Fashionista contributor Long Nguyen is the co-founder/style director of Flaunt.
Curated by Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at FIT, Japan Fashion Now–an exhibition extended through April 2, 2011–surveys the past 30 years of Japanese fashion with a comprehensive view of contemporary fashion in Japanese society. In Japan, fashion has always occupied a central role in delineating gender, social and political roles.
The exhibit starts with the Japanese revolution–from the designers who went to Paris in 1981 to showcase their unique creations–and moves on to the years of economic downturn that resulted in today’s youth oriented styles like Gothic Lolitas, Forest Girls, Bosozoku (biker punks), and Mambas. And those are only a few among the many diverse expressions of subcultures, depending on the areas where the kids hang out: Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya or Akihabara.
The show demonstrated the incredible creativity of fashion in Japan.
Separated into two sections, one hall is entirely devoted to the work of the principal pillars of Japanese designers known in the West: first Issey Miyake then Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Here, the black asymmetrical looks by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo showed how their approach to deconstructing and reconstructing set a new direction in fashion. In the mid 1980s, when most Paris fashion houses were consumed by power dressing and fitted colorful clothes, the somber discourse on fashion construction with mostly oversize clothes in black seemed at first foreign to the prevailing style. But these dark body-concealing outfits foreshadowed a shift in fashion’s paradigm when the pendulum swung away from flamboyant dressing.
In the way Yohji and Rei foreshadowed the near future, Kansai Yamamoto, a contemporary of Issey Miyake, foreshadowed what would happen two decades on. In the late 70s and 80s, Mr. Yamamoto transformed Japanese heritage–particularly in prints and silhouettes–into avant-garde clothes, creating the costumes for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour. He did much to popularize a form of Anime, using images of traditional Japanese figure paintings long before this genre of animation became the rage two decades later. He incorporated popular culture into his design ethos before today’s designers fervently embraced street styles.
The main gallery focuses on those new designers, and how they’re clothes differ from the more cerebral fashions of the 1980s.
Designers featured include Jun Takahashi of Undercover, Hiroyuki Horihata, Makiko Sekiguchi of Matohu, Toshikazu Iwaya of Iwaya33 and Chitose Abe of Sacai. On one end of the hall, a separate platform of mannequins displayed the outrageous creativity of the new menswear designers like John Lawrence Sullivan by the former boxer Arashi Yanagawa, Koji Udo of Factorum, Yasuhiro Mihara of Miharayasuhiro and Daisuke Obana of N.Hoolywood. Big O (Takeshi Osumi). Among the teenage street styles were outfits from the popular the Gothic Lolita look by H.Naoto for Hangry and Angry, kamikaze suits worn by members of the Speed Tribes, Kawai (cute) Princess Decoration styles, Lolitas looks from Alice Auaa and Black Peace Now, and Cosplay (Costume Play) looks from a character called Madame Red and Oscar from a popular manga.
“One of the Lolita girls that I interviewed at Harajuku for my research–she was fourteen years old–told me she came here every weekend all dressed up to be with her friends. When I asked her what she and her friends did the whole weekend, she told me that when they get together, they only talk about all things Lolita because nothing else really mattered,” sociology professor Yuniga Kawamura said during a lecture last Friday at the Japan Now Symposium, organized by FIT (in conjunction with the exhibition). She is currently researching a book on how Japanese youths are primary producers of various subcultures and fashion trends that influence how people are dressing globally.
In her lecture, Professor Kawamura dispelled the common misconception about the various Japanese teenage subcultures like Lolita, Mori, Princess Decoration, or Grimoire–each with very particular and distinctive looks.
“These subcultures came about as a response from these teenagers from the rapidly changing environment around them. Japan’s long-term economic downturn in the early ’90s resulted in significant change in the country’s long held traditions: companies abandoned life-long employment policies, and the male-dominated society collapsed. “Fashion in Japan is never independent of social economic changes,” she said. Cuteness culture was less of a fashion statement than a statement of total individual freedom, a form of resistance like Ganguro–where young girls dress up in black face–which assured temporary moments of independence from anxiety.
It has never occurred to me that my first foray into fashion was something totally unplanned. Recently, I found a stash of pictures taken when was in high school and in the first year of college. At the time, I wore clothes that were mainly from the designers Kansai Yamamoto and Yohji Yamamoto. I have to confess that then I had no idea of
who they were except for the black and white label with a partial face for Kansai and the grayish signature tag on each garments. The clothes were simply so different from anything I have seen anyone wearing at the time. The reason being one of my aunts had a small boutique in Paris selling designer clothes, in particular these Japanese designers. The clothes were colorful and embroidered knits and jackets from Kansai Yamamoto and many formless clothes–big jackets that resembled oversize coats from Yohji Yamamoto. And the style easily stood out against the predominant khaki preppy style prevalent in schools then. Unknowingly, I had participated in the Japanese fashion
revolution as a teenager.
Against the very conservative environments–Exeter and Princeton–I had unconsciously dressed in a manner that would indicate some kind of personal resistance to conformity and perhaps also uniformity. Listening to Professor Kawamura explain how Japanese youth deploy fashion as a means of resistance and of safeguarding their independence, I suddenly understood probably for the first time why I wore those funny outfits as a kid. I wonder, if now, I’m less attracted to these kinds of clothes for another reason. On a daily basis I wear jeans–only Japanese hand dyed indigo jeans–basic tee-shirts, machine washed cashmere sweaters, a variety of overcoats and Y-3 sneakers or some Adidas Originals collaboration. Maybe this choice basic uniform clothes is my way to resist the
current temptations of fashion.