In the 1960s, Japanese designers came out from an economic and industrial boom. This was the beginning of the first "Asian invasion' of the fashion world and by the early 1980's, Rew Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto's names were wildly popular. Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were the first few Japanese designers that found admiration for Japanese art and idea of modernism through the channels of developing technology, visual imagery and three dimensional figures. They first made a real impression on the fashion world in 1982 with the creation of the Japanese aesthetic. Their entry into the international fashion scene was not only puzzled but was fascinated by many in the fashion industry. This paper will discuss the significance of the designs by Rei Kawakubo and Yojhi Yamamoto on the international fashion catwalks in the nineties with relation to the specific methods of construction and materials they used in their collections.
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While Kawakubo and Yamamoto have a distinctive point of view on fabric deconstruction, however the two designers share a commonality for creative artistic design collaborations in developing their collections, marketing and image.
Evident in Kawakuno's designs was the exaggerated and hyperbolic manufactured aesthetics. She collaborated with architecture, Takao Kawasaki, which bought about the designer's first Comme des Garcons boutiques (da Cruz, 2004). Kawakubo had a longing to make garments that was an ever changing result of its social cultural environment, showing both the Neo-realism and Futurism in her runway collections and marketing (da Cruz, 2004).
Yamamoto on the other hand, was loyal to the Japanese cloth traditions and was famous for his kimono-inspired trench coats and shirts. He had a desire for the pure geometric forms of pure clothing and found ways in integrating modern sportswear constructions into his designs. This technique brings a postmodern street chic feel to his designs and also has the important role of protection and durability.
The evolution of fibre technology with the tonal and textual eclecticism gave way to show designers how important their uses of raw materials were in their designs. With the continual movement in fabric and structure of clothing, it directed the concept of drapery in Yamamoto's designs and the shrouding, texturing and layering techniques in Kawakuno's designs.
Seeking to redefine the universal concept of beauty in fashion, Yamamoto demonstrates through the preference for asymmetrical shapes, oversized clothes and models of all ages, challenging the norms of perfection, and body. Most evident was in his refusal to use the traditional forms of feminine glamour and sex appeal through make up, heels, skin baring and fitted clothes. Yamamoto's design creations revolutionised the Western fashion for women with its structured figure hugging clothing that sexualised the female body. He also designed garments that wrapped the female body with fabric, ignoring the usual accentuation points and moving the attention to the back. The fashion silhouette and the body/clothing relationship changed from this point onwards. Yamamoto created designs based on breaking down men's clothing to form graceful and stylish women's garments, by playing his garment, he exhibited challenging ideas of how women faced both masculine and feminine sides of being a woman. Many were fascinated in his work of challenging the ambiguity of gender whether this was through the women models in his menswear shows or his refusal to follow the traditional Western definitions of women's wear and menswear.
Kawakubo studied fine arts and literature and being untrained as a fashion designer, she communicated her ideas to her patternmakers. She employed the romantic subtleties of historic fashion but yet champions cold synthetic fibres in her finishing designs. "The piece that most resembles this tendency was the "lace" sweaters from the Comme des Garcons fall/ winter 1982-1983 collection. It featured black wool knits distressed with gaping holes to invoke the composition of lace" (da Cruz, 2004). She created designs intentionally to create a look that seemed incomplete and had been worn, in order to create something different and extraordinary by resisting to common sense and provide stimulating challenges to the idea of perfection (Kawamura, 2004). The initial reactions of the public look upon with distaste, however over time they grew to admire and astonished with her designs and the look she wanted to create (Baudot, 1999). Kawakubo (in Ayre 1989:11) states that 'Perfect symmetry is uglyâ€¦ I always want to destroy symmetry', this was postmodernism applied as its best to fashion. Kawakubo did not apply the traditional clothes- making or fashion design institutions to her work and worked against what was seen as how traditional designers should design. She was one of the first to show designers that the going against the normal processes can also be accepted.
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Yamamoto often experimented with innovations in technical textiles and new synthetic sand also implemented unconventional natural materials in his designs. According to Yamamoto, "I start with the fabric, the actual material, the "feel" of it. I then move onto the form. Possibly what counts most for me is the feel. And then, when I start working with the material, I think my way into the form it ought to assume." (Vinken) "He blurred the boundaries between prêt a porter and haute couture fashion" (Duncan, 2007). When Yamamoto first started designing clothes, he knew there were 'two ways'. Firstly by working with formal classical shapes, and secondly being casual. "That's what I decided on but I wanted a new kind of casual sportswear that could have the same status as formal clothing" (Menkes, 2003). In his 1991 fall/winter collection, a vest and skirt outfit was made entirely of hinged wood slats. This established his dedication to communicating the raw visual distinctions as a designer he was (da Cruz, 2004).
Yamamoto was characterised as hang an 'anti fashion' approach by creating often sculpted asymmetrical, often oversized shapes that are layered and usually black. He was influenced by traditional indigenous Japanese clothing and by "historical Western uniforms and industrial work wear. In other words clothes that is functional. His original 'look' was based on his desire to give the kimono a new shape and energy" (Duncan, 2007).
Paris had a strict couture tradition and bourgeois heritage and was shaken by the vision of Kawakubo's work- it was regarded as minimal and nihilistic. In contrast with the opulent gowns, tailored suits and gentle colours of designers like Dior, Kawakubo's collection consisted of trousers with sweater cuffs around the ankles, tunics that transformed into shawls, oversized overcoats and shapeless knitwear constructed with holes. She regarded the conventions of fashion as a necessary evil. Kawakubo had an obscure approach to clothing construction echoing the concept of a visual artist more than a fashion designer. She often attempted to translate art styles into clothing- minimalism, abstraction, postmodernism and deconstruction. Kawakubo was praised and criticized for pushing the fashion boundaries forward.
Also famous for simple, functional elegance but yet sexy, Yamamoto's early garments relied solely on the "irregular details like uneven hems and collars, hems with zips, cut outs, pockets or flaps. The label inside stated: There is nothing as boring as a neat and tidy look" (Mitchell, 2005). Creating designs that would disagree from the traditional Japanese design philosophy that values the asymmetry and irregularities of nature. Yamamoto believes 'perfection is ugly', and symmetry 'not sufficiently human' and desires for the 'scars, failure, disorder, distortion' in people to come out and be shown (Duncan, 2007). In the late eighties, his designs evolved into a more structured and fitted silhouette outstanding for their cut, craftsmanship and material originality. From the nineties onwards, his collection displayed a more Westernised fashion aesthetic and showed his ongoing romantic references to historical French couture styles from the Belle Epoque bustle to classic fifties' Dior (Duncan, 2007).
During the time where French couturiers ruled the fashion world, black was not considered a colour for day wear; Yamamoto and Kawakubo challenged this norm.
Yamamoto's designs were consistently monochromatic with emphasis on black. The occasional off white, red, purple, brown and dark blue would make an appearance through his collections but black were usually his preference for his creations. He favoured black because he described black as 'modest and arrogant at the same time'. 'Black is lazy and easy- but mysterious. It means that many things go together, yet it takes different aspects in many fabrics. You need to have a silhouette. Black can swallow light or make things look sharp. But above all black says this:' I don't bother you- don't bother me.'(Duncan, 2007)
Like Yamamoto, Kawakubo was also famous for the love of black. She was famous for designing in many shades of black rather than black alone. Her autumn 1988 collection was burst with colour, declaring 'Red is Black' (Quinn, 2002). She has continued to move away from black fabric and stated that its popularity among other designers has diminished its power. 'Black is no longer strong and has become harder to use,' Kawakubo said in an interview with Susannah Frankel (Quinn, 2002).
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Designers in the 1980s, sought engagement with everyday life, and found inspiration in people the real world. Likewise, Yamamoto also sought a distinct relationship with women who wore his clothes. By looking at the pre-modern consumer, he envisions people dressing for their role in society. Parallels are seen in his desire to make "costumes' for working women, and how his clothing looked like they have been lived in, as though it had a passion for the past and the hatred for what was new.
Both designers broke clothing rules, against the custom 1980s haute couture opulence, traditional ideas of beauty and gender. Yamamoto's talent allowed him to construct shapes and forms that naturally adjust with a woman's contours and movement. His garments showed Yamamoto's commitment to creating fresh and new silhouettes through his sculptural cross-examination of shape and material. This mean his clothes were easy and comfortable to wear. Yamamoto believed 'the essence of a woman is in her joints' (Yamamoto). He tested his boundaries of designs by using his techniques of cutting and cut outs which puts him in par with modern couturiers like Pierre Cardin. His creations were rarely cut close to the figure and this was as fundamental component of Yamamoto's designs. Yamamoto's design philosophy was there should always be some interaction between the body, the wearer and the essential spirit of the designer. His focus was always on the shape of a feminine body when designing and believed, by looking at the clothes someone is wearing, you are able to get an idea of the personality of a person (Duncan, 2007).
Kawakubo's talent is working with both deconstructed and reconstructed the vernacular of Western tailoring. In contrast with Yamamoto's passions for producing functional clothing, Kawakubo deconstructs clothing by disregarding its function. One of the most famous was a dress that had no openings, making it possible to put on. But Kawakubo insisted it could be worn and was offended when told it could only be used as an apron. She focused on using jacket lapels to design halter neck jackets and scarves. Her men's suits consisted of cropped trousers with double- breasted sports jackets with shawl collars and 'bleached' classic checked fabrics. She challenged the concept of fashion having to be beautiful by slashing and shredding her silhouettes while other designers were cutting and draping theirs. Her habit continued onto adding more than two sleeves to a shirt and turning shapes upside down or inside out, baffled the fashion world but turned her into a pioneer of her stream. Many of her clothes are also designed to be worn in a variety of unconventional ways. This pushes the boundaries between occasion- specific wear and everyday wear to end (Quinn, 2002).
Yamamoto's gift was combining traditional Japanese garments, with the use of both the kimono and the obi combined with Modern Western Fashion everyday wear clothing. By creating classical garments which were both sensual and appealing. In his spring /summer 1993 collection, he experimented with new fabrics using the Thai and African fabrics. His design's always stressed the importance of raw materials, enabling him to learn and discover different tones and textures in his work. While he often engaged in working with new fabrics, Yamamoto also used natural fabrics like linen and Herringbone woollen fabrics. While he often said oriental fabric was boring and dull, In Yamamoto 1995 Spring/ Summer Collection he was able to counter this by creating a kimono from exotic flowing gowns inspired by the Japanese art of dying fabric.
Through the commonly shared ideas and presence of Yamamoto and Kawakubo on the international catwalks, at first appeared to shake the foundations of the established fashion capitals but in reality have reinforced the supremacy of fashion. Participating in the international fashion catwalks earned them the social, economic and symbolic capital that enabled them to differentiate themselves among other Japanese designers. Kawakubo and Yamamoto have continually put forth their ideas which, in turn significantly contributed and boosted the rise of Japans fashion industry by communicating its visual and artistic designs to the fashion world. Despite their provocative collections, they have revolutionised the industry and paved a way for Japan's influence on fashion, easing the path for younger Japanese designers and to a larger extent to the acceptance to Asian designers, in a world previously closed off to them. In respective to the collections, both designers have linked their differing ideas from Western fashion, with the use of Japan's rich visual heritage as a foundation for aesthetic, social and political collection of cultures around the world. "Kawakubo and Yamamoto runway designs strive towards theatricality, luxury visual and organic movement" (da Cruz, 2004). Black is now a palette for day and night wear and both designers have become the leaders of the avant-garde. Today, the dark silhouettes in distressed fabrics common in both designers are worn by women all over the world. Over the past 30 years, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto have proven to the international fashion world with their revolutionary work, proving that Asian designers could be inspiration to others.
Cotton dress, Rei Kawakubo Comme des Garçons, Autumn/ Winter 1984. Kyoto Costume Institute collection. Photo by Takashi Hatekeyama, courtesy KCI.
Felt dress, Yohji Yamamoto, Autumn/Winter 1996. Kyoto Costume Institute collection. Photo by Takashi Hatekeyama, courtesy KCI