Blacking-up: The 1980s Japanese revival (The Guardian)

While a nineties fashion revival can only be a few blogs away, there’s one last eighties one about to take place – and it might actually be worth having. Buried within a decade of fluoro-new wave and shoulder pads is the on-trend-again Japanese minimalist movement that radicalised, as well as democratised, high fashion. It dispensed with all status symbols, throwing reams of black cloth over the glitz of Studio 54 and the colourful frills of new romanticism. Early adopters, from Basquiat to the students at St Martins, ‘blacked-up’ like a witchy post-apocalyptic communist cult at a time when nausea-inducing candy-colours and grey were the norm. It quickly trickled down and soon everything had to be matt black.


When Yohji Yamamoto (pictured) and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons joined Paris-veteran Issey Miyake at the prêt a porter at the start of the 1980s, their relentlessly monochrome, unstructured, asymmetric, intellectual assault on the catwalk was a revelation. In 2011, with an ongoing overview of their archives on display at the Barbican, a definitive retrospective of Yamamoto’s work scheduled to open at the V&A in March, and even M&S citing their seminal collections thirty years ago as an influence for spring, their 80s output is going to be reshaping wardrobes once again.

For many, the look forged by the Japanese in the 1980s has never lost its allure. A whole generation of modernist architects and artists, attracted by its raw, unbranded, anti-fashion status, wear little else. It is a chic alternative to ‘suit or sportswear?’, and it destroyed dress codes to create a violently expensive but logo and regulation-free democracy of style. ‘I will never ever wear a tie,’ says Yohji Yamamoto. ‘Not even if I am invited to see my emperor! I made that decision long ago.’

There are also appealing practicalities: before Karl Lagerfeld’s Diet Coke epiphany and 90lb of weight loss, he was perpetually swathed in billowing black Yamamoto rayon. As Professor Wendy Dagworthy, head of fashion as the Royal College of Art says: ‘It wasn’t until the 80s, and the Japanese, that people really wore black. Before that it just had beatnik connotations. Now it makes you feel safe, and of course look thinner.’

For every trippy piece of frilled lycra Bodymap on the 80s guest list there was an ankle length black duster coat, whether it was from Comme or Kensington Market. While much of twenty-something east London continues to dress up in retro Wag-club era polka-dots and Breton stripes, the flowing, monastic, oriental garb that ran in tandem with it back in the day is reappearing. Crotches have dropped and trouser hems have raised and widened. ‘The high street has been a blaze of colour,’ says Neil Hendy, creative director at M&S. ‘But the Japanese look is very versatile. You can wear an oversized black jacket with opaque tights and Dr Martens or in a more sophisticated way, over a tube dress. What we’ve been doing at M&S is look at the fluidity of form.’

The designer Maria Cornejo, who began her career in the 1980s in London as one half of feted – but commercially doomed – duo Richmond Cornejo, now has a slavish following for her beautiful, architectural, frequently subversively-volumed dresses in tune with the Japanese revival. She also employs a sympathetically stark approach to styling. ‘If you don’t put bells and whistles on the clothes,’ she says, ‘they don’t have a lifespan.’ This isn’t a look for vertiginous high heels and fake tan. As Cornejo says: ‘I make clothes for real working women.’

A simple version of the Japanese 80s redux look is also appealingly easy to pull off at a lower price point. It’s where the no-frills aesthetic of Muji came from (Yamamoto has designed for Muji in Japan). And it’s why the Alexander Wang T line of T-shirts is becoming such a cult phenomenon. Take one high quality, loose, black jersey T with a raw seam, mix with wide legged black trousers, and you’re done: soft; loose; layered… 100% noir.

While V&A curator Ligaya Salagazar has been careful to incorporate colour and print within the 90 outfits in the forthcoming Yamamoto exhibition, it’s not the florals worn by Elton John – perhaps surprisingly a close friend of Yohji – or the psychedelics languishing on sale rails that we know the Japanese for. It’s the black stuff. ‘Yamamoto believes that black is the only genuine colour,’ says Salagazar. ‘It’s what everything else plays off; it’s his essence.’

When the Tokyo dark wave first crashed across Paris in the 1980s, it was a formative phenomenon for many of today’s western designers. The stripped down aesthetic, the layering, the drained colour, black and asymmetry are significant elements in the work of Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens and countless others. Demeulemeester believes that the Japanese revolution was a turning point for fashion. ‘It was disappointing that fashion then went backwards in the 90s,’ she says. Owens – whose work is consistently watered down for the suburbs by the omni-awful All Saints and other pretenders – celebrated their outsider status. ‘For a 19 year-old art student goth, it was illuminating to see that the uptight fashion world could accommodate a weirdo,’ he says.

The Japanese triumvirate threw fashion off balance, literally. ‘Symmetry – the symbol of perfection – is not sufficiently human,’ said Yamamoto at the time. Asymmetry, arguably born of the kimono, will be ever more visible in 2011, from a simple white silk Autograph blouse at M&S with asymmetric buttoning, to the leather jackets on the high street originally catwalked in purer forms by the likes of Owens and Todd Lynn. ‘I love how it throws things off-balance, or can throw attention to something,’ says Philip Stephens of Unconditional, another label which acts as unwilling consultant to the high street. ‘I like things that wrap, which finish in an asymmetric way, which is often seen as Japanese.’

The great 80s Japanese designers don’t subscribe to being ‘Japanese designers’, or even see many similarities in their fellows’ work, but Yamamoto is passionate about his traditional culture, and abhors its westernisation. ‘The kimono could never compete with western clothes because they are convenient and allow you to be active,’ he says. ‘But from the early 80s all of the strong looking women around my store in Omotesando in Tokyo became more Americanised and I hated it. Sometimes I’m flying and I’m sat next to a fat American guy in shorts and a T-shirt and I just can’t believe it.’

Fashion is, of course, a great cultural signifier, whether at 30,000 feet or on the ground, east or west. And these are hard times, in tune with the uncompromising and dour looks of Japanese fashion in the 80s. ‘I think that these emerging trends will take us beyond minimalism,’ says Bradley Quinn, author of the forthcoming book Design Futures. ‘There’ll be an aesthetic of primitivism. Rei Kawakubo’s early collections of shapeless knitwear crafted with gaping holes will be influential, as will Junya Watanabe’s later “unconstructed” garments bound to the body with string and wire rather than stitched or sewn.’ Certainly there’s an identifiable art school ‘hobo’ tendency there that lends itself to charity shop DIY, which is what many fashion students opted for in the 80s when they couldn’t afford four figure Yamamoto, even with full grants and (gasp!) housing benefit.

Even if things don’t get so extreme, 2011 is bound to be a year of lower, rougher, hemlines in fashion. ‘The current recession is pivotal to this revival,’ says Andrew Groves, course director of BA Fashion at the University of Westminster. ‘It’s a fundamental realignment of fashion’s core values and a reaction to wearing short sexy and symmetrical clothing. In times of recession skirt lengths lengthen – women don’t want to appear sexually available and end up conceiving at a time of economic uncertainty.’

Dark times ahead perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be aesthetically exciting. And anything that gets rid of striped tops, bow ties and coloured-rimmed Wayfarers once and for all has to be a good thing.


One Response to “Blacking-up: The 1980s Japanese revival (The Guardian)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by markcoflaherty, westminsterfashion. westminsterfashion said: Blacking-up: The 1980s Japanese revival (The Guardian): […]

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