Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion is a touring exhibition from Japan’s Kyoto Fashion Institute (KFI) that surveys trends in Japanese fashion over the past three decades. While Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake first demanded attention in the 1970s, it was the appearance of avant-garde designs by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo at the 1981 Paris fashion shows that truly captivated the West. In addition to focussing attention on four main creative themes, Future Beauty also explores the work of six individual designers in detail – namely Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe (for Comme des Garçons), Jun Takahashi (for Undercover) and Hokuto Katsui and Nao Yagi (for mintdesigns).
On entering the Gallery it’s immediately apparent QAGOMA’s talented production and design team have spent time with KFI curator Akiko Fukai creating a visionary space for this show. Sheer white curtains falling from the ceiling conjure an elegant setting for the parade of monochrome-clad mannequins displayed for In Praise of Shadows, the exhibition’s first section. The theme’s title is borrowed from a 1933 essay by Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki, where the writer stylishly juxtaposes the differing concerns of the West with those of the Japanese. Tanizaki highlights the Japanese ability to find subtleties in the contrast between dark and light and to appreciate darkness. The mainly black and white minimalist fashion on display here is stunningly contemporary in appearance, in spite of being thirty years old.
Fashion, by definition, moves with terrific speed. A video reminder of the early Paris shows is projected on the gallery wall as an example of why this period became known as ‘Japan Shock’. During this time the culturally aware interpretation of the Japanese is most noticeable. Japanese designers departed radically from the traditional curves, darts and body-sculpted garments of the West. Their designs, which were less concerned with gender and licensed by the volume of space found in the kimono – coupled with other traditional Japanese pursuits like origami – moved toward a strong emphasis on shape.
This bold aesthetic is emphasised in the second theme entitled Flatness. Mounted alongside frames containing photographs or prints of the same garments in their two-dimensional state, the curatorial team have convincingly managed to marry the concepts of fashion and art. While it would be tempting to compare these works with Western concepts of modernist abstraction, after reading Tanizaki’s essay, that idea seems less appropriate.
It’s easy to become distracted by numerous appealing ensembles but the sure hit of the Tradition and Innovation section would have to be the gorgeous bronze curls of Koji Tatsuno’s nylon net dress from his 1993-94 collections. Unlike those of the previous sections, this is not your everyday outfit – although it did make an appearance in the 1996 Peter Greenaway film, The Pillow Book. The clothes displayed here emphasise the collaboration between Japanese designers and textile manufacturers (of which Miyake was a pioneer). Kosuke Tsumura’s Final Home is a brilliant example of fashion meeting function. Imagine a white transparent nylon hoodie covered in pockets stuffed with crumpled magazines and newspapers. Tsumura’s garment is sold with instructions on adding a cushion for comfort at sports event or a pillow for emergencies.
When Western audiences think of Japanese fashion, popular internet images of hip youth subcultures from the Harajuku area of Tokyo often come to mind. Before the individual designers take the spotlight, the final theme of the show, Cool Japan, explores several of the youth zoku (tribal) groups in detail. Borrowing from a multitude of national and global influences that range from Japanese comic heroes to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, this colourful array of cute and crazy is shown in a dark street-style setting.
I’ve so far avoided that interminable wrangle about whether fashion is art. Future Beauty demonstrates that over three decades, Japanese designers created new styles that not only challenged ideas about fashion but the nature of beauty itself. While there are no definitive answers to the ongoing art/fashion debate, as Virgina Woolf once said, though clothes may seem “vain trifles”, they “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” In the guise of fashion, that’s what these designers achieved.
Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, daily 10am-5pm until 15 February 2015; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Stanley Place, Southbank QLD; (07) 3840 7303, qagoma.qld.gov.au