Fashion Backward

Looking back at the fashions of the 1980s typically results in a shudder, a sigh and a hope that the worst of it won't cycle back into current trends. Of course most of it has come and gone already, and will most likely be back again, but there is a certain piece of this decade that was so entirely radical, innovative and fashion forward that it seems to transcend the trends that are identified with the era, existing timelessly in a class all its own. So let's all take a moment and pay homage to the Japanese and their avant gardism. Spandex. Power shoulders. Neon. These are the images that come rushing back when you take a moment to consider the 1980s. But, as is true with everything in life, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And the response to the body conscious, designer label dominated, vapid mess of bright colors that plagued the decade was something that revolutionized fashion -- and went far beyond 1989. Japanese Avant Gardism had a decisively explosive impact on the fashion world as a whole. It was intellectual, highly deconstructed and featured shapes that enveloped the wearer, obscuring both form and gender. It was a counterpoint to the aspirational look preferred by bleach blond hard bodies, it refused vapidity and was the product of new faces from a relatively new land. Japanese designers were around in the 1970s, but created fashions in an entirely different manner. Their work was "Frenchified" if you will and explored Japanese culture and style through a Westernized lens. [caption id="attachment_7050" align="aligncenter" width="516" caption="Hanae Mori - the only Japanese designer with an official Parisian Haute Couture house"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7044" align="aligncenter" width="510" caption="Kenzo runway"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7045" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Kenzo 1983 ad campaign featuring Iman"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7046" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Kenzo Takada in his first KENZO shop in Paris"][/caption] The Japonism (a French term that describes the influence of Japan on the West) of the '70s is best defined by the work of Kenzo Takada -- a designer who moved from Japan to Paris early in his career, before he really even began producing clothing, in order to work his way into the rigid social system of French fashion. His work took on elements of Japanese culture from the outside looking in and, though highly acclaimed, it remained close enough to the Western status quo as to not cause any sort of crazed response. Issey Miyake was also on the scene at the time and resided much further on the avant garde end of the spectrum than Kenzo's more commercial friendly wears. Miyake approached design as conceptual art, often working with artists, poets, illustrators and photographers to further explore where clothing could go and what it could do -- calling this an essential part of his work. Frequently his innovative and experimental looks were more suited for an installation than a runway -- however this is not to say that he entirely ignored practicality and modernism. Japanese fashion places emphasis on a meticulous attention to detail, with the ultimate goal of creating the perfect simple pieces which exist outside the bounds of trend. Both Kenzo and Miyake utilized flat construction and drapery -- and both placed importance on leaving excessive space (also called "ma") between the body and the fabric. The two designers pioneered this oversize aesthetic; the layered, rough edge looks they created were free from the guidance of seams or darts. Kenzo is credited with bringing this part of Japanese style to the global stage; he was a major trendsetter for young fashion especially since he went out of his way to incorporate aspects of French//Western culture into his work, a move that made his clothing much more appealing to the global market. He mixed bold patterns with bright colors while still retaining the XL look. Miyake on the other hand was much more experimental and along the way discovered the secret to many a perfect basic -- he in fact designed and produced Steve Job's signature black turtle neck. Miyake is considered the founding father of avant garde and used opulent materials to create forms that flowed away from the body. His use of clashing colors, twisted synthetics and bouncing pleats are cornerstones of his identity as a designer and he is particularly renowned for his work with technologically driven textiles. The work of Kenzo and Miyake set the standard for clothing in the '70s -- oversized, free flowing and lots and lots of layers. [caption id="attachment_7048" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Issey Miyake"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7062" align="aligncenter" width="750" caption="Issey Miyake"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7051" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Issey Miyake"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7049" align="aligncenter" width="450" caption="Issey Miyake"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7060" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Issey Miyake APOC (A Piece of Cloth) series"][/caption] Now we must further set the stage for revolution. You understand the context of Japanese designers in the French arena -- relatively new, both in terms of arrival and ideas, and perfectly okay with operating inside the existing rules of fashion, both on a global scale and in Paris in particular. What the 1980's brings about is a revision of the Japonism of the decade past: Neo-Japonism. This time instead of Japan through a Western lens, Japanese designers explored their own unfiltered statement about the West, no lens needed. They incorporated traditional elements of both Japanese clothing//style as well as materials and construction (even origami got to join the party!) A major part of Japanese fashion is textile innovation. Japanese designers almost always either create their own fabric or employ a specialist to do so for them. The country has century old traditions of weaving, dying and fabric manipulation that allow for much easier experimentation and access to higher quality or more technologically advanced materials than designers from other countries. Japan is in fact a world leader in technologically advanced textiles -- so you can only imagine the quality and feel of having one of these oversize garments envelope your body, swallowing you into a sea of luxe fabric. Sign me up. Additionally, the Japanese had the advantage of an entirely different viewpoint from that of the West. At the time, there wasn't a strong Asian invasion in the global marketplace of French fashion. Westerners had yet to be introduced to the design elements that their neighbors to the East had up their sleeves. [caption id="attachment_7053" align="alignleft" width="333" caption="Palette for Japanese fashion"][/caption]Japanese style, in strong contrast to the West, places no emphasis on "becomingness." With no focus on enhancing the body, the clothes are free from the restrictions of the human form. In terms of color, it's best described by Japanese author Jun'ichiro Tanizaki who explains that shadows are the core aesthetic -- he writes, "On all kinds of craft objects for everyday use we also love colours, which one could refer to as the accumulation of shadows; people in the West, by contrast, love colours in which sunlight concentrates." Think Chinese ink paintings of varied shades of black and grey. So thus far we've got Kenzo and Miyake's "ma," the emphasized shape between the body and material, a history of allowing clothing to be free from guidance or restriction (form, seams, darts, etc.) and a color palette of primarily black. A far cry from the skintight neon mess that dominated the '80s we think of, no? We're finally here, it's revolution time. Meet our commanding officers: Yohji Yamamoto, master tailor and "fashion genius," and Rei Kawakubo, the mastermind behind Comme des Garcons. Their combined work caused a Parisian frenzy -- and even went so far as to bring about accusations that they were attempting to not only abolish the traditional definition of fashion, but to demolish fashion itself. Let me repeat that, they were accused of trying to defeat fashion...with more fashion. People were scared. They were intimidated. What was this oversize, ripped up, hole filled, black asymmetrical mess stomping down their holy runways -- and in flats nonetheless?! Some critics (the brave ones) called it a revolution. The others sat in a fog of amazement and shock, entirely confused by what they had seen. Were the hems really unfinished? They actually put rags in the models' hair? Why were their lower lips black and bruised? What EXACTLY was going on here? In 1984 GQ Magazine offered this summation, "Japanese fashion is different. These are clothes that conform to no fashion standards. They seek to abolish form. They hang loosely on the body in oversized, unusual silhouettes. The colours are almost always monochromatic or black." ("...isms: Understanding Fashion" by Mairi Mackenzie.) Other critics struggled to define the look or motivation behind it. Was it political -- "Hiroshima Chic?" Was it social -- "Beggar" "Rag Picker Chic" "Bag Lady Style?" Paris had never seen this level of subversion on their catwalks and the impact was unquestionable. Rei Kawakubo is known for the challenges she poses to normative Western definitions of beauty. She goes out of her way to deform the natural shape of the human body, and her fashions work toward an entirely different goal -- ignoring the protocol of enhance-flatter-perfection -- to instead work with clothing as art, a wearable free form piece. Yohji Yamamoto also raised questions about the beauty idolized by the West. His colorless, torn and entirely enveloping looks couldn't have been created by someone frequently referred to as a "fashion genius" or a "master tailor," could they? Did people really like this? Julie Gilhart, Barneys fashion director, comments, "[Yohji is] probably the only designer you could name who has 60-year-olds who think he's incredible and 17-year-olds who think he's way cool." These two designers -- who actually dated at one point (!!) -- managed to create the Anti-Fashion. An austere, deconstructed, unfinished look that broke all the rules. They destroyed previous definition. Their work went beyond fashion into the world of art -- and their connections within the art industry served to in fact increase the status level of fashion designers, turning them into the gods we know them as today. And despite being accused of attempting to tear down the structure of fashion itself in Paris, they in fact reinforced France as the great legitimizer. They knew that the Paris runways were where they had to go in order to enter the global marketplace. And by doing so they gained social, economic and symbolic capital which put them ahead of all those who went a different route. So at least the power fashion in Paris stayed safe. Phew. [caption id="attachment_7056" align="aligncenter" width="720" caption="Yohji Yamamoto AW87"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7057" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Yohji Yamamoto AW83"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7058" align="aligncenter" width="373" caption="Yojhi Yamamoto"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7059" align="aligncenter" width="403" caption="Yohji Yamamoto"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7065" align="aligncenter" width="860" caption="Yohji Yamamoto"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7061" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Yohji did all of Ziggy Stardust's concert looks!"][/caption] But we're still left with the question of what does it all mean? All of this defiance and deformity that transcended Western rationalism, ignored shape and broke symmetry -- it was a bold suggestion for the future. It aimed to abolish all borders -- gender, body, culture, society, tradition -- and proposed instead one type of clothing. They created a look that "went beyond the polarity of West vs East," something that went against the very idea of national dress itself, and suggested something that stood outside the very framework of the system known as fashion. They weren't coming in as Japanese designers, they were global designers -- incorporating elements of both Eastern and Western tradition, pieces of varied subcultures and different subversions. With the result being a globalized look that was free of the restrictions of the body, that introduced the language of deconstruction to the world, and that "vigorously transformed clothing into art." It was a sensational controversy that suddenly allowed for a gold rush of new possibility. The deconstructed, sexless look of Japanese Avant Gardism, filled with sculptural abstractions and innovative textiles, shook the West to its very ideological core -- but I guarantee that even the most outraged and appalled of critics still clamored to gain entry to the shows, and sat in the audience, rapt. [caption id="attachment_7066" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7067" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7068" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7069" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons AW83"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7070" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons: Lumps & Bumps"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7071" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Comme des Garcons 82"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7073" align="aligncenter" width="354" caption="Jean Michael Basquiat on the CdG runway"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7074" align="aligncenter" width="432" caption="CdG 1982"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7075" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="CdG shapes"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7076" align="aligncenter" width="463" caption="CdG 1983"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7077" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="CdG 1987 ad"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_7078" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="CdG FW09 extreme"][/caption]