Western ideologies. Interestingly, the designers inevitably deny such deliberate signification, but fashion, as art, may be the receptacle upon which viewers project their own ideologies or questions, and designers’ intent is perhaps only partially relevant.

Yuriko Takagi photos of "Pleats Please" collection

All in all, I learned a great deal from Japanese Fashion Designers. This book is not — as the title misleadingly suggests — an in-depth exploration merely of Miyake, Yamamoto and Kawakubo, but is rather much broader in scope. I do wish Ms. English had provided a summary of Japan’s history of textile development and followed the strands of current practitioners from there — Kyoto was the ancient center for textile experimentation and that more recently Tokyo has caught up, but why or how that happened is not elaborated on, nor is the interesting topic of why Eastern fashion has infiltrated the Western world, and vice versa. To eliminate some redundancy, I might have divided the subject matter thematically rather than by designer (as I did for this review); I suspect a stronger narrative thread with less repetition of material might have developed, but I realize this is my own style to which I am obviously partial. The actual organization will, however, be helpful for anyone looking to hone in on one specific designer rather than the Japanese fashion/textile movement as a whole. I did crave more color photos — I know they’re expensive to produce, but when you’re looking at textiles with subtle mottling, irregular patterns, translucence and iridescent sheen, black-and-white images leave something to be desired. There were, however, exhaustive lists of museum exhibitions and gallery installations including these designers’ works (implicitly contradicting the designers’ protests in having their works compared to “art”) which would be incredibly helpful to any scholar wanting to compile images and investigate further. Japanese Fashion Designers was much wider in scope than I anticipated, well researched with complex concepts broken down, and it would certainly be a helpful reference book for anyone remotely interested in Japanese fashion and/or textile technology.

 

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1 Comment »

  1. Ana said,

    January 30th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Well, thank you for this article!

    I’m so glad I took the time to read it.
    Japanese couture designers are not my cuppa, but I find them quite interesting nevertheless, and this opens up so many new roads for the inquisitive mind…

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