“In Japan, we have a concept of abstraction. We don’t follow the beautiful contour of a woman’s body,” said Akiko Fukai, chief curator and director of the Kyoto Costume Institute, as she took a break from the final installation of Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion.
After all, the Kimono, she pointed out, is an abstract shape. This is the original form that evolved in the hands of Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto when they began to create distinctive contemporary designs three decades ago. Before then, Japanese fashion was merely an imitation of Western design, confined by Western aesthetics, with Japan looking to New York street fashion and pop singers.
Fukai is credited with introducing Japanese fashion concepts to many Westerners, including the idea of straight lines instead of tight-fitting curvy ones, allowing for an energetic space to exist between the body and the clothing. Japanese designs are more simple than Parisian Haute Couture, she points out, and often less expensive.
Another Japanese concept is the reoccurring use of monochrome, which creates a sense of flow. This comes from the traditional Japanese palette, similar to dark ink prints, said Fukai. “We are very accustomed to monotone shade,” she said, “It’s black and white and shadow.”
“Of course, Coco Chanel loved the black dress,” she continued, adding that Chanel accented the little black dress with brightly colored accessories, while the Japanese are comfortable leaving black alone.
Future Beauty, a veritable visual journal of Fukai’s long career in fashion, is the premiere exhibition in PEM’s renovated Dodge Wing, which has been left open and airy, almost resembling a department store.
An area set aside for people to try on clothes similar to those in the exhibition is “a very good idea, like a cool shop,” said Fukai. “This part gives them an idea how the clothes are made.”
Japan’s strong textile industry, with the creation of new textiles and experimentation, will continue to thrive, said Fukai. “It’s not just the designers who make fashion, but the whole production team. It’s important to support the designers. Japan has such a team. I believe Japan will continue to make clothes with creativity.”
The elegant Fukai has a closet full of clothes by the designers featured in the exhibition that has traveled to the Barbican Art Gallery in London, then Munich, Tokyo and most recently to Seattle. But when asked to name her favorite designer of the moment, she admits to loving the Japanese influence on Western style. These days, she is interested in the designs by Chloe. “In my opinion, she’s very affected by Rae Kawakubo,” she said.
She points out a coat in the exhibition, a red and pink wool-felted piece cut in a one-dimensional flat shape. It’s the same design touted by fashion photographer Bill Cunningham in the New York Times in early 2013 as a walking piece of art. The coat is “playful, funny and like a Matisse painting,” says Fukai, similar to one she owns that always garners compliments, even from those who don’t know fashion.
Also among her favorites is a Miyake design that is “easy to wear.” This black top and skirt fold for travel, accordion-like, into tiny pieces of polyester origami. Each piece springs into shape with the simple pull of a string and then back into one’s suitcase, nestled in sleeping flatness.
The final part of the exhibition features more colorful, urban streetwear, influenced by comic book heroes and animation. Backed by the Japanese government as a movement, “Cool Japan” seeks to increase Japanese exports and tourism. For the fashion industry, it’s simply important, said Fukai, for designers to see the wild, unlimited ideas by those on the city streets.
Today’s Japanese fashion students often travel for their studies and observe the streets of England and Western Europe. They return to Japan with a strong sense of what others are doing, said Fukai, and then they do it their way.
Nowadays, fashion is “beyond boundaries,” she said. “It’s global.”