How Japanese Avant-garde Designers changed Fashion [1]


Comme des Garçons, photographed by Steven Klein for V Magazine, 2015 –

Hello and welcome back to Nippaku! After taking some time off from blogging, I am ready to explore a new aspect of Japanese life through reading and writing. Today we will be discussing fashion, one of my favorite topics since it illustrates very well how the social, cultural and political context literally shape trends in dressing throughout history. This is a two-part post, stay tuned for the next part!

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.

Avant-garde Fashion

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:

  • rei kawakubo 1982 sweaterFrom 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.

Issey Miyake

issey miyake portraitMiyake 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.

pleats please

Pleats Please Fall/Winter 2013 – photo: Julia Noni

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?

issey miyake bao bao bag

Bao Bao Bag –

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.

In the next part, we’ll take a look at the work and life of designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.


Nejishiki: Avant-Garde Manga

nejishiki20131215_002426As I pointed out before in my post about manga in Dutch, manga isn’t exclusively for little kids. Grown-ups can enjoy illustrated stories too (and not just porn). Representative for the avant-garde manga style are Tsuge Yoshiharu‘s works. He has written and drawn some extraordinary manga for people who like to think while reading. You better think about Tsuge’s short stories for example, in order to grasp the meaning hidden behind seemingly non-related drawings, absurd dialogues and symbolic backgrounds. Tsuge’s most famous work is “Nejishiki” ねじ式, or “Screw-Style” in English (sometimes translated as “Screwed”). Because there has been at least 9 movie and television adaptations, a computer game and several parodies, “Nejishiki” is pretty famous among the Japanese people. Even young people know Tsuge’s name.

The original drawing, a movie adaption (1988) and a parody drawing found on Tumblr.

What is “Nejishiki” about? The protagonist, a young man, is bitten by a jellyfish in the arm and an artery is cut in half.  When he enters the village to search for help, he is told that there is no doctor. He meets a whole range of strange characters on his journey. Finally, during a quite sexual operation, a female gynecologist installs a screw in his arm that connects the two loose ends of the artery. He leaves the village on a motorboat. [Scanlation with English translation]


nejishiki20131215_002410The inspiration for “Nejishiki” Tsuge found in a dream he had on the rooftop of his temporary accommodation, a ramen shop. The dream comic, as a sub genre of the I-comic (watakushi manga), was born.

“Nejishiki” is an absurd, nonsensical story. It is dark, chaotic and reflects a war-time Japan. There are many allusions to the war, like battleships and destroyed buildings. It has however, a strong composition. Revolving around the hallucinating quest of finding a doctor, the main character experiences an odyssey through the obscure landscape of a small fishing-village. Allusions to other art works, like the photograph of an ainu man, and references to realistic places can be observed.


The drawing of Tsuge is identical to the man in the photo of Kimura Ihei.

Remarkable as well about this manga is the fast development of the story. Every panel is different. The facial expression of the main character quickly changes, going from despair to resignation on the same page. The same goes for Tsuge’s drawing and inking style. Moreover, the accurate and realistic drawing of the female body was without precedent until then, and evoked a lot of criticism.

Of  course, there is no unambiguous interpretation of “Nejishiki”. Symbolic images hint of rural poverty, alienation of the Japanese youth, WWII and the Pacific War and the industrialization. Since its appearance in the famous magazine Garo, “Nejishiki” has fascinated and still fascinates many people, just because of the multiple interpretations.


nejishiki20121107002841On the Japanese Yahoo, someone posted the question: “I don’t understand why Tsuge Yoshiharu’s “Nejishiki” is valued like that. If it because my life experience is superficial?” (つげ義春のねじ式がなぜ評価されるのかわかりません。 僕の人生経験が浅いためか、…) One of the answers explained it this way. 1968, the year “Nejishiki” was published, was a revolutionary year: the first moon landing, student rebellion, the growing belief in Nostradamus’ apocalypse prediction, the Vietnam War… There was the fear for a third world war, in which the world would be destroyed by nuclear weapons. The moon landing and student revolutions stimulated the belief in “a new era”. In the midst of this growing agitation, the Japanese youth sipped coffee in jazz cafes while discussing philosophical works or politics. When “Nejishiki” was published, it was so different from the manga before, that is was promoted as a product of this “new era”, and enthusiastically welcomed by student movements.

The absurdity of “Nejishiki” was seen as a way to evade reality. It was in the first place, more than ideological, artistic or literary, an expression of the psychology, and therefore strongly valued among the Japanese youth. The story of “Nejishiki” is in fact empty. Readers have to fill it with their own interpretations. These led to controversies and discussions, held in the same jazz cafes where eager college students gathered. In this way, “Nejishiki” was spread quickly in the manga circuit. It became a part of youth culture, was supported by student movements and was ultimately used as a cult symbol in the struggle of the established society.

Facts for Fun

– Since the 1980s, the Belgian avant-garde comics scene especially revolved around Franco-Belgian comic artists and was even representative for the genre in Europe. Bart Beaty compares the French and Belgian market to Hollywood, as most publishers are located there (Glénat, Dupuis, Dargaud, Casterman, Delcourt, Soleil and Humanoïds Associés), turn out commercial successes and win awards.



The Walrus Blog

–  Tsuge Yoshiharu reviews

–  Beaty, Bart. Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s. University of Toronto Press, 2007. [link Google Books]

– photos taken from つげ義春. ねじ式, 1995.

Tokyo Street Fashion and Belgian Designers

Tokyo is famous for it’s fashion subcultures. Especially in the Harajuku 原宿 district, you can find Japanese youth sporting styles like gothic lolita (gosuroriゴスロリ), decora デコラ, cosplay コスプレ, visual kei, gyaru ギャル, punk and hiphop (although I heard the Harajuku heydays are over by now). But if we talk about street fashion, we must not forget the individual stylish ones, whose creativity lies in combining fashion items or sewing clothes themselves. A lot of fashion street snaps can be found on the internet (see under references).

I check Style Arena weekly, and was surprised that Belgian designers were sometimes worn or mentioned as “favorite brand/designer”. (By the way, the fact that people actually wear expensive brands as “street wear” was surprising too.) I have to admit that I’m quite proud of our Belgian fashion industry. Take for example “the Antwerp Six“, a group of influential avant-garde fashion designers who graduated in the ’80 from the Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

So, I gathered some pictures from Style Arena to compare. Most of the time, one or more items worn are from Belgian designers.

fashion1fashion2fashion3fashion4fashion5What does these styles have in common? 1. Almost all are worn by men. 2. The colors black, white and grey are popular. 3. Often combined with Japanese fashion items like Comme des Garçons. 4. Loose clothes, except for the tailored jackets. 5. plain fabrics, not patterned. The most popular Belgian designers are Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten and Raf Simons. Following photos are from their summer collections (in the same order as mentioned).

maison martin margiela

ann demeulemeester womenann demeulemeester mendries van notenraf simonsI think you can sense a resemblance with “the Japanese spirit”. No frills, pure looks with solid fabrics and simple colors. I would like to call it “minimalism”. According to my basic guide to fashion, “deconstructivism” is a term that covers most of Belgian fashion, while  Hanae MoriIssey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Rei Kawakubo, Yōji Yamamoto and the like are known as “Japanese avant-garde”. Fashion and power-blogsite says:

Issey Miyake (considered the founding father of avant-garde fashion), Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto, known as “The Big Three,” brought in a new style that Europe hadn’t seen before. The style was characterized by monochromatic, asymmetrical, and baggy looks that set the stage for the beginning of postmodern interpretation of “clothes that break the boundary between the West and the East, fashion and anti-fashion, and modern and anti-modern.”

Both movements were a reaction against the tasteless, lewd glitter and glamour of the ’80. However, if I take a look at the current collections of Japanese designers, they feature extremely bright looks. In my opinion, Belgian and Japanese influenced and were influenced by each other since the eighties. Japanese people today who sport an avant-garde style, naturally tend to take a liking to Belgian fashion, because there are so much similarities. To go back to the street fashion pictures: I think this style looks classy, timeless and sophisticated. Both men and women dress cool, because of the androgynous look. So, mixing up Japanese and Belgian brands seems to be a good idea. If I only got the money…


– Street Fashion Blogs Japan: Japanese streets, Style Arena, Tokyo Faces, Japanese Street Report, Tokyo Fashion, Drop Tokyo.

– Street fashion pictures are taken from Style Arena and edited.

– Other photos are taken from the official designer’s sites.