When Japanese fashion is brought up in any social discourse, two names are never left out: Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garcons). Although these designers began their work in Tokyo, it was in Paris that they achieved global recognition. Yet, unlike earlier foreigners such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even Karl Lagerfeld, the duo did not tote their success in France like a passport. This is due largely to the un-French, indeed, un-Continental look of their clothes, which, despite appearing like nothing else of that time, had a visual language that can be traced to their homeland.
Even before the success of these two non-conformists, Japanese designers were not alien to Paris. Other compatriots have earlier made their mark in the city although without the same far-reaching impact (with the exception of Issey Miyake): Kenzo Takada (who arrived in Paris in 1964 before showing for the first time in 1970), Issey Miyake (in 1973, after stints with Guy Laroche, Hubert de Givenchy, and Geoffrey Beene), Kansai Yamamoto (in 1974, showed ahead of the designer he apprenticed with: Junko Koshino), Yuki Torri (in 1975, as a result of a partnership with Jean-Jacques Picart, who would later launch Christian Lacroix, and, more recently, “pushed” Riccardo Tisci for the position at Givenchy), Hanae Mori (who was the first Japanese designer to exhibit abroad in New York in 1965, and then in Paris in 1977, after Grace Kelly became a customer), Junko Koshino (in 1978, twelve years after the success of her retail outlet in Tokyo called Collette), and Sueo Irié (simply known as Irié, was Kenzo’s assistant; never showed although he had a boutique in the city).
What makes a Japanese designer Japanese? Nationality alone is surely not enough, nor the city in which one chooses to show. Even from aesthetics alone, designers such as Kenzo and Hanae Mori leaned towards European traditions. Kenzo, now retired, was, in fact, considered “the most French of the Japanese”, having studied at l’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and nurtured by Paris. As more of them show in this capital city in later years, the cutting-edge once associated with Japanese designers of the Eighties can no longer satisfactorily define Japonisme.
On the fifth day of Fashion Week, the Japanese had it all to themselves and the opportunity to illustrate what it means to be a Japanese designer today. Alas, that was not to be as the three who showed this evening belong mainly to one part of a broad spectrum of Japanese fashion design, those who are rooted to the East while looking to the West, those not seeking to break new ground.
The most senior of the three, and one of the earliest to show in Paris, Junko Koshino opened with a collection that gave a strong nod to traditional Japanese ideas of beauty, yet offered contemporary elements that would entice socialites dreaming of Shibuya. The East-West pull was unmistakable, and the presentation was bracketed with kimono shapes (for which she’s a strong proponent) of exaggerated proportions floating over lean, body-skimming dresses. It was dramatic, which was not surprising since Ms Koshino regularly designs costumes for the theatre (and was nominated for a Tony for her designs in Amon Miyamoto’s Broadway production of Pacific Overtures).
The show opened with a striking silk taffeta coat with pointed slip-case ends on each side that billowed into a jib of conjoined scalene triangles as the model glided by—her body sheathed in a strapless striped top and slim, floor-length skirt. And closed with more of such an ensemble, each time the coats ballooned more fantastically. The composition of a slim solid body and the airy, voluminous outerwear was almost like flagpole and flag: imperturbable as it was graceful.
Between these coats that float, she offered separates that were a lot less arresting, as well as more of those kimono-inspired dresses she’s known for. What did not escape the keen eye were her use of unusual bonded fabrics and the effect of Oriental art that mimicked gold dust. Such craft-like treatment contrasted with the kind of Sixties futurism found at the start of her career. Ms Koshino no longer shows in Paris, and, perhaps, felt less pressure to pander to a Western audience.
Who the target audience was for Yoshiki Hishinuma was less clear. Although his label debuted in Paris in 1992, Mr Hishinuma, who had a short stint at Miyake Design Studio in the late Seventies, started his ‘couture’ line in Paris only last spring. He is known for technological effects on textile and, at the same time, handwork. This season, he married the pretty to the progressive, using basically feminine silhouettes on which the femininity was enhanced by manipulating the shell to give the flat fabrics (organic silks, linens and cottons) life as ruffles and flounces. He was also partial to appliqués: demonstrating his preference for textures over plain weave. This very conscious attempt at creating surface effects—even on printed fabrics—so as to enhance tactile value seemed like mere decorating. In this respect, the approach was almost French, since it can be linked all the way back to 18th Century France, to the practice of Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker who was known to swag and swathe a la minute so as not to let the queen’s already large gowns look plain and dull. Mr Hishinuma’s dresses, while considerably more streamlined, looked just as over-embellished, if not over-designed. With some of the dresses, one sensed they came from the Scarlett O’Hara school of dressmaking.
In contrast, Keita Maruyama’s collection looked extremely commercial. The designer, who first showed in Paris in 1997, does not cut his cloth the way the Eighties Japanese designers deface their fabrics. For Spring/Summer 2014, Mr Maruyama’s clothes were so mall-friendly they could have been Esprit on a good day. These were cute clothes for housewives who do not want to look dowdy: tea-time-ready blouses and slim skirts, sweaters and shirts for a night at the cinema, macramé-knit tops for looking sweet with the BFFs. And to augment the girly loveliness, adorable bags such as the clutch in the shape of an origami crane were included. To seal his Japanese identity, the obligatory kimono-inspired happy coats made their appearance, complete with to-be-expected embroidery.
When Mr Maruyama took to the catwalk for his bow, he was met with a smile in the front row from the man who was there in Paris at the very beginning: Kenzo Takada. Mr Takada was not part of those who would show the “Hiroshima chic” of the Eighties. Like him, the three designers seen this evening could play the race card, but they did not show anything that could be described as iconoclastic, regardless of the inclusion of the Japanese icon, the kimono. Perhaps thirty years after they invaded Paris, the Japanese no longer need to challenge Western dress, reject popular culture or confront design conventions. Embracing is easier.
Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October