A recent exhibition, which toured around the world, saw people queuing up to see what were, ostensibly, bits of blue rag. Closer inspection of the framed textiles, however, revealed an intricacy and artistry to the way the indigo-dyed fragments had been sewn together with a distinctive stitch, how the results indicated both a Mondrian-like appreciation for composition of these clothes and bed coverings, but also of the way the shades complemented each other. What was more remarkable was that many of these pieces – called boro, and hailing from Japan – were created by peasants some 300 years ago.
It speaks, perhaps, to the readiness of Japanese culture not only to appropriate good ideas and materials from any source, but then to experiment with what can be done with them and how they might be worn – and all with a rarely surpassed appreciation for high-quality construction which the local market has long demanded.
Jump forward several centuries and, at the pinnacle of Japanese fashion, you find Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo. As she has put it – and her words apply to the Japanese fashion-design ethos in general – the will to push boundaries comes from her ‘fear that if for one instant I’m satisfied [with a design], I won’t be able to come up with the next creation. I feel that I have to keep pushing on.’ It helps to explain her introduction of distressing, of an origami-like folded construction, and of fragrances with hints of tar, rubber and dry-cleaning agents.
Other inventive Japanese designers have similarly hidden behind a rather un-Japanese sounding brand name. Some may have heard of Kawakubo protégé Junya Watanabe, but fewer will be familiar with Tomoaki Nagao, Daiki Suzuki, Shinsuke Takizawa, Kosuke Tsumura or Jun Takahashi, for example. But they are behind some of the most cultish brands of recent years: A Bathing Ape, Engineered Garments, Neighborhood, Final Home and Undercover respectively. Other names, such as Mastermind, Nanamica, 45rpm, Phenomenon, Haversack, Ato Matsumoto, Julius 7, Kapital, Kolor and Satoru Tanaka, are well-established in Japan, but breaking out internationally in more recent years.
‘The rise of these kinds of brands is a cultural thing. Everything in Japan has an incredible attention to detail and tends to be much more considered,’ argues Craig Ford, director of fashion sales and marketing company A Number of Names, which handles Japanese brands such as Human Made and new label Cav Empt. ‘Even the business side of fashion works in its favour: factories are prepared to make small production runs, so designers can not only make a much wider range of products, but can be more creative. Not everything has to appeal to everyone.’
Certainly, while Japanese high fashion has come to be associated with the intellectual austerity its designers introduced to an international market during the 1980s, much of it has been considerably more pop, taking its cues from its distinctive avant-garde street cultures and their readiness to push boundaries while remaining – just, in some cases – wearable.
Few other cultures, after all, might have come up with, and sustained, such bold street styles as ganguro, with its bleached hair, deep tans and palette of punchy colours; lolita, with its Victorian schoolgirl-infused super-saccharine look; decora, based around the piling on of cheap accessories; or, on the menswear side, the obsession with Depression-era western workwear and denim, or rockabilly.
These have been the product, social anthropologists have long inconclusively argued, of several forces. One is an enthusiasm for reacting against an inherently conservative, hierarchical society. Another comes from being an island nation closed off for many centuries from outside influence: literally, in trading terms, with many well-established Japanese fashion brands seeking international distribution only over the past decade or so. A third is a product of a love of what in the West might be dismissed as supposedly ‘low’ art forms, such as anime or manga, both graphically strong. Together these have created a steady stream of young design talents.
‘In fact, the very idea of fashion is relatively new in the Japanese psyche, so they see it in a fresh way,’ argues Ford. ‘That traditional attention to detail in craft means that they are very knowledgeable about fashion, too: fashion magazines there are studied like guidebooks. Their approach is very much one of outsiders looking in on fashion – which makes them determined to do something new and to have a distinct personality.’