Into the black (Financial Times Weekend)

When Rei Kawakubo shows the spring/summer 2010 Comme des Garçons womenswear collection in Paris today it will mark 40 years in the fashion business. Next year, Issey Miyake follows suit and in spring 2011 the V&A in London will unveil a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto’s work, commemorating 30 years since his first show in Paris. The middle-ageing of the triumvirate of revolutionary Japanese design is as shocking as any of their more confrontational collections; to many of their modernist followers they still seem like box-fresh radical upstarts, while for the high street they have only recently come into existence through diffusion projects with the likes of H&M and Adidas. So, four decades on, have they really revolutionised the world of fashion?

Issey Miyake from West East Men

Although they were all active in Japan in the 70s (Yamamoto founded his company in 1972), it wasn’t until they all came to the prêt a porter in Paris in the 80s that they made their mark on international fashion. ‘Western fashion at the time was surprisingly conventional,’ says Claire Wilcox, one of the V&A’s key fashion curators. ‘They had a huge impact, creating a disruption of construction.’ It was the shock of the new: unstructured, deconstructed and skewed garments, the antithesis of an era defined by body hugging Alaïa and the shoulder pad. ‘Their work is about opposition to body shape,’ says Wilcox. ‘A Miyake Pleats Please dress moves in opposition to the natural form, and Kawakubo’s Bumps collection was a total distortion of the human body.’ Similarly confrontational was their absence of colour palette – everything in black.

Their arrival coincided with the formative years of some of today’s most celebrated designers. ‘I was just finishing my studies,’ recalls Ann Demeulemeester, ‘and it was a brave new step in fashion – the beginning of a new freedom for me as a designer and as a woman.’ Demeulemeester’s aesthetic has continued to work in parallel with the promise of the Japanese revolution, shunning trend, embracing the avant garde, and focusing on monochrome; ‘because like an architect, new structures are clearer in black and white.’

John Richmond and Maria Cornejo were Thatcher-era London clubland prodigies with 14 short-lived shops worldwide selling their 3D Richmond Cornejo label. Richmond continued, solo, with immense success and Cornejo recently celebrated 10 years of her New York-based Zero label, renowned for strength and purity of cut. ‘When I was growing up you couldn’t find black clothes,’ says Richmond. ‘It was only with the Japanese that black really started. I love using black because I grew up in Manchester where the light always makes colour look grim.’ For Cornejo, it was about shape and attitude: ‘They were so innovative with their cutting and they also found a way of working within the fashion system that broke new ground.’ Rick Owens, whose artful deconstruction and haute murk shares the Japanese spirit, found their outsider status as much an inspiration as their cuts: ‘For a 19 year old art student goth, it was illuminating to see that the uptight fashion world could accommodate a weirdo. If Halston gave the world the white butterfly orchid, Comme gave us black leggings.’

If they weren’t quite minimalist, their focus on volume, cut and head-to-toe black was reductionist, Zen perhaps. And there was practicality too: shove a boiled wool Comme jacket in an overhead locker for an 11 hour flight and it’ll look the same on arrival as it did on the catwalk. When Joan Burstein of Browns opened the Comme des Garçons shop in London, it attracted a loyal following of tastemakers who wanted to dress as if they were above the vulgar whimsy of fashion, and were willing to pay four figures for it. ‘It was a hard sell,’ Burstein recalls, ‘but it’s a cult.’

The Japanese sense of ‘otherness’ was accentuated by the style of their presentation – bleak catwalk shows akin to performance art. Miyake presented his ‘body sculpture’ as high art; his static Bodyworks show toured the world, and he collaborated with Irving Penn on coffee table photography books. The style world in the 80s was fascinated by the avant garde chic of all things Japanese – this was a time when David Bowie would wax lyrical about his love of sushi as if it were food from outer space – and there were clear identifiably traditional Japanese elements to Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto.

‘The influence of the kimono was definitely apparent,’ says Professor Wendy Dagworthy of the RCA. ‘They took traditional dress and did it in a very modern way.’ Dagworthy believes that there has been as strong a Japanese attraction to the west as there has been a western attraction to the insider-cool of the Japanese: ‘They have a clear love of western fashion and culture. One of my favourite Yamamoto collections was in the 80s and shown as an homage to 60s Cardin; very molded with lots of holes cut out of it – the shapes were very beautiful.’ Conversely, designer Hussein Chalayan believes that the Japanese ‘at times caricature the west’.

While they have all taken cues from western arts (Kawakubo has produced collections in recent years inspired by the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols), there’s perhaps a darker dynamic between west and east that gives their work its edge. When I interviewed Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo for the Financial Times two years ago, he spoke of his hatred for the westernised youth of Japan, the mega-malls in Roppongi (‘they all look like Disneyland’) and the destruction of traditional Japanese culture at the hands of the west: ‘Until the end of the 70s there were strong looking women on the streets of Omotesando, but after the early 80s they became more Americanised. To be frank, I hate it. Sometimes I’m flying to another city and I’m sitting next to a fat American guy in shorts and a T-shirt and I just… I can’t believe it.’

Japanese designers’ often aggressive sense of detachment from the west has fuelled the west’s fascination. ‘Their work has an integrity that western fashion lacks,’ says fashion author and curator Bradley Quinn. ‘Their work is more about nature than artifice.’ Hussein Chalayan agrees: ‘The most important influence on their work is the philosophy of wabi-sabi, a thesis about the beauty of the moment and the actuality of being. It is the magic of being Japanese that could never be understood by anyone but the Japanese themselves.’ Certainly austerity and asymmetry is as integral to wabi-sabi philosophy as Japanese fashion; and there’s also a recurrent sense of the rough and the organic (particularly in Miyake’s work); the glorious imperfections of nature. It’s this ‘look’ that has, perhaps, been mistaken as nihilist.

The various forays into more typically western commercial fashion territory have sometimes been uncomfortable. When Miyake launched a fragrance in 1994, it chimed as uncharacteristic and strange, as if the Miyake customer might be above something as frivolous as a perfume, but it spawned a full line of Duty Free favourites (including the latest, a scent by issey miyake, which launched in August), while Comme’s fragrance range is ever growing. When Yamamoto showed a range of Adidas trainers in 2001, it seemed shocking – two incompatible worlds colliding, like wearing Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit to an Essex nightclub. Then a year later he launched Y-3, an immense commercial success, and sportswear and the high street didn’t seem like such distant universes anymore. ‘It makes perfect sense,’ says Claire Wilcox. ‘The sports shoe in particular is a perfect match – the very idea of high heels with Japanese fashion is ridiculous.’

The Japanese fashion revolution, from the 80s black-on-black tsunami that rocked Paris to the artful selling out into luggage and bathroom products in recent years has paved the way for a whole new generation of eastern designers, from Jun Takashi of Undercover and Junya Watanabe to Yamamoto’s daughter Limi Feu, who now sells through her father’s London shop. Meanwhile, Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto continue to embrace their ‘otherness’ in Paris, far away from gauche ‘trend’. For this autumn Miyake catwalked bold geometrically patterned and pleated womenswear on four karate players, while Comme des Garcon’s Homme Plus collection riffed on dandy tailoring, bringing together pin stripe and leopard print. Yamamoto, meanwhile, presented his men as Hasidic Jews and 19th century wild west pioneers… in pyjamas. His women’s collection was classic Yamamoto: all sleek elongated silhouettes and all black. If there’s one thing that 40 years of Japanese design has brought to the west it’s the understanding that when it comes to what shifts and what never ends up on the sale rail at the end of the season, black is always the new black.

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