I was so caught up in the clothes on the mannequin in front of me that at first I didn’t notice her. Then a movement in the mirror at the back of the display caught my eye. There she was, a small woman in a blue dress, completely unlike the tall, elegant mannequins towering either side of her, but part of the parade just the same. To left and right, more mirror-walls extended the line, multiplying the mannequins and the onlooker into infinity. The frontline of fashion, or a line of children waiting for the school bell to release them to play? For me, vogueing with my elegant sisters in an otherwise empty gallery, it was definitely playtime.
Much has been made of the conceptual and sculptural rigour of Japanese high fashion, but for me, its sense of playfulness is one of its most irresistible charms. Moving through the beautifully designed and arranged spaces of the Barbican Art Gallery‘s astonishing new exhibition, I found myself smiling, even giggling, delighted at the joyous response to life and culture that underscores so many of the works. The purity of line, the simplicity of draped and folded cloth, the philosophical intensity, are all there, but threading through and around everything is a childlike freshness, energy and delight in exploration.
That combination of sophistication and simplicity, rigour and playfulness, is present in the work of many great Japanese artists. (The director Satoshi Kon, whose recent early death shocked the film world, was a prime example.) Here, it is captured in cloth and paper and plastic, carefully laid out to provide an organic overview of Japanese fashion as a living, breathing entity.
Art should be radical and revolutionary, but so often in fashion, radicalism is just another gimmick, a shock tactic to win headlines and build sales for the diffusion lines. Here is true radicalism – a constant stream of new ways of thinking about the body and its coverings. And yet, like all radicalism, it is rooted in strong and slow-growing cultural traditions, in the time-woven natural fabric of Japan. Folded paper echoes traditional gift wrapping for the body. Pleated fabric and plastic is formed into huge yet delicately detailed shapes that echo flowers, feathers and the gleaming scales of exotic fish. Garments can be folded flat, like traditional kimono, or swell like bright balloons. Materials can be cut and shaped to the body, allowed to follow their own natural line, or used to transform it into something wholly unexpected: radicalism as philosophy and challenge, yes, but also radicalism as the purest form of play – what if? why not? maybe…
This attitude has, of course, endeared Japanese designers to SF writers artists and film-makers all over the world. Many of the styles on display have been subsumed into the visual lexicon of moviegoers unaware of a single designer name. Interestingly, Future Beauty also jolted me into realising how strongly these avant-garde designers are rooted in the past, not just of Japan, but of world culture. Japan’s isolation over three centuries of history is a by-word, but from the mid-nineteenth century Japanese intellectuals and artists dived into the currents of foreign culture like surfers in pursuit of the perfect wave, trying out all manners of ideas and methods and exchanging influences with their Western counterparts. It should be no surprise to meet designers like Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny here, to see echoes of Erté’s work in a Yohji Yamamoto coat, or Dior’s influence in a Junya Watanabe silhouette, just as it should be no surprise to see Japan reflected in so many Western creations; yet here I felt I understood both the originality of Japanese fashion, and the powerful bonds between artists of all nations, for the first time.
It goes beyond art and culture, back into the history of trade and colonisation. Japanese fashionistas have worn those huge pleated and frilled constructions before, when trendy young things imitated the ruffs of Dutch traders in the seventeenth century. Some of the cutting-edge techniques on show here were recorded in portraits of wealthy burghers by Rembrandt, or even earlier, when Elizabeth I posed in her laces and emboideries. Rei Kawakubo mixes fashion and history in a glorious, glowing dress that records what might happen if an eighteenth-century nobleman slipping off his embroidered coat at the gaming table was time-shifted into a Dior-suited Frenchwoman at an elegant lunch party gone unexpectedly wild: Dangerous Liaisons crossed with Belle de Jour, structural rigour and wilful abandon in a single garment.
Even ‘Cool Japan’ has a role in high art. Marketers would do well to remember that the most successful brands come from the collusion of the artist’s inventiveness with the desires of the masses and the businessman’s savvy. ‘Cool Japan’ is cool because Japan’s artists make it so. In this exhibition it’s represented by young designers who take pop culture icons like Hello Kitty and art concepts like Superflat and use them, not only as decoration, like stickers, but as integral parts of the design. The outfit on display from Hiroaki Ohya’s ‘Astroboy by Ohya’ line is accessorised with a crash helmet, ironic when Astro Boy’s human inspiration died tragically in a car crash. In another playful gesture, the clothes are set against a backdrop of painted mirrors, manga and pop-culture detritus.
The design of the exhibition, by Sou Fujimoto Architects, is inspired. Semi-transparent white panels diffuse and soften light like shoji screens, creating a sense of things half-glimpsed to entice. Mirrors with painted motifs inject fun and interactivity, as well as allowing that all-important 3D view. Shadows are well used in the media viewing spaces. The setting modulates mood and pace without detracting from the clothes themselves. The experience is further enhanced by an equally unobtrusive and equally beautiful sound installation, Unfolding, from Janek Schaefer, which is available for free download from the Barbican website.
The exhibition runs until 6th February 2011, and is worth several visits. It’s the best fashion exhibition I’ve seen in London in some time, and I include the fabulous Grace Kelly show at the V&A, as well as their earlier haute couture extravaganza. Even if you’re not into fashion, there is so much to be learned here about the Japanese aesthetic and the workings of culture as a global event that you shouldn’t miss it.
It’s supported by a season at the Barbican Cinema, GirlsWorld, exploring images of contemporary Japanese women, by a cosplay extravaganza on 6 November, by a special Japanimation screening of two CLAMP movies, and by a whole series of evening events, workshops and lectures which I’ll doubtless mention on Twitter and here from time to time. Full details are on the Barbican’s website.