Future Beauty - 30 Years of Japanese Fashion

This Barbican expo marks the first major exhibition in Europe to expansively investigate the avant-gardes of Japanese fashion history

Isabella Blow in Hiroaki OhyaIsabella

Focusing on its three pioneers - Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto - this show investigates Japan's influence over international fashion and fellow countrymen. The Barbican marks 1981 (when Kawakubo and Yamamoto debuted their collections in Paris, joining Miyake) as the beginning of the revolutionary process. The two designers presented their work to 100 people in a hotel, where Kawakubo’s first collection was described as "apocalyptic clothing pierced with holes, tattered and torn, almost like clothing worn by nuclear holocaust survivors” by the French newspaper Le Figaro. Almost 30 years later, Dazed Digital speaks to Barbican’s curator Catherine Ince on the importance of exhibiting these designers.

Dazed Digital: Why did you decide to stage the exhibition?
Catherine Ince: The Kyoto Costume Institute, from which the exhibits will come from, are the foremost collection of Japanese Fashion. They don’t have any public access to their collection, so they seek out international partnerships every 4 or 5 years.  They approached the Barbican after seeing the success of the Viktor & Rolf exhibition in 2008 and asked if we wanted to collaborate on a retrospective of Japanese Fashion. As we approach 2011, it has been 30 years since Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo first came to international acclaim in Paris. It seemed like a good point in time to mark the 30 years at which Japanese fashion became internationally well known.

DD: There has never been a full survey of Japanese Fashion in Europe. How important was it for the Barbican to present the work of these designers?
Catherine Ince: I think it is really important to recognise what these designers have done and what they are continuing to do. It is also really exciting to also be showing the next generation of Japanese designers who have started their labels in the last 5 years or so. They are predominantly presenting their work in Tokyo at the moment, so it’s great to bring their work to London. The most important thing is to recognise that this collection of Japanese designers have made a massively influential contribution to international fashion. Bringing the exhibition to the Barbican ensures that people who aren’t from the fashion world are given the opportunity to see their work. It is a great opportunity.

DD: How did you go about choosing each of the designer pieces to exhibit?
Catherine Ince: The exhibition takes a very Japanese reading of the work of these designers. The first half of the exhibition is arranged thematically; so we are looking at characteristics that one can find in the work of these designers that are particularly Japanese, if you like. There is a section titled ‘Embrace the Shadows’, which looks at the Japanese love of dark and shade. It focuses on this monochromatic palate that particularly Kawakubo and Yamamoto use in 80’s. The pieces that we selected show the continual use of black throughout these three decades, highlighting how important the exploration of black was and still is. We also wanted a balance of things that have rarely or haven’t been seen before, so we combined classic things with more recent pieces, which are more familiar. We also have a section called ‘Traditional Innovation’, which is a mixture of garments that take inspiration from traditional Japanese techniques and fabrics that have been re-interpreted for modern wear. In essence, you choose pieces that exemplify the points you are trying to make about the Japanese characteristics of design.

DD: The Viktor & Rolf exhibition used video projections alongside physical garments. Will this exhibition also use a variety of media? 
Catherine Ince: Viktor & Rolf was a monograph show, so it was very different to curating an entire body of designers. Essentially with this show, we are trying to tell the story of Japanese fashion. We will have catwalk footage, interviews with the designers and hopefully if we can get it secured, we will have footage from ballets in which the designers have created the costumes. We may well include other material, which explores how these designers have communicated their work and their brand identity. However the emphasis is really on the clothes.

DD: All three designers are very private and have rarely given interviews…
Catherine Ince: Rei Kawakubo notoriously doesn’t give interviews but we are showing an one that she did in 1990. It is a really great archive piece in which she talks very freely about her process. She addresses how her way of working has directly influenced her designs, the designs of her shops and the research she has made. It is really great to have the interview because you see her in a different light. She is less shy.

DD: It is strange, because in terms of retail concepts each of the designers have communicated well with the public, yet they have not been given a major exhibition in the UK.
Catherine Ince: Yes, absolutely. I don’t know why there has not been a retrospective. It is strange really, given that everybody cites them as major influences.

DD: Finally, will there be a publication to accompany the exhibition?
Catherine Ince: Yes there will be. We have essays by Akiko Fukai (who curated the exhibition and is also the director of the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan) and from the German academic writer Dr Barbara Vinken, who has explored the conversation these Japanese designers have had with the West. It is also full of great photography including works by Nick Knight, Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. 

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion runs from 15th October 2010 – 6th February 2011 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

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