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Couture Masterpieces from Japan at SAM

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"Future Beauty" Displays Couture Masterpieces

by Matthew Kangas

The big new Seattle Art Museum exhibition, "Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion" (June 27 - September 8, 2013), is sure to attract people from all over the region. One of only two US venues after London and Kyoto, it follows record-breaking fashion surveys that have been the hit (and mainstay) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But long before "Future Beauty," Seattle hosted a huge international conference at the University of Washington in 1991, "Perspectives From the Rim." With over 500 attendees and 50 from Japan, participants learned all about traditional and contemporary Japanese textile designs and innovations. Couture fabric designer Junichi Arai, indigo dye expert Hiroyuki Shindo and independent curator Kyoji Tsuji were among those who acclaimed what was by then the golden age of Japanese fashion.

Fast forward to "Future Beauty" and learn everything there is to know about what has happened before, during and since then. With Seattle's close links to Japan, its sister city of Kobe, and a raft of important Japanese artists living in Seattle (historic figures like Paul Horiuchi and Kenjiro Nomura and younger artists like Yuki Nakamura, Maki Tamura and Junko Yamamoto), Seattle is the perfect site for "Future Beauty," organized by Kyoto Costume Institute and Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Besides four beautifully designed display sections ("In Praise of Shadows," "Flatness," "Tradition and Innovation," and "Cool Japan"), six artists are singled out for separate mini-shows (Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto, Jun Takahashi and Tao Kurihara). Rare books, magazines, catalogues, photos and videos, including Wim Wenders's documentary on Yamamoto, Notebook of Cities and Clothes, round out the lavish spread.

There's another link to Seattle. All the tears and tatters, un-luxury materials, and affinities to street fashion that have characterized Tokyo fashion are also shared by Seattle's own grunge look that took New York and the rest of the US by storm in the 1980s.

The Big Three -- Miyake, Yamamoto, and Kawakubo -- were not the first Japanese designers to crash through the closed shop of French haute couture. Hanae Mori and Kenzo Takada burst on the scene in 1970 by not only meeting rigid French expectations of couture requirements -- perfect body, concealed tailoring, elaborate pattern or ornament and luxe materials -- they overfulfilled such ideals. Younger Japanese designers reacting against them set the stage for the revolution in women's clothing that shortly followed. Japanese challenges to Parisian primacy as the center of haute couture coincided with the rise of Japanese wealth, but also with parallel revolutions in Milan and London.

Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garcons, photo: Takashi Hatakeyama

Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 2000. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama

Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garcons, photo: Takshi Hatakeyama

Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons, Spring/Summer 1997. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama

Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garcons, photo: Takashi Hatakeyama

Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 2000. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama

As the thick catalogue points out in a series of essays, French fashion critics were apoplectic, beginning with the 1981 debuts of Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons (a term actually lifted from Gabrielle Chanel who wanted to dress women of the 1920s "like little boys") and Yamamoto. Looking at Western fashion from the Japanese perspective -- the flat kimono -- infuriated Parisian wags even though Chanel had already stripped away ornament in the 1930s and André Courrèges's space-age flight-attendant clothes of the 1960s emphasized flatness and the school-girl's uniform.

The gradual introduction of perforated cloth, artfully stray threads dangling, and drab, neutral colors was pilloried by French critics as "touches of the rag picker," "clothes for the end of the world that look as if they have been bombed to shreds," and as "looking like clothing worn by nuclear holocaust survivors." In 1983, when Mori was appointed to the French Haute Couture Syndicate, another critic noted that the newer clothes "were not fit for readers of Le Figaro."

Within a decade, Japanese fashion ruled the world. Maki Tamura, a Japanese-born Seattle artist whose twin sister, Yuki Tamura, is employed in the Paris fashion world, noted how the Big Three "are really emphasizing the sculptural quality of the garments with neutral colors. It's all about women feeling empowered by wearing the clothes and, with Comme des Garçons, being part of an elite tribe. Black is really the color of empowerment and the perfect color for sculptural expression -- like Louise Nevelson."

Another Seattle artist from Japan, Yuki Nakamura, is blending art and fashion. Her Red Stair (2003) is a 7-foot-tall dress of velvet, wood and foam. She claims a lot of inspiration from the Big Three's "sculptural aspects. It's not just about clothes, but a combination of free styles and something wearable." Nakamura remembers that, unlike Paris, the initial responses in Tokyo were highly positive.

What are some of the other inspirations of the "Future Beauty" artists? Looking at the drooping, asymmetrical dresses, the unusual high-tech fabrics, and emphases on textures and profile, nature is paramount: the waves of the sea; straw and seedpods (see Hokuto Katsui and Nao Yaga); fish and animal skins; and the aftermath of moths or natural disasters.

SAM trustee Kim Richter follows fashion designers like Michael Kors and others. She noted that an annual fashion show at Seattle Central Community College brings Japanese fashion design students over to display their wares. "It's such a compelling fashion that pushes the boundaries, looking at fashion in a completely new way from the way Western designers do. Today, they really resonate with younger, hip people, the 'downtown' crowd. But they're not for everyone and often look better on smaller women, like a Size Two."

The "harmony of shadows," origami paper-cutting, the space between the body and the cloth, and an "intellectual playfulness" are all qualities that should make "Future Beauty" appealing to both men and women, young and old, and, especially -- though they do not yet know it -- teenagers. Their post-grunge, neo-Goth attire may not presage a comparable future beauty, but it definitely shares with the Japanese giants a search for self-expression and resistance to establishment methods. Seen in an art museum setting, viewers can at least test for themselves which looks seem timeless and which, made for the moment, have evaporated into the dated look that befalls most fashion, including haute couture.

MATTHEW KANGAS, Art Guide Northwest consulting editor, writes for Art in America and other publications. His latest book is Return to the Viewer: Selected Art Reviews (Midmarch Arts Press). He lives in Seattle. Copyright © Matthew Kangas, 2013

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