The twenty-first century fashion scene is unimaginable without the influence of Japanese avant-garde designers. Three names that come immediately to my mind are Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. Their aesthetic resonates with minimalism, simplicity, non-conventionalism and deconstructivism, and each designer will be introduced below. The reason why this is truly a Nippaku article, is because Belgian designers such as Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries van Noten were highly influenced by these Japanese avant-gardists. But first, let’s have a look at what avant-garde fashion means.
The term avant-garde is most often used to describe the artistic genres of music, literature, film and dance, and can easily be extended to fashion as well. Avant-garde challenges established notions of art and society as a whole. In fashion, avant-garde translates to a rejection of mainstream beauty conventions such as displayed in haute couture while taking an innovative approach in design and material use. Hence, the avant-garde approach is often seen as “anti-fashion”, an artistic movement or a philosophy (or all of these). Recurring but not exclusive themes are clean and simple (to the eye) designs, sober colors such as black, white or earthy tones, biomimicry, minimalism, deconstructivism, challenging beauty standards, technology-driven… It resonates a shift in modernity when art was no longer required to be “beautiful” but rather interesting and thought-provoking. Below are two designs of contemporary avant-garde designers to give you an idea.
Why Japan became a frontrunner in avant-gardist fashion is unknown, but here are some explanations I could think of:
- From the 15th century on, sober and sophisticated, even impoverished aesthetics characterized the cultural life of the nobility as well as the samurai class. Compared to Europe, Japan adopted a “less is more” attitude early on, except that their “less” was still extremely sophisticated in itself (perhaps comparable to Marie Antoinette’s Chemise à la Reine). Fast-forward to Comme des Garçons’ deconstructed sweaters which only the rich can afford: I think you get the picture.
The aesthetics of wabi similarly presupposes a ready access to beautiful and expensive objects; it is an aesthetics born out of wealth and privilege. Powerful and wealthy, the advocates of wabi aesthetics, ranging from shoguns to tea masters, could afford to emulate the impoverished appearance of peasant life by creating rustic tea huts with stark interiors and ordinary, sometimes defective, tea bowls. (…) The japanese penchant for simplicity and insufficiency was thus cultivated as part of an elite aesthetics, first by the aristocracy, then by the warrior class. (Saito in Nguyen, 2017: xxxviii)
- In times of economic growth, luxury is expressed in a contradictory way (in times of scarcity, more fabric and accessories are preferred, for example). From post-oil shock 1973 until the beginning of the 1990s, the Japanese economy boomed. This resulted in an increase in personal consumption, making designer clothing available to all. To differentiate from all of the “mainstream” and frivolous luxury, designers felt the urge to innovate in the opposite direction.
- At the same time, the designers here discussed were born in the 30s and 40s, and had grown up in a destroyed post-war Japan. Deconstructivism is a recurring theme in avant-garde fashion.
- From the moment Japan was forced to open up its borders (mid-19th century), two fashion scenes existed: the Japanese style (和服 wafuku) and the Western style (洋服 yōfuku). The woodblock prints below portray Japanese women wearing Western fashion. If you think the styling is a little off, you’re correct: Western clothes were interpreted in a Japanese way, with flower patterns (similar to mon, Japanese emblems), colorful layering (purple and green for example, was a classic combination for formal kimono attire), bustles that resemble an obi 帯, a kimono sash… Avant-garde was a more succesful attempt to marry western techniques with Japanese elements and philosophy.
The Japanese avant-garde fashion movement was initiated by Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake in the seventies and picked up a few years later by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Special mention goes to Hanae Mori, who was the first Japanese designer to be acknowledged worldwide in the 1960s. Although her conservative ready-to-wear collections did not really scream avant-garde, she paved the way for other Japanese designers to gain fame on the international fashion scene, previously dominated by Western designers. The work of Kansai Yamamoto, whose extravagant creations David Bowie loved to wear, also led to a growing interest in the Far East. The fashion world was ready for something new, and Japanese designers could live up to the expectations.
Miyake Issey [Issei] 三宅 一生 was born in 1938 in Hiroshima. His interest in fashion was triggered when he visited the World Design conference in Tokyo, and noticed that clothing design was not part of it. After graduation, he went to Paris to work for luxury brand Givenchy, among others. But after witnessing the students march in the May revolution of 1968, he realised that they were the kind of people he wanted to make clothes for. After working for Geoffrey Beene in Manhattan, he returned to his home country.
In 1970, Miyake opened his own design studio, already selling pieces in New York’s Bloomingdale the year after that. He entered the Parisian couture world in 1973. Initially, he worked with raw materials such as cotton and wool, and constructed oversized pieces. From the start of his career, he incorporated Japanese elements such as draping and layering into his designs. He drew inspiration from traditional clothing by creating silhouettes and shapes that adapted to the wearer and allowed for movement, in contrast to the form-fitting pieces which required a certain body type and were (and still are) a common sight on the runway.
As he gained interest in innovative techniques, he started using technologies – new and old – to create clothing no one had ever seen before. Miyake has always had an eye for Japanese craftsmanship, in particular weaving and dyeing. Miyake is credited with revolutionizing the permanent pleating of synthetic fabrics through heat treatment. He developed a line PLEATS PLEASE ISSEY MIYAKE that has been running since 1993.
Another Miyake innovation is A-POC (abbreviation for A Piece Of Cloth) in collaboration with Dai Fujiwara in 1999. The idea behind A-POC is that a monochromatic ensemble is made from a single thread. By means of computer technology, an industrial weaving machine produces a tube of fabric, as seen below. The wearer can cut up the tube’s fabric along the seams woven into it, and in true DIY-style, create their own designer pieces. This allowed for adaptability to the body, creativity and individuality of the consumer, despite it being a product for mass consumption. Moreover, since the tube of textile is an ingenious puzzle of separate garments, there is no fabric wasted in the process.
Miyake retired in 1999, leaving the brand in the hands of young, promising designers. Recent designs that are quite ingenious combine origami techniques with 2D vs 3D garments. For example, check out the models wearing the pleated pieces they pull from their flat handbags. Or the origami jackets that are created on the runway (okay, I forgive them for the stapler). And isn’t this just mesmerizing?
Lately, the Miyake brand has gained popularity through the perfumes, Pleats Please collection and Bao bao Bag; the latter you have probably already seen around, but did not know until now that it was designed and launched by Issey Miyake in 2000. The Bao Bao bag is another expression of Miyake’s philosophy: innovative fabric and design given life by technology, with the purpose of creating unique shapes and movements. The latest innovation was introduced in this year’s spring summer collection. “Dough dough” is a sturdy yet malleable fabric you can shape to your own preference. How very Miyake!
Fun Fact: Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks were designed by Miyake. The two were friends.
- B. English, Japanese Fashion Designers: the Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
- A. M. Nguyen, Ed., New essays in Japanese aesthetics. Lanham Boulder New York London: Lexington Books, 2018.
- Issey Miyake official website
- The wonder gallery
- Barbara I Gongini
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- A. G. Nauta Couture
- The Rosenrot