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Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion

Thursday 28 October 2010

The Barbican Art Gallery presents a stunning and splendid selection of Japanese fashion from the early 1980s to present time. Fashion designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo had a huge transformative effect on late 20th century couture. This exhibition presents the geniuses of Japanese fashion in an informative and truly engaging manner.

Layers of thin, white gossamer-like material hangs from the ceiling of the downstairs section of the exhibition creating an enchanting atmosphere. The Lower Level of the gallery focuses on specific concepts which are associated with Japanese fashion. One such idea is known as Wabi-Sabi which recognises beauty in flawed and imperfect items. Clothes which follow this aesthetic principle will have an unfinished appearance; typical features include frayed edges, aged or rumpled materials. Rei Kawakubo has designed an outfit in 1983 which embraces this belief. The cream cotton jersey blouse is a baggy construction with uneven slanting sleeves. Long straggly vertical strips have been applied to the surface of the fabric. The entire outfit is composed of four different types of material. This is clearly noticeable in the skirt which is made up of cream and white, silky and matt triangular panels. The large gaps in the skirt also contribute to the effect of incompleteness. Yet all of these details of imperfection are presented in a gorgeous manner. The creased ribbons add more texture to the design and new shapes and forms are created by the varying shadows which are cast on the irregular shaped ribbons. Another Japanese concept is called ‘ma’ where an extravagant amount of cloth encases the body leaving a considerable amount of space between the figure and the fabric.

Barbican Art Gallery, London. Photo Credit: Lyndon Douglas

The Upper Level showcases individual designers’ portfolios in separate rooms. This top floor has a louder and more colourful layout, with rosy pink walls for Tao Kurihara’s strongly feminine design approach, dark grey walls to enhance the poetical quality of Yohji Yamamoto’s work, camel, tartan and other coloured backgrounds to reflect Jun Takahashi’s anarchic punk style.

Much of the exhibition demonstrates a playful attitude to fashion design. Rei Kawakubo’s black wool jersey dress with a tube from the front to the back is one such example of this. Arranging the garment onto the figure is a complex task. The drape can be organised around the body in multiple ways, it can reside along the legs or body or it sit on top of the shoulder or come underneath the shoulder. The dress demands to be incessantly shaped and reshaped and experimented with.

A really interesting key idea that is featured in the display is the desire to reinvent the silhouette of the body. Most Western women’s clothing concentrates on trying to enhance the natural curves of a woman’s figure. This is done so by wrapping the material as close to the body as possible. In the 18th and 19th centuries European countries used bustles and pads to accentuate women’s busts and bottoms. However, Japanese designer, Rei Kawakubo works against these notions with his 1997 checked top and skirt. The outfit uses voluminous padding on the shoulders and back and a long tube of padding frames the top and sides of the skirt. Creating new structures is a bold and captivating idea.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion is simply a wonderful collection. Designers seek inspiration from unobvious items, shredded envelopes becomes a funky skirt, 33 cotton dolls becomes a garland around the neckline of a cute dress, red books spread out like paper lanterns for a Wizard of Oz inspired cape. There is a startling range of styles from the gothic to the romantic to science-fiction influenced clothing. Shape and dimension is a crucial aspect of Japanese fashion whether it is a gigantic renaissance style ruff or a flat origami-pleated coat and trousers. The eye will never get bored and restless with this fantastically creative body of work.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, 15 October 2010-6 February 2011. Barbican Gallery, London.

Review by Kimberley Chen.