GIFT SHOULD NOT STAY IN THE BOX
THE FUTURE OF JAPANESE AESTHETICS AND FASHION
“Not something we’ve seen, not something repeated,Discover new things, move forward, and be free and passionate.”
How many people get to engage in creation without limiting their feeling and thoughts?
Japan's leading fashion brand COMME des GARÇONS once had the above line as their advertising message. It’s a catchy but profound one. Rei Kawakubo, the founder, owner, and designer of the brand, caused surprise, confusion, and new debate in Paris about 40 years ago.
What did COMME des GARÇONS bring to the fashion scene? Kawakubo's debut in Paris, later called the arrival of the “shocking black,” was made with a style very opposite to the body-conscious, colorful, and luxurious “prêt-à-porter” (ready-to-wear) design which was the trend at that time. It was an all-black sweater with a relaxed silhouette and detailed design resembling a pile of worn rag pieces. The design, called “Hiroshima chic,” featured asymmetry and a new combination of materials, demonstrating its aggressive purpose to deconstruct the dominant concept of beauty established by western culture. It was a departure from the popular aesthetic of symmetric and harmonious perfection, and somehow reminiscent of Japan’s original sense of beauty in that it challenges perfection by adding an element of imperfection. Together with Yohji Yamamoto, another Japanese fashion designer who made his debut in Paris around the same time, they brought this new sense of beauty to the prêt-à-porter dominant world, which later on attracted global interest to Japan’s fashion culture.
How did creations like COMME des GARÇONS or Yohji Yamamoto come about? We can get a hint by looking into the old-time sense of beauty in Japan and the more recent fashion and culture.If we look at the fashion scene in the 1990s and onwards in Japan, we can find concrete examples of how the aesthetic concept of “finding beauty in imperfection” mentioned above has impacted modern pop culture. Think about Japanese schoolgirls of the 1990s, for example. Their fashion, comprised of a unique pair of socks called “loose socks” matched up with their school uniforms, purposely tanned skin, and uniquely decorative makeup, can be considered as their way of breaking down the conventional image of schoolgirls and creating a whole new schoolgirl image.
After 2000, the fashion focus started to shift into developing techniques to “break perfection” in “real clothes” (a Japanese made-up term meaning practical or day-to-day clothing as opposed to fancy and highly fashionable ones). Furthermore, since 2010, a new trend called “Nuke-style” (“Nuke” means lacking; thus it refers to a fashion style that purposefully adds a hint of imperfection) has become popular. This trend may also be found in the many favored Japanese mascots, or “Yuru-chara” (“Yuru” means loose and “chara” comes from the term “character”), which are intentionally laid-back or ugly-cute, and which exemplify how people find beauty in imperfect things.
In terms of traditional Japanese art, this sense of beauty is also observed in the “Haboku” style of ink painting (“Sumie”) which is a technique to overlay ink to generate a three-dimensional effect, as well as in the “Wabi-sabi” world view related to the Japanese tea ceremony (“Sado”). In Haboku, there is the act of breaking a rough, dark-ink sketch by layering thick black ink (“sumi”), and in Sado, there is the destruction of perfection by contrasting a purposely irregular tea bowl with a perfectly serene tea room. The tendency of Japanese people to find more beauty in the partial moon than in the full moon is also illustrative of their underlying aesthetic.
Given this cultural background, it seems very natural for creators like Rei Kawakubo or Yohji Yamamoto to be born. Interestingly, the proliferation of social media and various online communication tools of the present time have made it easier for these unique creators to express their deconstructive approach to art. Creators are taking inspiring ideas from the internet and social media, recreating something new by adding an element of imperfection, and releasing it back again. This cycle will go on. However, it is a fact that we are lacking outstanding creators who can lead the scene after Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
Becoming a fashion designer in Japan is still extremely challenging. There are only a few educational institutions specialized in fashion design, as well as places to gain knowledge and experience in the fashion business after becoming an independent designer. There are not many internship programs among apparel companies and maisons (fashion houses) in the country. The number of fashion awards established by the public and private sectors has been increasing these days, but is not enough.
On the other hand, we are moving into an era of individual power with the rise of social media, increasing self-branding, and diversified work style including freelancing and side jobs. Individuals are being empowered, and various ways of interactive communication have become possible. It would be a shame having to wait till new opportunities are offered for education, work, or competition.
Deconstruct what’s built, make it reborn into something new, and add a new meaning to it. It may be our traditional aesthetics that could play a key role in this process to break through our challenge.
“Not something we’ve seen, not something repeated. Discover new things, move forward, and be free and passionate.” This message from Kawakubo I showed at the beginning is the key to create the next generation of outstanding Japanese designers.