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Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Barbican

The Barbican celebrates three decades of the Japanese avant-garde, featuring grand masters Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake and many, many more!

Written by Matt Bramford

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons 1997, illustrated by Faye West

The next few months are an absolute treat for fashion fans – there are exhibitions popping up all over the place. First on my fashionable list was the Barbican‘s offering – a retrospective of the last thirty years of the Japanese avant-garde.

Now anybody who saw the fabulous Viktor & Rolf extravaganza a couple of years ago will know that the Barbican sure knows how to put on a fashion exhibition – the art gallery on the third level of the brutalist ziggurat couldn’t be any better suited: concrete alcoves, pebbled-dashed walls and hard stone floors all add to the atmosphere and with each show you’d be forgiven for thinking the space had been constructed solely for the current exhibition – particularly this one.

Junya Watanabe, illustrated by Baiba Ladiga

To create the feeling of a journey, the gallery has been adorned with translucent drapes that lead you around various examples. We start with magnificent pieces from the grand masters – Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake feature heavily, as do the newer major players.

The lower level of the exhibition aims to bring together the key ideas and themes that define what we know of the Japanese avant-garde. Ideas like wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection) and ma (which generally translates as the space between objects) are explained and brought to life with a broad range of examples from the great Japanese masters. Wabi-sabi is explored with examples from Junya Watanabe, Rei Kawakubo et al – fraid hems, unfinished seams and abnormal folds all appear in their collections, and it was this (un)attention to detail and deliberately unfinished aesthetic that first drew attention to the Japanese couturiers.

There are great examples of ma, too; where garments are constructed to work against the female form, they are celebrated. Cue works of wonder like Issey Miyake’s origami numbers, Tao Kurihara’s groundbreaking sculptural pieces and Koji Tatsuno’s ridiculous but wonderful golden brown nylon net dress, which turns the figure into a giant sphere (think pumpkin Hallowe’en costume with Japanese drama.)

Fruits! Illustrated by Gareth A Hopkins

The lower levels also explore broader concepts that have been recurrent in Japanese fashion – shadows, flatness, tradition (and inspiration) and ‘Cool Japan’ (or Fruits as we lovingly refer to this fashion and their wearers). The ‘Cool Japan’ stuff doesn’t float my boat as much as the grand masters and their illustrious heritage. I used to like it, a lot, but I think it’s a little passé these days. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but when you’ve walked through three decades of expertly cut, uniquley tailored and innovatively crafted Japanese fashion, seeing Hello Kitty pyjamas and Manga t-shirts is a little deflating. Tao Kurihara’s exemplary cable-knit underwear does add some sophistication, though.

Illustration by Lesley Barnes

While I love getting my teeth into a good fashion theme, I often wish that they’d just give us a hand and put things in chronological order. This is a particularly difficult feat to overcome with Japanese fashion – a Junya Watanabe/Comme des Garçons black nylon taffeta coat slash padded puffa jacket with intricate gold chain sits side by side a Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons black gauze skirt and top with interlaced, looped bands from 1983. They could pretty much be from the same collection.

Similarly, a silk 1970s Kenzo blouse is positioned next to a 2005 kimono, which cold be 500 years old, even, but they still fit perfectly together. I guess it is this harmony that has strung Japanese fashion together over the years that makes it so inspiring.

Issey Miyake/A-POC, 1999, illustrated by Naomi Law

Upstairs is a different story and a different designer is celebrated in each of the concrete alcoves. The greats are covered – Yamamoto, Kawakubo, Miyake and Watanabe – along with newer labels like Mintdesigns and Jun Takahashi.

Yohji Yamamoto

Yohji Yamamoto 1999, illustrated by Abby Wright

I do love Mr Yamamoto, who is described as the ‘most poetic’ of the Japanese fashion designers, and it’s easy to see why. But what I love most are his highly charged collections with a hint of cynicism. His juxtaposition of hopelessly romantic silhouettes (drawing inspiration from Western culture and, in particular, Dior’s New Look) and his androgynous forms is, I believe, totally unique even today. Who else combines elements of couture with workwear? Well, maybe Galliano, but that’s besides the point.

There’s a limited selection from his illustrious career in fashion – but I was pleased to see the quilted polyester dress with a modernist bone structure – totally feminine but innovative at the same time. Some Y-3 pieces appear, but they’re totally lost at the side of his master couturier craftsmanship.

Issey Miyake

Illustration by Joana Faria

At first, I thought presenting only Miyake’s latest project – 132 5 – was a bit of an odd choice. ‘Where are his innovative numbers that toyed with gender and influenced so many in the 1980s?’ I wondered. What a complete wonderer I am these days. Some of his A-POC pieces appear downstairs, in particular the dramatic and iconic red knitted numbers.

However, when I actually stopped wondering and had a look at this 132 5 malarkey, I was breathless. This new line, continuing Miyake’s boundary-breaking experiments in materials, feature intricately folded and steam pressed polygons of material – sustainable material, no less! Hooray for Miyake!

On the floor, they don’t look much – well, they’re beautiful but you don’t look like you get much frock for your buck. That is until they’re placed onto the body and they transform into incredible, geometric, sculptural, architectural wonders. Truly breathtaking stuff and my favourite pieces in the entire exhibition.

Rei Kawakubo

Illustration by Alia Gargum

Described as the ‘most influential living fashion designer’, we owe thanks for decades of innovative but wearable menswear to Kawakubo and her legendary brand, Comme des Garçons. With her army of influenceables (Watanabe, Kurihara and most recently, Chitose Abe), Kawakubo is the matriarch of Japanese fashion.

Her iconic Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body collection of 1997 broke all the rules, with biological lumps and bumps that challenged Western ideals of the perfect body shape – while the collection’s playful gingham fabrics added a whimsical element. And, while she can mix it up a bit, she can sure do beauty – the pink knitted sweater dress, embroidered with unrivalled craftsmanship and teamed with a tulle bustle, exudes femininity and sparks a nostalgic look at the past.

Junya Watanabe

Junya Watanabe S/S 2003, illustrated by Maria del Carmen Smith

Watanabe is a bit of a character when it comes to fashion. His most shocking move to date was to show a collection entirely of Jacquard trouser suits, which says a lot about his work before that infamous S/S 2010 collection.

Described as the ‘techno couturier’, Watanabe trained under Rei Kawakubo, whose influence shines through in Watanabe’s collections. Sleeping-bag dresses and outlandish headgear features – but beyond the quirkier elements and performance fabrics, Watanabe’s pieces are infinitely wearable.


Mintdesigns, illustrated by Antonia Parker

Mintdesigns bring their own blend of innovation to the mix. A combination of unusual materials (translucent plastics, for example) and graphic patterns, this Tokyo twosome are at the forefront of modern Japanese fashion with a younger feel. And I totally dig the dinosaur hat.

Phew! Well, if you’ve got to the end of this post, well done. That was a long one, no? I hope I’ve convinced you to go… you won’t regret it.

All photography by Matt Bramford

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7 Responses to “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Barbican”

  1. Cristian says:

    Thank you Amelia!
    This kind of post is pure GOLD for us creative looking for inspiration.
    Fresh air and fantasy!

  2. Amelia says:

    Why thankyou Cristian, but this gorgeous post was really down to the hard work of fashion ed Matt Bramford and a whole host of committed illustrators – why not join them? here’s how x

  3. Emma says:

    I’m really blown away by the stunning and creative illustrations taken from the Future Beauty exhibition….. I’ve seen a lot of blogs for this exhibition and this one really stands out!

  4. Amelia says:

    Why thank you Emma, we’ll take that as a major compliment since you actually work at the Barbican – now can you make sure we’re invited to press views pretty please? thankyou xx

  5. Amanda Kitchens says:

    You have convinced me. This is awesome. I can’t really go, but I really, really love this post.

  6. Sophie says:

    I’ve been – and you described it perfectly! Really really

  7. [...] even happier, some sketches, material experiments, information about the patterns, etc …. (as this extensive blogpost also shows). As having been in Japan I am quite familiar with some of their styles and patterns, but [...]

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