Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion

If this writer had to single out fashion exhibitions in Australia that have left an indelible imprint, they are without doubt, Jean Paul Gaultier’s current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, along with Stephen Jones’ exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, held in 2010. Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, which opened on Sunday 1 November 2014, forms the ‘triptych’ to these memorable events, something that will linger for many years in my consciousness for at least the next 30 years.

To fully understand the unique position Japanese fashion holds in western version of the art form, the exhibition opens with time lines, not only for Japanese fashion, but also with consecutive milestones in European fashion. Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s inaugural collections, shown in Paris in 1982 are as legendary as Issey Miyake’s launch of Pleats Please in 1993. However, to fully appreciate the divergence of these legendary designers, included in the time lines are references to Yves Saint Laurent’s collections of the mid-1980s, together with Claude Montana’s powerful silhouettes of the same time, think Grace Jones. So when these Japanese designers presented in Paris for the first time, the audience was divided between sheer enlightenment, or as was quoted in the press, the ‘return of Pearl Harbour’.

According to the highly esteemed Akiko Fukai, Director and Chief Curator of Kyoto Costume institute, Japan, who curated this travelling exhibition, 1982 was a ‘watershed’ moment in global fashion. “Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto broke through the walls of European fashion, and the reaction was divided. If their collections weren’t so radical, there wouldn’t have been so much attention,” says Fukai, who along with other forward fashion thinkers at the time, ditched their twinsets and pearls and embarked on the freedom of dressing the Japanese way. “It was at that point I thought that I didn’t have to wear my Chanel anymore. I could now express myself and my culture”.

This explosive fashion moment is beautifully captured in film in the exhibition. I remained seated in front of the models as they proudly announced defiance and heralded in this completely new look. Urchin-like with tasseled hair, the models wore voluminous coats, dresses, and baggy trousers, with frayed edges. Wow was my reaction then, as a young man, just entering the fashion world, and wow decades later. Has anything else come close to fashion perfection?

While the 1982 explosion changed the face of fashion worldwide, the following years and decades continue to show why Japanese fashion reins supreme. As well as showcasing the work of legendary designers Kawakubo, Yamamoto and Miyake, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, displays the designs of both established and younger designers: Junya Watanabe (Comme des Garçons) and Tao Kurihara (Tao Comme des Garçons), Jun Takahashi (Undercover), Koji Tatsuno, together with Hokuto Katsui and Nao Yagi of Mint Designs. “There are a number of similarities between the established and younger generation of designers. There’s the fundamental approach to textiles and structure. They also recognise the role of the kimono in Japanese fashion,” says Fukai, whose task of selecting garments for this exhibition must have been unenviable given the breadth of contemporary Japanese fashion.

Chris Saines, Director of GOMA, was also delighted the exhibition fused traditional with pop culture, combining the social and cultural phenomena unique to Japan. “You also have to smile that ‘Japanese Cool’ (the title given to the street style looks in the exhibition) is here in sweltering Brisbane,” says Saines, who presented the opening address on the Japanese Cool designed stage, with bold graphics, adorned with Hello Kitty and plastic flowers.

While a group of Lolita’s welcomed people into the exhibition, it was the sheer brilliance and masterful work of the designers on display that resonates. The show opens ‘In Praise of Shadows’, including Yamamoto’s 50s inspired black silk taffeta gown designed in the Spring/Summer of 1999. Consisting of four separate dresses, each petal was removed by the model when unveiled for the first time on the catwalk. Together the exaggerated bust line resembles a flower in full bloom. Kawakubo’s oversized black woolen jumper, worn with a slim knitted skirt from 1983, also gave credence to a new silhouette, as well as signaling the new age of comfort. But it was the shredding of garments at the time, exemplified by Yamamoto’s white cotton ensembles from Spring/Summer 1983/84 that either excited or repelled both the fashion media and more importantly the wider public. Joe Saba, who introduced this collection to Australia, sold the entire season’s order in less than three weeks. Competitors, who may initially have raised eyebrows when seeing ‘shredded’ clothes in his store windows, would have been envious of not sharing the foresight.

However, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion goes well beyond this fashion moment. There’s Kawakubo’s black wool jersey dress from the same period, showing not only a unique form when worn on a mannequin, but also beautifully captured in a photograph, and transformed into fine abstract Japanese art. As memorable are Kawakubo’s ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ for her Spring/Summer 1997 collection, with ‘bumps’ challenging the traditional hour-glass silhouette of western beauty. Watanabe for Comme des Garçons’ ensemble, featuring a long floral dress worn with an umbrella attached to a hat, also shows not only the inventiveness of the Japanese, but also the unexpected, delivered season after season. Miyake’s work also demonstrates the advancements made in Japanese textiles, both with his masterful pleated creations, as well as in his A-Poc knitted collection, a revolutionary technique that was to transform knitwear. And for sheer bravado, there’s Takahashi’s (Undercover) collection from Autumn/Winter 2001. On this occasion models took on a camouflage effect, with their makeup created in the same pattern as the fabric, including plaid, spots and even tapestry.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion clearly shows not only the impact of Japanese fashion since 1982 on the entire world, but also the highly sophisticated approach by key and younger designers since that time. And while ‘Cool Japan’ showcases the street style of today’s youth, the Lolita, Roccoco style, complete with Hello Kitty accessories and bows, seems at odds with the mood of liberation of the early 1980s. Although integral to today’s Japanese culture, with grown women wanting to appear like girls, the result for many people is somewhat disturbing. And although this writer would have been pleased to draw a curtain across this section of the exhibition, it exemplifies the broader culture that is Japan today.

Future Beauty – 30 years of Japanese fashion is open at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, until Sunday 15 February 2015.

Words by: Stephen Crafti.


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