Deftly Kolor-ed

With his masterful deconstruction, Junichi Abe propels Kolor from strength to strength

Kolor’s Junichi Abe has a way with deconstruction that is beguiling. It isn’t the same as what we have come to know as Japanese deconstructionism—at Comme des Garçons, for example, which can be rather confusing—but something quite different. The parts on the garments he makes are re-arranged, but they are recognisable: a collar, a sleeve, a placate. But the pieces do not appear as they should. More often than not, they seem constituents dismembered from other garments (even old clothes?) and then reassembled, as Victor Frankenstein might a sapient life form, to create necklines (especially), bodices, sleeves that are fetching, not freaky, amalgams of similar garments, rather that the hybridised forms that his wife Chitose Abe prefers for her label Sacai. The Kolor aesthetic is not so much a chromatic blend as a mash-up of parts, and therein lies the label’s irresistible pull.

Mr Abe did not always present Kolor in this manner, but in recent years, he has become more adept at this mixing of parts (not necessarily matching), and it reached quite a high in the spring/summer 2022 collection. He can, for example, fuse polo collars with the V necks of sweaters, and ribbed round-necks can be linked to other ribbed round-necks, all the while providing a comfortable opening for the neck. Graphic designers might recognise the work as cut and paste. But, now matter how many bits are assembled, there is always a balance in the form and silhouette of the garments. No one is going to mistake a sweater for a jogger, a blouson for a skirt, even if they look disjointed at times. In fact, it is the recognisability and wearability of the clothes that fans continue to visit Kolor for their beyond-basics.

This season, Kolor’s show is a digital presentation shared during Paris Fashion Week (whether there would be an IRL reprise in Tokyo later—as in last year—is not known yet). The runway is within a lab-like space with glass walls and ceiling that reflect the models’ images and what they wear, as in a house of mirrors. At some point, the viewer is given a glimpse of the outside of the rectangular tunnel, and it looks like rush hour in a Japanese underground train station, with uniformed men and women rushing to somewhere. And then it’s a return to the calm on the runway (although the soundtrack by Sakanaction offers no clue of this orderliness). Perhaps Mr Abe is saying that no matter how incoherent (rambling?) the externals of his clothing might be, there is an orderliness within, and a structure that is assuring and confidence-boosting?

Many of the pieces could be described as work clothes. But what fantastic work wear they are and how not belonging to any work site! Jackets have a mysterious collar unfurled onto the lapel—on one side; blazers appear to have the tail of an inner garment slipped through a vent, necklines of sweaters look like scarves crisscrossed on the collarbone; sleeves of outers are puffed on one side, as if the sewer did not get that side of the cut pattern; coats reveal portions that are inside-turned-out, and we could go on. There is a lot to see. And unpack, which may not be necessary at all. It is too easy to be pulled into the off-beat world of Kolor and remain within. There is no denying that Junichi Abe is an innovative designer, but perhaps even more appealing, he is one pushing boundary-within-boundary too.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Kolor

In And Out Of Subway Cars

Kolor reprises their spring/summer 2022 show with an IRL presentation in a Tokyo mass rapid train

Tokyo, despite the inner-city madness that it often is, provides likely and unlikely locations for fashion shows. From serene gardens to manic metro lines, they offer context for the clothes that Japanese designers dream up, frame of reference not seen on an indoor, purpose-built runway. Kolor’s repeat showing of their spring/summer 2022 collection for Rakuten Fashion Week is a total opposite of its digital show—a walk-on-the-spot presentation filmed in a studio. In contrast, the IRL version takes place in a working train, with guests seated as passengers. The brand is, of course, known to ardently embrace the city in which it is based. Past marketing campaigns and look books were shot in the heart of the capital, sometimes in the busiest areas, in total oblivion to the daunting pedestrian traffic. This time, models are sent through a Tokyo subway platform and train—unmistakable Nippon transportation settings, except for the absence of body-against-body commuters. Too quiet, in fact, to be even off-peak hours.

The lack of frenzy is possibly due to Kolor’s choice of station—this is not Shinjuku. The start of their commute is not at any that obvious, or an eki on the looped Yamanote Line. Instead, the less-known Keikyu Kamata Station (京急蒲田駅) on the privately-operated Keikyu Line is picked. Situated in Ota (大田区, also Ota City), in the Southeast tip of Tokyo, the station lies in what’s considered the hub of the ward—a stone’s from Haneda Airport—that goes back to Edo times. Although Keikyu Kamata station was not errected back then, it is still considered of advanced years—120! Rebuilt and refurbished a few times, it sits in the heart of a ward known as “the centre of Japanese technology”. It is in this off-beat location, a distance from the typical show venues of the capital’s centre, and considered where one might encounter “the real face” of Tokyo, that Kolor showed its collection, amid true local colour.

The runway comprises of the interior of a chartered four-car Keikyu train and the platform of Keikyu Kamata Station itself, where the line arrived (destination reads “charted”) from Shinagawa (品川区)—the ward to the north of Ota City—with the invitees of the show seated socially-distanced. Students, presumably from fashion schools, line the platform. When the train stops, the doors open as they normally do. But there’s no waiting for the show to begin (or anyone to exit). Hardcore techno beat comes on and models emerging from an escalator onto the above-ground platform—just like commuters—immediately enter the first car and walk down the aisle. There is something more substantive in this presentation than the digital version showed during the Paris calendar in June. This is not make-belief. This is not styled for a runway. This is a real (too real?), everyday setting that is familiar among those who need to commute via public transport daily, on-trend fashion in stride. The models look like Tokyo urbanites already populating the city—in a haste, strikingly turned-out, supremely confident.

The co-ed collection, in many ways, reflects the city too. While Tokyo is not as plural as our island, their fashion consumers are, including those willing to adopt styles that are not too everyday, or slack. In Tokyo, contemporary popular culture may clash with traditional aesthetics, but what designer Junichi Abe creates are not weird clothes worn only by certain fashion tribes; these are amalgamated looks one could easily witness in any of Tokyo’s busy trains and on their teeming platforms. As Mr Abe said, in an interview with show organiser Rakuten, “beautiful things, ugly things, and dirty things are mixed, and even though there is a sense of discomfort and anxiety, they (customers) accept as beautiful”. Additionally, Kolor’s choice of Keikyu Kamata Station augments the city’s reputation for having the best mass rapid public transport in the world. It posits the city itself, with all its chaotic madness and modern precipitancies, as the ideal backdrop for seventeen-year-old Kolor’s splendid urban designs. To underscore—or contrast—its aesthetic strength, they need not show in Tokyo’s equivalent of a kampong.

Screen grabs: by R, Rakuten Fashion

Walking On The Spot

Kolor is on track to delivering some of the coolest clothes, when it’s time to mingle and impress

You can always depend on Kolor to colour what could be turning out to be the pandemic-influenced preference for drabs. Fashion is grappling with loungewear-goes-to-the-street on one hand and ready-to-party-clothes-for-all-occasions on the other. Many designers believe that when things go back to normal (as they surely must), we we will want extraordinary clothes that look like they truly deserve the attention that is now mostly lost to a disease people are sick of. Junichi Abe does not negate the truth that when we’re out of the woods, we’d want comfortable clothes, as well as those that say we’re embracing fashion again. And these could be garments that are the sum of what we have worn before, pre- or, hopefully coming soon, post-pandemic. A happy amalgamation of all those that had brought us joy and comfort, in ways that they had not been able to in the past year, at least visually.

Yet, if the spring/summer collection looks a tad similar, it’s because Mr Abe’s design approach this season seems like a version 2.0 of his autumn/winter 2021 collection. Could this be a natural progression of designs started during the lockdowns that struck so many countries and progressed to a time when social restrictions are still very much a part of our lives? Perhaps that could also explain Kolor’s presentation. The space is the neutral confines of, say, a theatrical black box. The models walk on a short treadmill (barely half the length of what you would find in a gym, and operating at a speed that would feel like a stroll). Despite the walk, the models are essentially in the same spot. An observation of how we are all essentially in one position, at the same time, even if the optimists among us think we’re heading towards a better place? And does the pair of flanking robotic arms with cameras attached to them, to zoom in on the walkers—garment parts recognition, too, enabled?—work like contact tracing devices and apps, tracking us and the clothes we wear? How this must delight the fashion police!

Kolor has always been about the compositional. Increasingly, it is more so. Their individual pieces feel like parts of clothes we are familiar with that are taken apart and then reassembled on those we are still familiar with. The less imaginative might think these are scraps or remnants from the sampling room, but upon closer inspection, it can be seen that they are not odd bits and pieces of an upcycling project (if only fashion upcycling is this good-looking). The parts are ‘site-specific’ and are knitted and woven to be placed in those exact spots that they are destined to reside in. Despite the seeming randomness, a collar remains a collar, a yoke stays where it is supposed to be. They come together as a coherent whole, not some fashion Frankenstein (as our description might make them out to be): a jacket still looks like a jacket, a sweater is recognisable; so is a dress. The result maybe off-beat, but they are not weird or require a manual to wear. They may look a tad busy (how do we iron them? Can the parts be dismantled?), and sometimes we do wonder if we need clothes with such extraneous additions, but a closer look at them will excite those who are intrigued by such dressmaking intricacies and improbabilities.

A co-ed collection is shown and, for both men and women, the approach is the same. These are not hybrid clothes; these are clothes with parts, not necessarily from the type of garment on which they appear. The first look for men typifies those to come: a top coat appears to have the top left half of a pique polo shirt, draped over the shoulder of the same side, but the collar seems to be part of the inner garment, the actual polo top, which seems to sport three collars! A simple collar and we’re fixated. But they are hydra-collars! As it turns out, the coat too has a polo collar and the actual polo has a collar and a half (forgive us if you are not following. See the second top photo)! What’s with all those collars? That’s why Kolor is a joy to behold: it does not immediately make sense. These are not quite as much cut and sew than rip and tack. Where do they begin and where does one find the end? Sure, many consumers do not need fashion to challenge the mind. Just make me look good, goes the common plea. But why settle for less—a lot less—when there could be more to play with and to dress the mind?

Screen grabs (top) and photos: Kolor

The Sum Of Its Fascinating Parts

Kolor’s Junichi Abe, the master of category-defying styles, offers a master class in mixing and patching things up

At Kolor, it was a rare IRL presentation for the still mostly digital autumn/winter 2021 Paris season. There is a runway, set in what looks like an outdoor space that, in the darkness, bears some resemblance to the Midtown Garden of Tokyo Midtown during their year-end festive light-up. But, in fact, the show is staged in Happo-En Garden in the affluent residential neighbourhood of Shirokanedai, Minato. There are attendees too, appropriately socially distanced, as can be made out. The models, both men and women, walked the runway in the manner models walked when they are watched: aloof and indifferently, or impossibly cool. It helps that the clothes are able to augment the in-person attitude. And, how they are worn—often with indefinable mash-ups that never leave the effect we still know as elegance. After last season’s on-set, topsy-turvy headache inducer, the runway show allows, once again, Kolor’s riveting patchworks within recognisable wholes to be appreciated without the interference of distracting camera work.

Fans of Kolor and its low-key designer Junichi Abe look out for the season’s “accent” pieces, usually outerwear for autumn/winter. And, they won’t be disappointed. Wearing one of these delightful pieces would continue to invite the inane question from the clueless, “did you they have not have enough fabric to finish the other side?” Case in point: A slouchy blazer looks perfectly normal on the left side, but to its right, there is no corresponding other half of the notched lapel. Instead, you get the button side of a strip of cardigan! Or another: A regular crew-neck sweater that is not so regular when you spot the sleeve of a Harrington jacket on the other arm, and its tab collar on half the neck. We could go on, but detailed description takes the fun out of looking at the clothes and be captivated. Mr Abe not only pulls together disparate elements to complete a garment, he marries genres too. Athletic wear, in particular, is spectacular incorporated into more traditional menswear staples. A vintage-y track top, for example, could magically be worked into a classic bombardier jacket.

Pairing and patching have always been Mr Abe’s particular forte. Through the years since Kolor’s founding in 2004, he has been able to perfect the mixes, which, despite the increasing complexity, never felt contrived. This season, as stated in the show notes, Mr Abe tries to forge, in the light of the world’s present troubles, “a new style of simplicity where complexity also coexists within.” This is not immediately obvious if you allow the complexity that evidently exists to carry you away. Perhaps simplicity comes in the final product, when all the different parts have settled in their respective places to yield their intended effects (such as when elasticised in-seams in this season’s pants settle with regular out-seams). The womenswear, shown alongside the men’s, appears to be more composited—with some pieces, you can’t be sure which is part of the garment, which is accessory. Perhaps it is in bafflement that interest is sustained.

Reaction to Kolor, in fact, borders on the fanatical. It is considered one of the most successful labels in Tokyo, heightened by their collaborations with sports brands such as Adidas and Puma. Like Comme des Garçons, Kolor’s key pieces from past seasons fetch a high price with sellers of the pre-loved. As Junichi Abe continues his deep, deconstructive pulling apart and then bringing together of classic styles and opposing categories of clothing, and applying textures and colours (in order for its name to retain its meaning?) to the results in unexpected ways, there will always be a strong following of his style of simplicity that happily allows complexity to coexist.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Kolor

One On One


Mao Shan Wang

I always turn to Japanese brands when I want something unexpected, especially in a pair of pants. This, by Kolor, appears, at first, to be a twofer, but is actually a pair of (smaller) cotton chinos split at the crotch and then spliced to a pair of wool slacks, giving the impression of conjoined fraternal twins. Okay, that’s a little OTT, but you get what I am trying to say.

Kolor’s Junichi Abe, one-time pattern maker at Junya Watanabe, has an adroit way with different fabric textures appearing in a singular/one-use garment, as exemplified in this pair of pants. There’s the casualness of the chino half and the dressiness of the Prince of Wales check of the other—odd couple that bed well.

What I especially like is the generous cut or, more precisely, the roominess of the fit, which means it’s likely to be fat-shamed by the jegging and her friends. I have cast aside skin-tight pants since the low-rise lost favour among fans of slacks. Even my jeans are baggy enough to store two chickens in each leg, as my mother would say. In this pair, it is roomy but not ‘hipsy’, which is a definite plus.

This Kolor trousers is partially lined (to the knee), which enhances the comfort factor, since wearing wool in our weather may be pricklier than sleeping in a bag of pine cones. If you are tall enough, the pants is calf-length, but I like it better when it reaches mere centimetres above the ground. Or, just two. Yes, fastidious I am.

Kolor two-panel trousers, SGD960, is available at Club 21, Forum The Shopping Mall. Photo: Farfetch