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The work of the best-known Japanese avant-garde designers, such as Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto, is often lauded for its conceptual, intellectual take on fashion. So it is only fitting that a clutch of their most influential pieces is getting a showcase in a gallery setting this fall in the first, all-encompassing European exhibition of contemporary Japanese fashion.
“Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion,” which just opened at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, looks at the evolution of this work from the Eighties to the present. The pieces on show range from sober, monochrome designs focusing on shape and texture, like a Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons black linen dress, bunched haphazardly together at the waist, to more outrageous looks. A more eccentric piece is a bronze nylon net dress worked into spheres that bloom from the body, taken from designer Koji Tatsuno’s fall 1993 collection.
“It’s quite surprising that no one had wanted to tell the story of these designers before now,” says Catherine Ince, curator of Barbican Art Gallery. “We felt now was a good point for reflecting back on their influence and legacy.”
The show marks a collaboration between the Barbican and the Kyoto Costume Institute; most of the styles included are on loan from the institute, and its director, Akiko Fukai, is one of the curators of “Future Beauty.”
On the ground floor, looks are organized thematically — one room, for example, is devoted to the fashion tribes that emerged out of Tokyo’s Harajuku and Shibuya areas — and on the upper floor there are miniature vignettes given over to each designer’s key pieces. Modern, ultrapadded gingham creations from Rei Kawakubo’s spring 1997 collection are juxtaposed with romantic ones by Tao Kurihara, such as a scarf embellished with knitted roses. The overall effect is one of boundless imagination, although one not without some grounding in reality. While Ince says Japanese designers today still have to deal with what she calls the “complexities” of creating commercial fashion and notes they all work with “the body” in mind, she says Kawakubo’s work in particular is “uncompromising” in its vision.
“[Kawakubo], because she has a fantastic business around her, is able to do what she wants,” says Ince.