Grunge, pauperism, minimalism, hip hop and recoup’ (recycled salvaged looks), the styles most popular among young people today, all have one thing in common: their roots can be traced to the Japanese movement of the 1980s. With their strong, innovative shapes, high-tech fabrics and radically different fashion philosophy, Japan’s leading avant-garde designers are responsible for shaping the way an entire generation perceives modern style today.
Thirteen years ago the fashion world found itself in the midst of a Japanese invasion that seemed to take place overnight. It was actually the result of long range planning: the Japanese clothing industry had sent representatives for more than 10 years to the U.S. and European fashion centers to buy merchandise and study production methods. Licensing agreements were worked out with Western companies whereby Japanese manufacturers would receive patterns that could be adjusted to the smaller morphology of their customers. In a country where the kimono had been the standard dress until the end of World War II, and where personal style took a back seat to uniforms in the years that followed, a strong garment industry developed and matured.
As Japan grew prosperous, a new generation found itself with more time and money to spend on its fashion image. By the 1970s, Japanese design had become known for its whimsical color and novelty. Kansai Yamamoto led the pack with his bright comic-book prints and bold, amusing style. Kenzo crossed cultural currents by marrying Asian silhouettes and color with European folklore. Issey Miyake combined non-traditional materials and futuristic techniques with traditional Japanese fabrics to create an artistic interpretation of his culture. But in 1981 the image of Japanese design suddenly shifted from fanciful to what some called frightening.
Color was replaced with grays and blacks, “philosophical studies” in drapery substituted for fun fashion. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto set off shock waves with their models, who with their pasty white faces, spiky hair and formless, dark frocks had all the allure of a psychiatric patient wrapped in wrinkled bed sheets. For the first time the spotlight was on clothes that did not start from the premise of women as sex objects.
Kawakubo’s anti-status clothes, creased, torn in slashed designs, draped and wrapped around the body, were introduced at a time when the West was up to its false eyelashes in padded shoulders, nipped waists and tight skirts. Rejecting traditional notions of style, Kawakubo felt that fashion should not be about revealing or accentuating the shape of a woman’s body, but rather a means of expressing a point of view, taking a stand. In The New York Times she defended herself saying, “We must break away from conventional forms of dress for today’s new woman. We need a strong new image, not to revisit the past.” The wearer, however, looked more like the victim of some ritual attack, who had been used, abused and stripped of all sophistication. From her famous sweaters with planned “holes” to her plastic trash bag dresses and ripped garments, Kawakubo has often been accused of being mockingly decadent, of launching an out-and-out assault on the very idea of fashion. At other times she is admired for staying a heartbeat ahead of modern style.
In contrast, Yohji Yamamoto loves garments with “a past.” He explains, “The silhouette that best describes my style is that of the vagabonds, the gypsies, voyagers, those who carry all their life’s possessions, souvenirs and treasures on their backs.” To get that “well worn look” he uses washing machines “to wipe away the arrogant sheen” of new fabrics and render them more personable. This lived-in look was (and still is) typical of his style, long before the jeans and silk industries discovered the profitable economics of creating fake-old things. Another key source of inspiration: work clothes, because, in his words, “there is always something beautiful about the workplace.” From there came the infinite variations of overalls and work pants, all practical and efficient. Clothes you forget you’re wearing. Clothes that “do not interfere with the personality of the wearer.”
Though these designers continue to blaze trails, a new generation of Japanese has emerged and is carrying the torch in two converse directions: practical fashion with a Western flavor and avant-gardism that takes Miyake’s concept of experimentation into the Twilight Zone of style. “I’m more futuristic than traditional Japanese design,” proclaims Yashiki Hishinuma, a relative newcomer who’s been showing in Paris for two years. Dresses made from wire screen, perforated leatherette tunics, trench coats from some coppery high-tech material closed with Velcro, accessories made from broken Plexiglas cups… Hishinuma, who has worked for Miyake, is clearly in the “clothes-as-art” camp. With its geometric forms and recycled materials, the result often looks like a horrific mixture of ’80s Japanese violent design peppered with ’90s grunge. Each collection reveals intense research of materials and shapes, though hardly anything is wearable. It is interesting to note that since founding his own company in 1984, Hishinuma has also created costumes for theater and films.
While other Japanese designers usually make a beeline for Paris, Koji Tatsuno headed to London in 1982. Within a year he launched a company called Culture Shock. Five years later he opened a custom tailor shop for men and women under his own name and sponsored by Yohji Yamamoto. Individual pieces were made from antique fabrics and interpreted in a modern way. Finally, in 1990 Tatsuno took his act back on the road and headed for Paris. Though a few “commercial” items in basic shapes are included in the line, his efforts are concentrated on the avant-garde collection, which his followers adore but few editors comprehend: 2,500 safety pins strung with beads to make a top that glitters like Victorian beadwork, an Amazonian breastplate made from stained glass plaques welded together, scented flowers floating in coils of netting spiraling around the body, evening gowns made from 200 meters of ribbons tied together, 200 chiffon scarves knotted to create a diaphanous dress made without a single stitch. His clothes are rarely made with familiar patterns and cutting techniques or conventional fabrics; instead they are molded, folded and sculpted around the body.
“I believe in the human touch, in emotions, and things made by hand,” says Tatsuno. “We are 1960s children. My generation grew up with TV, computers and high tech, so I’m not impressed by these things. I look for something you can touch, you can feel. Manufactured things, though well made, are cold.” He adds, “Today it is very important to express yourself. I believe people should wear clothes in their own way to express their own personality. The idea of people creating their own style with my clothes is very interesting.”
When word got out in 1988 that Akira Onozuca, former assistant to Miyake, was breaking out on his own, the fashion world scrambled to see what they thought would be a presentation of experimental design. Much to everyone’s surprise, the designer cut his surname down to “Zucca” and reduced fashion down to basics with a look that the Journal du Textile described as “extreme simplicity.” Zucca worked as Miyake’s assistant from 1974 to 1987, before launching his own company in 1988 with the encouragement (and financial backing) of Issey. Some say Zucca had to abandon the style of clothes he had designed for 13 years because it was too identifiable with his former employer’s works. He insists, however, ” I wanted to create fashion that you can live in every day. Above all, what I’m looking for is comfort.” In any case, his timing was perfect. By the end of the 1980s, trends had shifted from complicated clothes to fashion basics.
Comfort, simplicity, authenticity – Zucca’s success comes from the mix of modernity with tradition found throughout his collections. There’s an air of casualness, inspired by his passion for sports, the freshness of nature (he loves cotton and silk, treating the latter with vegetable dyes), and his favorite cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit, are sometimes present in his accessories.
Atsuro Tayama has deliberately turned his back on the Japanese minimalist movement of the 1980s. “I don’t feel like a Japanese in Paris. I feel more international,” he insists. Goodbye black. Long live color! Tayama offers his woman an impressive panoply of straight and fluid lines that skim the body in lightweight materials that move easily. After graduating from Japan’s prestigious Bunka fashion college, Tayama worked as an assistant to Yohji Yamamoto in 1974 and four years later was appointed director at Yohji Europe in Paris. In 1982 he launched his own company, which today has annual sales of over 1.5 billion yen (about $25 million). “Ten years ago, many designers started out as assistants to designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake. I was at Yohji’s, Zucca at Issey’s,” Tayama points out. “There is a real difference in what we are doing today. Though we are creative, we are not so concerned about being artists. Our designs are closer to the people on the street. They are simpler and not nearly as expensive.”