WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
In 1854, after centuries of isolation from foreign influence, Japan opened its doors to the West after witnessing the awesome firepower of the American naval fleet at the hands of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Just over a century later, the West’s most impenetrable fashion capital Paris would open its doors to the Japanese. In 1981, designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto flew from Tokyo to France and showcased ‘la mode Japonaise’ for the first time to a Western audience, and catwalks have been turning Japanese ever since.
Against the opulent glamour of the 1980s, with its Armani power suits on Wall Street and Versace-clad socialites, Kawakubo’s unique brand of Japanese fashion, with its distressed fabrics and unfinished seams, challenged the fashion status quo. Fast forward to today, and the avant-garde design and radical reputation that so terrified the Western fashion establishment are precisely why Japanese clothing brands are so in-demand. While the inventive shapes and monochrome tones that defined the pioneering Japanese fashion brands were applauded by industry insiders and the elite, it was the Japanese streetwear brands that helped Eastern fashion break into the mainstream. When decades of post-war technological innovation and resulting economic booms driven by the likes of Sony and Panasonic began to grind to a halt in the 1990s, more affordable and casual Japanese fashion styles dominated –– from Harajuku streetwear to burgeoning subcultures like Kogyaru school girls. By the late Nineties, brands like A Bathing Ape had become thoroughly entrenched as part of American pop culture and set a template for limited product numbers.
Whether they’re striving for mastery of traditional Japanese techniques and materials, making vintage Americana better than the Americans themselves do, or defining the future of contemporary fashion with their ultra-modernity, Japanese fashion designers remain some of the most fascinating in the global fashion landscape. Here’s our pick of some of the most iconic and up-and-coming brands from Tokyo.
The Top Japanese Fashion Designers
Sacai has all the signs of becoming Japan’s next superpower. Brands like Apple, The North Face, and Beats that close-guard their image have been clamoring to collaborate with the brand founded by Chitose Abe. What’s most amazing is that Sacai began life as a collection of knitwear created by Abe while on maternity leave. After working as a pattern cutter for Comme des Garçons, Abe would go on to work for Junya Watanabe helping to launch their mens collection before starting Sacai, so it’s fair to say she learned from the best. What Sacai does best is break down the divisions between casual and normal clothing, creating clothes that are suitable for any occasion. Largely sportswear-inspired, pieces are often hybridized from two different garments such as an M-A1 bomber jacket fused with a skirt. Alongside Abe’s signature flourishes like ruffling, asymmetric cuts, and patchworked fabrics, Sacai’s innovative separates are masterfully designed and set to be some of the most dependable and wearable pieces in your wardrobe. An ongoing collaboration with Nike is a more affordable way to get a hold of a piece for your collection, with each silhouette redefining the meaning of sneaker collaborations with the hybridization of two Nike classics in one shoe.
Jun Takahashi is one of the few Japanese designers who can create one of the coolest cult streetwear brands, yet still put together the most highly anticipated and well-received shows at PFW too. That Valentino chose to collaborate with Undercover in 2019 just shows what the fashion industry thinks of Takahashi’s work. What started as a punk streetwear brand inspired by The Sex Pistols has grown into a fully fledged fashion label that explores the contrast of opposites, whether that’s cute but scary or beautiful yet ugly at the same time. Though Takahashi has stopped doing womenswear, his focus on menswear has made Undercover even more subversive, featuring cultural references from some of his favorite pieces of art, from Joy Division album covers to stills from Stanley Kubrick films. Not one to lose touch with his practical roots, his collaborations with the likes of Supreme and Gyakusou –– his running line with Nike –– are some of the most sought-after in streetwear.
Comme des Garçons
Founded by the undeniable queen of Japanese fashion Rei Kawakubo (who alongside then romantic partner Yohji Yamamoto first stunned the fashion industry when she presented her seminal ‘Black Crows’ collection during Paris Fashion Week 1982), since 1969 Comme des Garçons has grown from a single label to encompass a whole universe of subdivisions, collaborative lines, and labels. While Kawakubo’s trademark use of black distressed fabrics and unfinished seams has never left the brand, now it’s probably more widely known for its casual luxury line Play with its heart motif seen on wardrobe staples and achingly cool Converse sneakers in cities everywhere. The original and the best, CDG always challenges the status quo with its radical references, unconventional proportions, and abstract runway shows. Closer to wearable art or sculpture, CDG mainline is often peppered with ruching, distressing, and deconstruction, but one thing is for sure –– CDG is undefinable. Along with the mainline, diffusion lines like Shirt, Deux, and Homme Plus are always bringing surprises to the fashion world in true punk style.
There are two main threads running through Japanese fashion, and Junya Watanabe is linked to both of them. Firstly, he studied at Bunka Fashion College just like Yohji Yamamoto and Jun Takahashi, and secondly he worked at Comme des Garçons from 1984 until 1992 as a pattern cutter and then head designer for their Tricot knitwear label. After founding his eponymous label, itself under the CDG label, he moved to Paris which seemed like a natural home for his avant-garde fashion. Dubbed as ‘techno-couture’, Watanabe’s work is seen as some of the most intellectual in fashion, being both challenging to design and construct as well as to wear. His garments are usually extremely structured and made with technologically advanced textiles (often focusing on one fabric per collection), or crafted with intricate cuts and draping. While his approach is very experimental, often his work centers around making the old seem new –– his menswear takes what he calls ’dumb clothes’ e.g. trench coats, bike jackets, and shirting reworking them into fresh and new constructions. Watanabe will be your go-to for clever garments with reversible functionality and elevating denim to couture levels of work.
Prior to founding his namesake label Yohji Yamamoto was studying law, but following the advice of his mother –– a dressmaker –– and the tutelage of her sewing assistants, Yamamoto would go on to win a yearlong trip to Paris through Tokyo’s prestigious Bunka Fashion College. Here he would hone his fashion sensibility, eventually opening up his first shop there in the 1980s. Just like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto’s breakthrough came at the now legendary 1982 PFW where he featured tattered, unfinished garments with raw hems giving the impression that they were thrown together last minute. Staying true to his vision, Yamamoto’s eponymous label –– and his women’s RTW line Y’s –– is still adored by artists and urban creatives for its loose flowing drapery, seemingly haphazard deconstruction, gender ambiguity, and lots of black. Ever the innovator, with his Y-3 collection produced in collaboration with adidas, Yamamoto in many ways created the precursor to the present-day fusion of sportswear and high-fashion.
After cutting his teeth at some of Paris and New York’s most prestigious fashion houses –– Givenchy and Guy La Roche to name a few –– Issey Miyake (real name Miyake Kazumaru) decided he wanted to follow a more democratic path in the industry. With a vision to create clothing for everyone, the period that followed Issey Miyake’s first Paris show in 1973 was one of conceptual and technological brilliance. Miyake’s fusion of ancient Eastern fabrics like those used in kimonos combined with the Western pattern cutting and silhouettes he learned during his time in Europe and America cemented his reputation as a designer who effortlessly fused tradition and innovation, and East with West. Though these monastic creations were critically acclaimed, Miyake didn’t stop there –– fascinated with exploring the relationship between clothing and the body, he started to push the boundaries of fabric technology too. His Pleats Please line explored uncreasable clothing through an innovative heat pressed pleating technology, while his A-Poc (A Piece Of Cloth) experiments saw continuous rolls of knitted tubes draped over models and cut to their specific shape to create follow customizable and finished dresses. To this day, Issey Miyake’s shows are adored for their original fabrics and innovation in garment technology.
A Bathing Ape
When Nigo first founded A Bathing Ape, little did he realize he’d help spawn an entire industry. Though it came about through necessity rather than strategy, BAPE’s extremely low product levels (Nigo couldn’t afford to create more) meant the product was often sold out thus setting the template for the exclusivity and drop release model that most modern day streetwear brands still operate with. As well as being one of the founding fathers of the Ura-Harajuku street culture with his shop Nowhere –– which was shared with Jun Takahashi of Undercover –– Nigo’s use of bright colors, cartoony prints, and military camo meant that A Bathing Ape was perfectly placed to be the brand that took Japanese streetwear to the West. By the end of the nineties, A Bathing Ape was seen on every major hip-hop star and Nigo even collaborated with Pharrell Williams on Billionaire Boys Club.
Hiromichi Ochiai is one of Japan’s most promising up and coming designers. Winning the Mainichi Fashion Grand Prix award for the best new designer in 2013, by 2015 Ochiai was doing his first runway show at Milan with backing from fashion legend Giorgio Armani. Just one year later, Ochiai became the first Japanese designer to reach the finals of the LVMH prize, and since SS17 his brand Facetasm has been a regular fixture at PFW. The secret to his success is in the name of his brand which derives from the word ‘facet’ –– Facetasm takes on multiple meanings and its various guises are different expressions of Tokyo street culture. Whether it’s elevated streetwear or sharp tailoring, each piece is an authentic reinterpretation of Japanese subculture, created using overlapping and mixed fabrics and styles alongside the brands signature trompe-l’œil layering, playful prints, and explosive colors.
What began as an audiovisual art project in 2001 had become a fully fledged fashion brand by 2004. With its gothic and dark toned garments, Julius has become an extension of founder Tatsuro Horikawa’s spiritual and religious fascinations while never losing its avant-garde art origins. Highly collectible and sought after for its leather jackets, each piece of Julius is made with rough textured materials or washed and wrinkled leathers to give a well-lived aesthetic. Constructed with often overlapping or oblique cuts, Horikawa’s work is not for the faint of heart, earning Julius its reputation as a brand for the real fashion connoisseur. Much copied and highly-influential pieces like jeans with extra-long stacked hems and elongated tank tops are unisex by design, making Julius equally adored amongst all genders.
Visvim is the result of founder Hiroki Nakamura’s love for Americana which blossomed during his time living in Alaska and exploring rural America and meeting the indigenous people who lived there. Through his passion for snowboarding and camping, Nakamura gained a job at Burton Snowboards, giving him the technical know-how he needed to found Visvim. His first range of footwear included the iconic FBT shoe, which mixed the uppers of a moccasin with the lightweight and cushioned sole of a sneaker, and has become symbolic of Visvim’s approach –– reworking rugged Americana using performance technologies like Gore-Tex. More recently, the brand adored by the likes of Eric Clapton and John Mayer has focused on Japan’s artisanal traditions using techniques like indigo or muddying to create ‘Wabi Sabi’-inspired future vintage. Visvim’s key offerings include military-inspired outerwear, social sculpture denim, Cordura backpacks and a variety of work boot silhouettes.
As with many of his peers, Junichi Abe, the brain behind Kolor, studied at Bunka Fashion College and also spent five years working at CDG before founding his own brand. What makes Abe unique is that he strays from the traditional mold of Japanese designers in that his garments are understated enough for daily wear, whilst still being packed with enough clever detailing to make them fascinating to own and look at. Kolor’s inventive take on classic wardrobe basics seems timeless and extremely wearable, but upon closer inspection you’ll see an emphasis on texture, construction and details –– there’s bonded materials, fabrics are sliced to become transparent, and creative color blocking and use of print. While Abe’s creations can veer from sleek and muted to deconstructed and dazzling, Kolor perfectly balances tradition and modernity with a sportswear aesthetic that’s as comfortable as it is aesthetically pleasing.