My Obsession with the Japanese Avant-Garde

Naomi Campbell in Comme des Garçons 1989Photographed by Peter Lindbergh for Six Magazine no.3 1989
I've been doing a lot of thinking about the stories an archive tells. I'm obviously talking about fashion archives but it's very easy to draw parallels between this practice and "larger" institutions - museums, libraries, history-holders etc. Why we collect what we collect and what we choose to preserve says so much about how we see and move within the world. It's the subjective business of placing value on stories that is such serious work because so many of the messages are communicated on subconscious levels. Who is left out of these histories and who is tasked with the telling of these histories is most important. 


Issey Miyake East Meets West

Issey Miyake "East Meets West"


On my drive home from what was a record-breaking Brooklyn return for A Current Affair (my deepest thanks to all the staff who put on a seamless and sensational shindig and to all the shoppers who arrived with energy, vigor and passion), I was fleshing out why I've become so obsessed with Japanese Avant-Garde designers - Issey, Kenzo, Matsuda, Rei, Yohji etc. 


Sayoko Yamaguchi in Paris Fashion Week (1970s) for Issey Miyake

Sayoko Yamaguchi (1970s) for Issey Miyake

When I'm thinking about a designer's work, what I'm also thinking about is the designer's impact on fashion and culture and the political overall. It's not all seam allowance and bound button holes. What did it mean for Japanese designers to insert themselves into the center of conversations around presentation, luxury and image making in the West? What images were they designing against or in conversation with? 


Kenzo, American Vogue, March 1982. Photograph by Peter Lindbergh.

Kenzo, American Vogue, March 1982. Photograph by Peter Lindbergh.

I immediately think of Yves Saint Laurent and his intriguing fixation -- arguably dependency -- on "exoticism" or, more specific to this post, the concept of "Orientalism" in western aesthetics overall. In an excerpt from FIT's Special Exhibitions Gallery on Yves Saint Laurent + exoticism curator Emma McClendon writes

Yves Saint Laurent’s use of the ‘exotic’ was deeply rooted in the French artistic and literary tradition of orientalism. Within this tradition, clothing—punctuated by distinctive accessories, prints, and vibrant colors—plays a crucial role in creating an exotic fantasy that is immediately recognizable to a western audience. Saint Laurent turned to “exoticism” during the 1960s in order to challenge the traditional evening gown. By the mid-1970s, he was using the exotic to inform some of his most opulent and fantastical creations, such as his “Ballets Russes” and “Opium” couture collections. … During this period, Rive Gauche was Saint Laurent’s laboratory, a place where he could experiment freely with new themes and ideas.

Asian-inspired sketches by Yves Saint Laurent from the 1970s (Credit: Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris)
It’s unlikely that any Western designer today would create outfits so blatantly inspired by countries that they had only occasionally visited, if at all. It would be deemed at best inauthentic. But of course, YSL was not alone. European fashion and decor have long been influenced by Eastern aesthetics, especially from the 17th Century onwards, when trade with Asia intensified. In the 18th Century, Kahsmiri shawls were introduced to fashionable Europe, and silk and lacquer from China was increasingly used in furniture.
To think that Yves Saint Laurent designed his 1977  “Les Chinoises” collection and subsequent Opium perfume without ever having been to China is wild to imagine. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Yves Saint Laurent. Some of my favorite pieces in the archive are Rive Gauche and Couture pieces from the house, but you can't truly love something if you're only staring at it through a glossed lens at golden hour. 
Hosoe Eikō. Sickle-Toothed Weasel, No. 5 (Kamaitachi sakuhin 5). c. 1968
When I think about the Japanese Avant-Garde I think about a revolutionary push to add much needed nuance, complexity and texture to the history of fashion. I think of Japanese designers snatching the microphone and making space to speak and amplify their voices, while simultaneously shifting how we view beauty in contemporary culture.

Issey Miyake for Geoffrey Beene Fashion Illustrations, Late 1960s


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published