PFW: The Japanese Brands Not Comme des Garçons Or Yohji Yamamoto, Or Issey Miyake

Designers decamping Tokyo for Paris are not just the ones from many moons ago. Here, we take a look at the few that we have been watching regularly and closely… even before their move to the fashion capital of the world 

 

PFW JapaneseCollage: Just So. Photo: Undercover

Paris has always been the ultimate destination for Japanese designers to show and to sell to the world. Not all who participate in Paris Fashion Week (PFW), however, enjoy the longevity of the Tokyo big three: Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto. Or the hype that follows the newish names, such as Junya Watanabe and his one-time employee Chitose Abe of Sacai, who was just invited to be the first guest designer for the re-thought Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture collection. It requires no big-data analysis to understand how irresistible it still is to show in Paris. After all, their compatriots have successfully laid the path in the ’70s and ’80s, and wanting to emulate their ways for the attendant success and fame is totally expected, even rational.

Although Japanese designers have participated in PFW for more than four decades, not many show consistently. Some, such as Mihara Yasuhiro, Auralee’s Ryota Iwai, and Kolor’s Junichi Abe (Chitose Abe’s husband, but according to the Tokyo grapevine, “former”) continues only with the Men’s PFW although they design for both sexes. And there are those who have come and gone, such as Masaki Matsushita, Keita Maruyama, Akira Onozuka (or Zucca), and Issey Miyake alum Chisato Tsumori, and Yohji Yamamoto’s former rep in Paris Atsuro Tayama (both Ms Tsumori and Mr Tayama, to be sure, still operate showroom and studio respectively in the city). Paris may be welcoming but that does not mean it is conducive to recognition or propitious to international stardom. 

By the mid-’90s, a Japanese in Paris is no longer novel or necessarily a draw, but the few who stayed and those who continued to come do keep PFW nicely varied, just as their critical acclaim were too. Although the big names are still attracting media attention with their headline-ready collections, as well as massive fan turn-up, the smaller brands are, to us, doing just as challenging (if not more) work that continue to put Japanese design thinking and aesthetical uniqueness in the spotlight. In view of the COVID-19 outbreak, most Chinese designers have dropped out of PFW this season. Conversely, the Japanese have largely stuck to their original schedules. Here, six Japanese names or brands to note and, perhaps, to enjoy.

Anrealage

Anrealage AW 2020Photos: Filippo Fior/gorunway.com

Even in Tokyo, Anrealage is a relatively quiet brand, despite its own compelling flagship, opened in 2016 in the luxury shopping district of Aoyama, off the famed Omotesando, not far away from Sacai’s own. Perhaps things will change for the brand founded by Kunihiko Morinaga. In Paris, Anrealage is increasingly drawing critical acclaim and back home in Tokyo, a new corner within the refurbished Shibuya Parco is drawing more shoppers to this 17-year-old brand. Often described as “strong” and “directional”, Anrealage is especially appealing among fashion folks with a yen for the Japanese avant-garde—in particular among those who are less drawn to the labels under the Comme des Garçons kasa (傘 or umbrella). 

Anrealage debuted in Paris in 2014 with the spring/summer 2015 collection. Yet, only last year was the brand getting the attention it deserves when Mr Morinaga was one of eight finalists for the 2019 LVMH Prize. Although he did not win it (South Africa’s Thebe Magugu clinched the award), he continues to show that Anrealage is not only a label to follow, but to covet as well. In Japan, he was named Best New Designer for the Shiseido Sponsorship Award at the 29th Mainichi (national daily newspaper) Fashion Grand Prix held in Tokyo, cementing his reputation as the one to rise, not merely to watch. Collaborations with Onitsuka Tiger, Dickies, and Bearbrick will only yard-up the brand’s popularity.

Mr Morinaga told Japan House last year: “I’m not interested in making something overly offbeat. My aim is to design clothes that inject a little bit of intrigue in the everyday.” Perhaps a bit of an understatement when one considers that the striking collection of the autumn/winter 2020 season, which continues to see Mr Morinaga bringing together, as in the past, what he calls “the real and the unreal”. Wearability is paired with the seemingly anti-body. The coats, for instance, appear almost two-dimensional, as if animating a paper pattern, which bear a resemblance to the giant clothes that front the Parco store. Unreal, but delightfully so.

Beautiful People

Beautiful People AW 2020Photos: Filippo Fior/gorunway.com

Like many Japanese designer gaining an increasingly audible bleep on the PFW radar, Hidenori Kumakiri of Beautiful People can call the veritable launching pad of careers, Comme des Garçons, alma mater. And like other alums, such as Chitose Abe, Mr Kumajiri was a pattern maker, in his case, for CDG Homme. After six years in their employ, he started his own label. And the preciseness that came with the previous tenure stuck along. A Japanese precision. As he once told Tank magazine, “When you train as a pattern cutter at Comme des Garçons, you always want to make everything perfect.”

Beautiful People may sound like a spin-off of Rachel Ashwell’s Shabby Chic, but the former has way more bite than the latter’s teeth-less chew. His designs underscore Mr Kimakiri’s technical skills—no shape too unmanageable, no seam too unplaceable. The designer describes his kooky elegance “French chic–meets–Japanese pop”. But that is, to us, a little misleading as Beautiful People is more than the coming together of divergent West and East, soigné and Shibuya. From the start, there has been poles apart meeting in the middle. Male and female don’t blur, but happily co-exist, so too are top and bottom, front and back, and even, oddly, child and adult. In fact, Mr Kimakiri’s initial impact was in what he called “Kid Series”—“children’s clothes for grown-ups”. So popular they have been, the Kid’s Series is a permanent sub-collection.

But make no mistake, this is not hybridising as the Japanese are known for and wont to do. As seen in Beautiful People’s autumn/winter 2020 show, the coming together of different components aims for a certain harmony rather than discord. In excess was not military-coat-meets-sundress, jumper-conjoined-to-shirt, trousers-couple-skirts. Or, Y-Project-style amalgamation of individual garments. Rather, Beautiful People, shown in Paris since the spring/summer 2017 season, cleverly pulls opposing forces together in a way that one barely notices until the trench coat, for instance, reveals the appealing rather than disagreeable other side of its Two-Face. In a word, beautiful.

Mame

mame AW 2020Photos: Mame

Mame (pronounced mah may, as in ‘bean’ in Japanese) is the brainchild of Maiko Kurogouchi, alum of Bunka Fashion College and, professionally, Issey Miyake. Dubbed “the next Sacai” by Western media, Ms Kurogouchi’s aesthetic is, conversely, unlike the former’s, although at times, they share a certain enhanced femininity—between a wayward schoolgirl and bored housewife—that is uniquely and identifiably Japanese. More significantly, Ms Kurogouchi is not the chronic hybridiser that Chitose Abe is. In fact, among all the designers in this brief list, she offers clothes closest to what many consider conventional and not a fright or challenge to a potential mate. Or, as she calls it—by a rather archaic-sounding descriptor, “timeless”.

The ten-year-old Mame showed in Paris since the fall season of 2019, which makes the label a PFW baby. In fact, at 35, the brand’s Nagano-born founder is the youngest too. Her age, however, belies her experience, especially in incorporating Japanese craft, textile, and age-old techniques in her designs, without going into national-dress territory, or costume-y nostalgia. While those who find pleasure in the alt may consider her designs too straight for expressing their far-out side, many of the label’s fans adore Mame’s familiar silhouettes, within which traditional Japanese elements are judiciously applied, not to pander to Western sense of Eastern exotica (even when she’s showing in Paris), but to extend the longevity of homeland craftsmanship and skill.

This season, Mame’s womanly silhouette and sense of femininity are enhanced with draping, asymmetry, and a strong use of open-work fabrics. Ms Kurogouchi, more than any of her compatriots, seems determined to contradict the belief that Japanese fashion is, by default, outré, never mind that she cut her teeth with one of the most way-out-inventive designers that emerged from Japan: Issey Miyake. In addition, a collaboration with the Italian shoe brand Tods that features clothing and accessories (dropping this month in stores) will likely see Mame as champion of the sanely swish.

Noir Kei Ninomiya

Noir KN AW 2020Photos: Alessandro Lucioni/gorunway.com

As it’s often said about design that is above the ken of the average fashion consumer, Kei Ninomiya’s Noir line, produced by the Comme des Garçons group, is not for the faint of heart. Of all the names linked to CDG, where quite a few of today’s successful Japanese designers with an international reputation graduate professionally, Kei Ninomiya takes to the CDG spirit most closely and ardently. In fact, oftentimes, his designs are more complex and the assembling more intricate than his famous employer’s museum-ready pieces. Mr Ninomiya had admitted to i-D magazine last year that “it is all very tough, to be honest. Even if you have an image in your head, there are cases where it is hard to actually make it.”.

One of three CDG brands that shows in PFW, Noir (as it is mostly known) was born in 2012, when Mr Ninomiya was only 28. The brand made its Paris debut in the spring/summer season of 2016. A graduate of Antwerp’s famed Royal Academy, he was reported to be unable to sew at the time he joined CDG. Mr Ninomiya corrected that perception by telling the media that he did eventually learn to sew as it was taught at CDG. Even with the skill, he conceived Noir to involve little sewing. The clothes in body-obscuring forms are often knitted (not necessarily with yarn), strung together by means of polygonal links, or held together by press studs. With Noir, one never thinks of how the clothes would be stored, washed, or ironed.

Despite naming his brand after the French word for ‘black’, the collections do sport some colour, such as this season’s reds, including their metallic cousins. Or, its opposite, white. Black, however, is still core to the collections. As Mr Ninomiya told i-D, black “is the absence of colour, and without colour you can emphasise the form and technique and create simple and strong designs.” While irrefutably strong rather than simple, these forms and techniques are best appreciated by confronting the clothes upfront (easily in CDG-owned Dover Street Market). One then senses that Kei Ninomiya is really more a proponent of crafting than mere sewing.

Toga

Toga AW 2020Photos: Alessandro Lucioni/gorunway.com

A brand’s success could perhaps be assessed by the demands of pieces done in the past. At Toga’s new space in Shibuya Parco, substantial rack space is dedicated to pieces from the Archive, and the interest in them is no less than anything grouped under New Arrivals. Toga may be relatively unknown in the west, even here in the east, but in Japan, Toga is not only covetable, they’re collectable. A sales staff in Tokyo’s most popular vintage clothier Rag Tag told us in December last year, “very hard to see Toga. Every time we put something out, it’s gone.” Such is the response to the brand among the cognoscenti that the rapidly growing awareness and popularity of Toga in Paris is really a matter of time than the influence of social media.

Interestingly, Toga founder Yasuko Furuta had her start in the retailing of vintage fashion, which may explain the existence of Archive—good designs need not be forgotten when the season is over. A graduate of the esteemed fashion school Esmod Paris, Ms Furuta returned to Tokyo and worked as a stylist before starting Toga in 1997. She presented the brand’s first runway show in Paris in 2006, with an autumn/winter collection called Monastic. But if that is suggestion of bleak and spare designs, then the name is a misnomer. Toga, till today, is a technical powerhouse of mixing vintage clothes, couture styles, and what may be considered Shibuya street, and then deconstructed to yield clothes that are different yet unquestionably wearable.

For autumn/winter 2020, Ms Furuta offers pieces, such as shirting and blazers, rooted in men’s wear, but given her unmistakably feminine twist. The sum reveals Ms Furuta’s flair for taking what women already wear or are familiar with and giving them unexpected design elements within those ready confines. Her clothes are not weird for the purpose of standing out strange. Rather, she challenges the notion that appealing, feminine fashion must not differ between those for mother and daughter, boss and co-worker, even just the usual she and her. And the past can certainly join the present in an easy, fascinating alliance.

Undercover

Undercover AW 2020Photos: Undercover

To be sure, Undercover is not new. Against the rest here, designer Jun Takahashi’s an old hat. Yet, until his stupendous collaboration with Valentino last fall, only streetwear fans seem to relate to what he does, which, for some of us, is a little annoying. We feel that he should be included in this list because his Undercover has been, in our opinion, unfairly considered and labelled as a bona fide streetwear brand, even in his native Japan, just because he has found considerable success with Madstore, the candy shop for casual clothes, bags, and toys; and earlier, in the 1993, the truly streetwear venture Nowhere that he started with T-shirt king Nigo.

Mr Takahashi’s trajectory in the streetwear sphere is a little unexpected, considering that he had received the blessings of none other than the high priestess of the Japanese avant-garde herself, Rei Kawakubo. According to popular telling, Ms Kawakubo had been impressed with Undercover as early as the mid-’90s, and had invited him to Paris, where the now-closed multi-label store Colette was so taken by Undercover that they invited Mr Takahashi to present the 1998 collection ‘Exchange’ in their Rue Saint-Honoré store. Just four years later, Undercover presented their first PFW collection for spring/summer 2003.

Despite his streetwear leaning, Mr Takahashi has shown tremendous design mastery, coupled with astounding imagination that sees his work recall fairy-tale-like characters in what could be tableaux akin to old masters’ paintings. The two-time Mainichi Fashion Grand Prize winner has a way with taking the unconventional garment construction that the Japanese before him were known for, and giving it the streetwear currency that he is able to communicate.

That he can draw from both the popular and the more cerebral, such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film, Throne of Blood—which re-imagined Shakespeare’s Macbeth—for the autumn/winter 2020 collection (surprisingly not shown on a catwalk), is both amazing and admirable. The Renaissance seen through the eyes of, say, street artist Shepard Fairey—underpinnings and ruffles go with khakis, and here and there, prints of roses and razor blades! The Pirates of Penzance for the stomping grounds of PFW! Is it any wonder that The New York Times called him “The Sorcerer of Fashion”?

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