Junya Watanabe explores the farther reaches of a continent he is part of, and the result is spellbinding
How much of our own front and backyard can we explore without trampling on the same patch of grass or knocking into the same row of trees? For designers, how often can they revisit Orientalism without ending up using the mandarin collar? Or, putting out yet another wholesale repeat of the qipao? Or, escaping into the folds of a sarong? For his spring/summer collection, presented as an audience-less phygital show, Junya Watanabe discovers the farther reaches of Asia that is not necessarily on the east of the continent in which he is based. And he did not have to use a single qipao ling (旗袍领) to say something about the aesthetical and creative wealth of the region. The designs, while recognisable for their Eastern sensibilities and cognizant of the minority ethnic group they seem to come from, bear the distinct Junya Watnabe way with fabric mixing, texture pairing, asymmetry and draping. In each outfit, a collage of contrasts—a Ming-vase-as-scull meets school-girl prim-and-proper, calligraphic graffiti meets deconstructed denim, sari-like drapes meets negligee-sheer. And those are just the first three looks!
For most of the collection, it is part II (or the feminine expression) of an exploration that began with the menswear shown in July. Mr Watanabe once again looks at the work of British photojournalist Jamie Hawkesworth. These are photographs from 2019 that were shot in (mostly) northern India, as well as Kashmir and Bhutan. The designer told the press that he then “became nostalgic for Asia” and saw “the pure heart of people”. For others (Westerners, for example), this casting of sight on a region some six thousand kilometres away may arouse what, for them, is exotic, but to Mr Watanabe, the images associated with the land and people so far away from him serve to find synergy in his own sense of what is mixable and what is pairable. Against the unplugged version of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Tong Poo from their 1978 eponymous album—specially rearranged for the show by co-founder of the group Ryuichi Sakamoto—the clothes look delectably serene and light, like pray flags of the Nimalayas, swaying in the gentle breeze of tranquil mountains.
But that is not to say that Mr Watanabe does not exoticise the looks at all. In fact, the styling seems to cater to a more Western perception of what is Eastern exotica. The hooped hair on the sides of the head, for example, is evocative of the pierced and stretched ears of the women of the Karen ethnic group of the Myanmar-Thailand border. Peculiarly Asian, too, are the wigs in the shape of the Vietnamese non la rice hats (or 斗笠, dou li in China) and the unadorned liangbatou (两把头) headdresses of Qing Chinese women that could be homage to the Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略). Even the platform sandals have a whiff of the cunzi shoes (寸子鞋) of the ancient Manchus, in particular those with 元宝底 (yuanbaodi or ingot bottom) soles. Perhaps these are to augment the Asianness of the clothes, which are, in themselves, less derivative, and more in tandem with Mr Watanabe’s penchant for montaging shapes, patterns, and textures.
And to strengthen the connection to Asia further, collaborations with Asian artists—as seen in the men’s spring/summer 2022 collections—continue. There is the abovementioned calligraphy of Wang Dongling (王东龄), the Hangzhou-based zihua (字画) master and director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Center at the China National Academy of Arts, as well as two from the July show, Ang Tsherin Sherpa, the California-based Nepalese artist and Phannapast Taychamaythakool, the Thai illustrator now trending in her native Bangkok and much of the fashion world. Ms Taychamaythakool’s floral prints recall those of Chinese blankets, but they are made fantastical by the inclusion of Thai mythical beasts, gaudily coloured like tourist-friendly tuk-tuks. This, perhaps, sums up the collection: there are no creative boundaries, just as, in an ideal world, there are no territorial borders. ‘Asian’ does not have to mean looking at your fast-changing backyard. And it definitely does not require going to a kampong that is a mere shadow of its former self, sarong or not intact.
Screen grab (top): Comme des Garçons/YouTube. Photos: Junya Watanabe
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