Junya Watanabe is one of fashion’s most elusive mythmakers. Raised in the cult of Comme des Garçons – the Japanese “anti-fashion” brand founded by Rei Kawakubo in 1969 – he’s become known for his subversive designs and cryptic storytelling. It’s a trait synonymous with the company, which operates behind closed doors and through secret rituals. But for Watanabe, who joined fresh out of fashion college in 1984 and became Kawakubo’s 23-year-old protégé before being given his own namesake label in ’92, it’s become a mentality. His collections link the past, future and present in a constant state of flux and are, he tells us in a rare interview, “deliberately stateless”. This feeling imbues each of his designs, which have developed into their own cryptic fashion folklore.
This season, Watanabe pushed the notion of statelessness to new extremes. Inside the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution in Paris, among the remains of dinosaur skeletons, he gave us a strange hybrid of characters, devoid of one specific reference or connection to a place. The dark and twisted performance was set to the pulsating soundtrack of Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo”. Models appeared with feathered headdresses poking out of wild braided wigs, their garments knotted together and slashed to extremes. “There was no clear-cut story,” he says. “I believe a mixture and comparison of various images was the key to this collection – expansive land art and street fashion, spiritual and artificial matters, and also the mix of extraordinary and ordinary.”
This hybrid of references tells the story of Watanabe’s warped vision for SS14, for which primitive details of Native American dress were set against the post-apocalyptic destruction of his garments. “Fringes and slashes were a guideline that led to creating the patterns,” he explains. Working through a process of “various trials” resulted in an array of tangled forms made up from strips of suede and loose jersey, which were then draped around the body in several layers. At times this collection became a play on western archetypes of fashion – bikers and cowboys – but reinterpreted so that leather jackets sat uncomfortably on the body and tattered denim jeans were covered in patchworks.
“A mixture and comparison of various images was key to this collection – expansive land art and street fashion, spiritual and artificial matters, extraordinary and ordinary”
An important part of Watanabe’s process is his longstanding relationship with milliner and hair stylist Katsuya Kamo, whom he’s worked with since 1996. Kamo has come to play a pivotal role in crafting and realising Watanabe’s warped vision, and this was never more apparent than in his SS14 show. Each look was paired with a tangled wig consisting of string plaits in fiery reds and inky blacks. These elaborate dreadlocks were thrown on top of the models’ heads, often concealing their faces, before long feathers were added for the final four looks. “We don’t really talk much about a show in advance,” Kamo says of their mysterious work process. “Even I don’t see clothes until the show rehearsal.” Watanabe is notoriously private and few are let into his inner circle. “When I collaborate with Mr Watanabe I don’t know what will be happening in the end,” Kamo continues. “A final decision relies on him.”
Kamo has in the past created extreme headpieces for Watanabe, often throwing the collections off-balance so they enter a new realm – such as black balaclava masks stretched over geometric shapes and large bouquets of wild flowers carried on top of models' heads. This season, Watanabe’s instructions were: “A mixture of indigenous roughness and high-end street style.” It's said that watching Kamo work backstage was like witnessing a piece of strange ritualistic performance art.
Much of Watanabe’s allure is rooted in his mystery and cryptic storytelling. At the end of each of his shows he rarely steps out to take a bow, nor are we ever given an explanation for the collection. His clothes seem indefinable, but are always magical and shocking, just like Kawakubo’s pioneering work at Comme des Garçons. Watanabe has carried on her philosophy and rebellious spirit and pushed it even further. For him, “it’s about leaving all thoughts behind at the start and wanting to start something different,” a goal he continues to achieve season after season.
Photography Chikashi Sazuki
Styling Junsuke Yamasaki
Hair and make-up Katsuya Kamo at Mod's Hair
Model Giedre Kiaulenaite at Wizard Models
Photographic assistants Ryohei Toyama, Reiko Toyama
Studio assistants Masaki Iwase and Yoshiko Shiigi at Iino Mediapro
Hair and make-up assistants Keiko Tada at Mod's Hair, Kanako Yoshida
Production Junsuke Yamasaki
Casting Noah Shelly for AM Casting
Special Thanks Iino Minami, Aoyama Studio, Naoki Kotaka, Wizard Models
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