In the catalogue for Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Rei Kawakubo is named as the world’s most influential living fashion designer. Although she gives few interviews, Kawakubo did submit to a 2005 New Yorker profile by Judith Thurman in which there is a telling comparison with the suave Giorgio Armani. Talking to a reporter from La Figaro during the Paris Spring/Summer show, Armani explains: “true success means pleasing everyone.” Nothing, says Thurman, could be more remote from Kawakubo’s philosophy.
Ever since her cataclysmic debut at the 1983 Spring/Summer show, with a collection called Destroy, the Comme des Garcons founder has continued to turn the industry’s cherished conventions upside down.
This may be the reason you will see many people wearing Armani in the business environment, but very few in a Comme des Garcons creation. Over the past three decades, Kawakubo and her Japanese peers have become known as extremists in the realm of haute couture. The favoured label is “avant-garde”, but this seems anomalous, not only because the term has been done to death in art circles, but because fashion by its very definition must always be avant-garde.
Future Beauty is an impressive survey of the work of the most daring Japanese designers, starting with the ‘big three’ – Issey Miyake, Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. It includes second generation talents such as Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and Tao Kurihara; and pieces by younger couturiers.
This is not the first time Japanese fashion has been surveyed in Australia. The Cutting Edge, at the end of 2005 at the Powerhouse Museum, covered much the same ground, although the show had a lower profile. The Powerhouse began life as a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and may seem a logical venue for a fashion show, but GoMA enjoys a different cultural cachet. With the state galleries in Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane all holding high-profile couture exhibitions this summer, perhaps it’s time to accept fashion as a fully-fledged branch of the visual arts.
Think of the quality of work turned out by some of the leading couturiers, then consider the creations of famous contemporary artists. Having recently viewed the over-large, over-hyped, factory-made sculptures of Jeff Koons, then sampled the imagination and craftsmanship of the Japanese designers, I have no doubts about who is more influenced by commercial considerations.
It may be that the strongly conformist nature of Japanese society has bred an iconoclastic streak in its fashion designers. Junya Watanabe speaks for almost everyone when he says: “I have never thought about whether or not I am successful… I am not interested in the mainstream.”
Although every designer needs to create wearable clothes, along with the eye-catching garments that appear on the catwalk, the emphasis is on creativity not turnover. Kawakubo has even stated: “fashion is not art”, presumably hoping that her work might elude all categorisations.
One thinks of a famous line from Cristóbal Balenciaga, still regarded by many as the most stylish couturier of the 20th century. “A couturier,” he said, “must be “an architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for colour, a musician for harmony and a philosopher for temperance.”
The Japanese designers fulfil all these criteria if we allow that a musical composition can include discord, and that philosophers – vide Michel Onfray – can be hedonists.
Two considerations that set these designers apart from their French and Italian peers are an immersion in traditional Japanese aesthetics, and a desire to challenge the orientalist clichés that have dominated western fashion, if not western culture in general.
One of the most important concepts behind this work is wabi-sabi. Curator, Akiko Fukai, breaks down the meaning of the term: “wabi – without decoration or visible luxury – and sabi – old and atmospheric.” The garments that possess this quality enjoy a kind of flawed beauty, a blend of shabbiness and chic. One finds a reflection of this in Yamamoto’s outspoken distaste for perfection. “I think perfection is ugly,” he says, “…I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.”
Kawabubo’s Destroy collection of 1983 was a calculated affront to accepted canons of good taste. The clothes were torn and full of holes, asymmetrical and comparatively shapeless. They came with superfluous sleeves, flat shoes and misapplied lipstick. Instead of hugging the body these garments enclosed it in a package. Some fashion commentators piled on the invective, while others hailed the birth of a new “Aesthetic of Poverty”. One might see this as a variation on Balenciaga’s call for “temperance”.
The key word was “aesthetic” rather than “poverty”, because Kawakubo’s science fiction bag-lady creations were still works of haute couture exquisitely sewn and rendered by hand, with price tags that only the wealthy could contemplate.
Even these outfits seem comparatively tame alongside the collection Kawakubo called Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body, of 1997, otherwise known as ‘lumps and bumps’. The catwalk models wore simple gingham dresses augmented with pads in all the wrong places. These glamorous females were given hunchbacks or bloated, lopsided hips. It looked as if a serpent was working its way around a body under a tight swathe of fabric.
The intention was not merely to shock but to critique those ideas of beauty accepted unconditionally by western designers whose dresses were almost invariably symmetrical, with features intended to accentuate the hallmarks of femininity – the bust, waist and hips. Kawakubo was satirising devices such as corsets and crinolines that achieved this sexual stereotype at the expense of the wearer’s comfort. After more than a century of piecemeal French borrowings from the ‘exotic’ East, Kawakubo pioneered a form of reverse orientalism.
It’s often said that Kawakubo is a ‘master’ of volume, whereas Miyake and Yamamoto are masters of material and line, respectively. This isolates the most distinctive feature of each designer’s work, but it doesn’t begin to describe the complexity involved.
Issey Miyake is the oldest, and arguably the most commercially minded of the ‘big three’, even though he has created his share of catwalk sensations. His work owes a debt to the traditional art of origami, and to the most recent advances in fabric technology. The Pleats Please line, which debuted in 1993 and has never ceased production, uses specially treated polyester to create garments that are light, washable, wrinkle-free and effortlessly elegant. In his A-POC range (AKA. A Piece Of Cloth) – he invented a way for an entire ensemble to be cut from a single tube of cloth without the need for sewing. These innovations have set the scene for a new approach to clothing, ensuring that designers will be working through the implications of Miyake’s revolutionary methods for decades to come.
As for Yamamoto, described as the most “poetic” of the Japanese designers, he is scarcely less enigmatic than Kawakubo. After watching Wim Wenders’ meandering film portrait of 1989, Notebook on Cities and Clothes, I felt as if I understood even less about him. The key to the man, as with any artist, lies in the work, and Yamamoto has a magic touch with a pair of scissors. His clothes may appear unfinished, with their ragged edges, gathers and folds, but they have an understanding of form, space and contour that any sculptor might envy.
The younger designers such as Watanabe and Takahashi have been mentored and supported by the older designers, and have taken on their fearless spirit. Watanabe has made an evening gown out of faded denim, while one outfit in Takahashi’s Undercover range extends a bright tartan pattern right over the model’s face in a gesture that blends haute couture with the iconography of punk rock.
Future Beauty is a show that should be seen by all fashion sceptics – indeed, by anybody who believes that artists are somehow morally superior to designers – because there’s a sense of excitement and a sustained imaginative investment in this work that I’ve never found in a Biennale. It reveals a beauty that is not content to stand passively and command admiration. It leaps forth and grabs the viewer by the throat! It’s a beauty that is not seductive, but convulsive, as the Surrealists demanded. The outfits don’t whisper: “Please buy me”, but “Wear if you dare!”
Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Until 15 February 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10th January, 2015