Mining “The Land Of The Free”

Junya Watanabe takes on the icons and symbols of Americana—specifically pop-Americana

“Americanos—blue jeans and chinos/Coke, Pepsi and Oreos/Americanos—movies and heroes in the land of the free/You can be what you wanna be”

Americanos, 1989, Holly Johnson

America’s influence on fashion is not just the denim jeans worn almost everywhere. Or, the Americans helming European fashion houses and those showing their eponymous line in Paris (or Milan). It’s also the US cultural-visual identity that non-Americans find appealing and relatable. Junya Watanabe is a known admirer of authentic American fashion brands and has previously collaborated with ‘iconic’ names such as Levi’s, but this time, he wears Americana on his sleeves. He takes some of the most recognisable images and worked into his designs, often as pieces that form the boro or Japanese art of patchworking (as seen on the denim jeans, in particular). This mended fabric or garment is not new at all to Mr Watanabe’s output, but this time the restitched parts comprise patches of images of American brands and recognisable art.

In 1989, Holly Johnson sang in the catchily sarcastic Latinate dance-pop of Americanos (from the Dan Hartman-produced album Blast): “blue jeans and chinos, Coke, Pepsi, and Oreos, movies and heroes, you can be what you wanna be.” In view of the recent overturn of Roe vs Wade, it is irresistible to see Mr Watanabe’s newest menswear as ironic—a poke at the superficiality and materiality of the American dream. Jeans and chinos are, of course, almost de rigueur in his collections, and now Coke (not Pepsi or Oreos) join other brands and names through which America propelled its popular culture, globally: Campbell’s Soups and Marilyn Monroe made vivid by Andy Warhol, Girl with Hair Ribbon painted/dotted by Roy Lichtenstein, as well as the graffiti and scribbles of Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. It is, interestingly, not “’bout leather, leather everywhere”, as David Bowie sang earlier in 1975’s Young Americans, a song that has been compared to Americanos for its dig at US youth culture.

In Japan, Mr Watanabe embodies the melting of pop culture divided by oceans. His embrace of Americana is, of course, not precedential. But, he is constantly mixing and mixing in ways that, even if no longer surprising, is still charming. Some people consider his work as entry point to the more confrontationally avant-garde designs of his mentor, Rei Kawakubo, even saying that his are clothes for primarily fashion-consuming heterosexual males not willing to venture into, say, Gucci territory: There will never be skirts. Even those patchworked shirts of the finale are reminiscent of the Comme Des Garçons Shirt line. But for most fans, the sustained appeal of Junya Wantanabe’s work is his category-free approach to making desirable clothes. Just as you thought that work wear is what you saw, once on the body, the effect could be vastly different.

The crux of Mr Watanabe’s design is the Japanese concept of making things—monozukiri, which broadly means production or manufacturing. But it also embodies not just technological advantage, but also technical know-how, the embrace of tradition, and a relentless pursuit of innovation. In Mr Watanabe’s case, it has always been more than the amalgamation of the above, but also how he melds seemingly different visual cues—or cultural references—into a seamless whole. So those who do not require a regular blazer will be happy to see hybrid versions and those with unusual cuts. Or those averse to standard-issue jeans will find those with the said boro patchwork or with different washes for the front and back. If Americana is your thing, all the better. But with Uniqlo also featuring familiar corporate logos and the recognisable works of Warhol, Haring, Lichtenstein, and, definitely, Basquiat, are Junya Watanabe’s unique enough, even with monozukiri firmly intact, for us to part with considerable money to own his versions?

Photos: Junya Watanabe

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