Japanese Avant-Garde: An essay

Progression exists in many forms but little doubt remains that we hope it entails advancement for the greater good. It can be an overnight metamorphosis or a gradual transition but it’s not often that this type of change encompasses both. Japanese Avant-Garde: a cultural power that you may or may not be familiar with historically, has achieved just this. An enigmatic fashion power in Europe since 1965, it’s a movement from which the subject of alter egos, multiple selves and self creation arises.

Since the very year that Kenzo Takada landed in Paris, it has become prevalent that the Japanese share an identity that extends far beyond their ethnicity, and a purity of principle has long enveloped the thinkers and doers of this pioneering country. As described by Amy de la Haye, a Reader in Material Culture and Fashion Curation at the London College of Fashion who contributed a significant chapter in Claire Wilcox` book Radical Fashion, “As first post-war generation Japanese they grew up within a society that simultaneously embraced western popular culture, while preserving native customs. The tension between these dual identities is explored in fashion collections that reveal hybrid east-west influences.”

Abating our fashion metabolism, ‘Avant-Garde’ came to represent the bridging paradigms of fashion and art as they continued to defy any sensibility of lifestyle or environment. The likes of Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanbe remain to this day as true visionaries on this global fashion stage. “Japanese Avant-Garde challenges convention and pushes the idea of what fashion, beauty and identity is and can be. Work that is shaped by and the result of a creative act as opposed to slavish trend” explains Catherine Ince, curator of the exhibition Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Barbican. It was also the first exhibition in Europe to chart this prominent period in design history in such detail.

Described by de la Haye as ‘Ardent Internationalists’, “In the 1980s, an era of conspicuous consumption and overt power dressing, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto – most notably – presented a new fashion and beauty aesthetic that did not rely on accentuating the contours of feminine beauty or conventionally luxurious materials and craft techniques- such as beading and embroidery. Instead, they investigated and suggested alternatives which included highlighting ‘rougher’ artisanal fabrics that looked aged or damaged; they highlighted the void between the garment and the body, that loose clothing could be sensuous and that women did not need to paint their faces with traditional cosmetics and wear western interpretations of ‘sexy’ clothes, that they had the option to celebrate their minds via their choice of clothing, rather than their bodies.”

A rare collective whose work was also almost entirely devoid of sexuality, it represented a merge of Eastern-Western, gender identities that yielded a re-birth. Often unisex in appearance, it was Yamamoto’s prudish approach to design that was a volte-face retaliation in the midst of Western sexual clichés and their reliance upon it to sell their work. Embracing the modest diffusion of traditional Japanese culture, Kawakubo is particularly noted for her austere inflections of self-taught fabric drape and treatment. Revelling in a breakdown of formal dress making, the multi-purpose, multi-way clothes of both Yamamoto and Kawakubo objectively addressed irregular tailoring but a respect for customary function. Misplaced collars, sleeves and fastenings, exposed finishing techniques and inside out construction was hailed as a new, radical undertaking and the subsequent emancipation of multiple selves.

Attributing the British, de la Haye cites as “the most receptive to this new aesthetic…already steeped in a cultural predilection for loose and comfortable, textiles-led ‘artistic’ dress, tempered by the nihilism of punk.” It was in stark, methodical contrast that their cross-fertilisation of fashion-art exercised a level of intellectual discernment and discipline. “They provided a different form of fashion elitism- for those who subscribed to these philosophies, had the confidence to wear clothes that were considered shocking and radical as well as the money to pay for them. In so doing, whilst presenting their collections in Paris, they provided a new fashion identity and this was inextricably entwined with their ‘Japaneseness’.”

The refusal of these self-effacing, artistic powers that be to bow to fads and trends has fuelled their steadfast following and, regardless of the difficulties encountered to make Tokyo an international fashion city capable of competing with the likes of New York and Milan, their deviation from Western influence has provided them with the creative platform to achieve incredible things. This freedom, Ince attributes to “A desire to be true to their creativity and ideas, a refusal to follow trends and the ability to define different concepts of beauty.”

To this day, a dense sub-culture continues to influence the socio-cultural equilibrium that spans Western-Eastern identities. One observer of this delicate balance is Yasu Takehisa, a stylist of Japanese origin who explains “Manga has a lot of influence upon my life. Tokyo has many amusements and entertainment to help people escape from the stresses of the city and these very often inspire me also.” Takehisa predicts the future of his native country to enter an ever heightened sphere of fast fashion that shall incorporate advanced textile technology. Advancement being the common denominator in all that they conceive and create, what they do, we follow with baited breath and it’s the accountable motive for our ongoing curiosity with this intriguing design legacy.