Characterizing as a shock wave the impact of six Japanese fashion designers on the haute-couture ethos of Paris, London and New York in the 1980s and 1990s, Denver Art Museum curator Florence Müller assembled seventy garments to relate a story of confrontation and cultural synergy centered largely on the question of where primacy lay in the relationship between body and clothing.
The gallery space, divided into four thematic sections devoted to designs by Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Kansai Yamamoto, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Junya Watanabe interspersed with Western counter-examples, was not particularly suggestive of revolt or even agitation. On the contrary, the contemplative environment of subdued illumination and black-plinthed unobtrusiveness created hushed atmospheric interstices that drew together in quiet connection a group of garments that might otherwise have been fractious. Intentional or not, the effect was a reminder that revolutions are recognized as such because their consequences have been significant enough to have overturned one order of things and established in its stead another that becomes equally pervasive, unified and familiar.
After passing through a vestibule—beyond which a projected video of fashion in motion emphasized that garments on museum display do not fully engage their potential as wearable art—the viewer encountered the first section of the exhibition: East Meets West. Here, against a backdrop of panels inspired by Japanese folding screens, three vibrant pictorial shirts by Kansai Yamamoto asserted the designer’s interest in aesthetic similarities between the Ukiyo-e tradition of woodblock prints and the graphic inspiration of such Pop artists as Andy Warhol. More important for the exhibition as a whole, they emphasized through their display—not on mannequins but rather as planes spread flat with sleeves extended—a fundamental difference between the custom-tailored designs of haute couture and traditional Japanese clothing, above all the rectangular, flat-stitched kimono. As Issey Miyake states in an exhibition-catalog quote: “Western clothes are cut and shaped with the body as the starting point; Japanese clothes start with the fabric.”
That this simple difference could become the seismic epicenter of an upheaval in Western high fashion was stressed by the next part of the exhibition. Titled Deconstruction/Reconstruction, this section provided examples of an haute-couture status quo, including a body-contoured velvet jersey jumpsuit from French designer Thierry Mugler’s Autumn/Winter 1979-1980 collection. In the Western context this epitome of tailoring to the female body, particularly the lower torso and legs, could be said to mark the culmination of a revolt against the prudish female attire of a century earlier. Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe responded to this close-cut aesthetic with designs that, as Müller relates, “seemed to eschew any notion of overt seduction or femininity.” Under the name Comme des Garçons (Like Boys), Kawakubo designed baggy coats and tunic dresses that disregarded the structure of the body. Her 1997 gingham jacket and skirt, derisively nicknamed “Quasimodo” and the “bump dress” for the pillows sewn into its lining, was iconic. Nearby, a tweed send-up of Coco Chanel from his Autumn/Winter 2003-2004 collection, Ensemble: Trench Coat and Skirt, seemed to deliberately revive an Edwardian decorum of the female form.
While haute-couture sensibilities may have been irked by this lumpy, loose-sack aesthetic, the greatest affront from the Japanese designers came not in design but rather in material. In some cases fabrics were intentionally distressed to the point that critics, in reference to an atomic blast, dubbed Kawakubo’s creations “Hiroshima chic” and described her practice, in a postmodern vulgarization of the term, as deconstruction. Ostensibly moth-eaten sweaters, frayed and faded pseudo-military-surplus jackets, and linen apparel, such as Ensemble: Tunic and Skirt from the early 1980s, that seemed salvaged from ascetic monasteries, the garments were composed of fabric soaked in diverse shades of dye then washed repeatedly or exposed to weeks of sunlight.
When clothing becomes more about effect, particularly conceptual impact, than utility, the term wearable art begins to seem appropriate, even essential. The third section of “Shock Wave,” titled Art and Fashion in Dialogue, explored the forays of Kawakubo and Miyake into the postmodern art world of New York in the 1980s and early 1990s. Untitled #299 from 1994, a Cindy Sherman self-portrait chromogenic print in which the artist slouches in Comme-des-Garçons attire holding a phallically positioned cigarette in a gingham-gloved hand; a 1982 ArtForum cover on which a model appears wearing Miyake’s rattan and bamboo woven bodice (also on display); and a red Miyake molded-plastic bustier, simultaneously suggestive of futuristic female-superhero garb and traditional negoro lacquerware, that appeared in a 1982 Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, attested to the consonance of Japanese experimental fashion design with the eclectic irreverence of late twentieth century art.
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The shock value of Japanese high-fashion design in the 1980s and 1990s was evidenced in the final section of the exhibition, West Meets East, both through the influence evident in the work of such young European designers of the time as Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang and in the tamed and diluted feeling of that influence. A shock, after all, is localized and momentary though its effects can spread and linger—even revolutionize an entire field of practice.
“Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design 1980s-1990s” showed at the Denver Art Museum from September 11, 2016 through May 28, 2017.
Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, was struck by conceptual similarities between some designs in the Denver Art Museum’s “Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-1990s” exhibition and a recent piece by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin, who freely explore possibilities beyond mainstream Native American art. “Innovations are by definition always different,” he observes, “but innovation in the abstract is a consistent force. Why wouldn’t free experimentation beyond mainstream Native American jewelry and fashion and Japanese designers’ radical rethinking of haute couture in the 1980s and 1990s feel kindred in a general creative sense?” Brown is currently working on another article for Ornament, a feature on jeweler Robin Waynee.