Until the mid-twentieth century, Japan only had a “passive” role in the mainstream fashion industry. By the time the country opened itself to the world, its heritage and aesthetics became the perfect source of inspiration for the French couturiers. Thus, even though Japan has always been present in the fashion industry, it used to be filtered through the eyes of Western dessigners. When the second World War ended, things started to change. Fashion was no longer dominated by French firms, as an increasing number of fashion houses and designers worldwide entered the market. These circumstances allowed fashion to flourish into an international industry that promptly engulfed Japan. In those same years, the country had been facing an inner fashion revolution. The winds of change started blowing during the years of the U.S. army Occupation. Right after the end of the war, Western clothing in Japan was still suffering from the stigma gained during the War, especially in female fashion. The nationalist campaign and the Anti-West feelings had promoted a traditional female aesthetic focused on a subdued, Country-devoted ideal woman. Only men could wear Western-style clothes, while women were expected to wear soft-coloured kimono and abandon makeup. Women wearing Western clothes were considered erotic and provocative. During the years of the Occupation, the prostitutes who used to have the SCAP soldiers as their clients would wear Western wearing to draw their attention. Both the official prostitutes and the so-called panpan girls, the non-official prostitutes, would do that in the hope of increasing their business. Although the Government had encouraged these “comfort women” to adopt Western clothes, Japanese society barely tolerated them. Nonetheless, when the wives and daughters of the soldiers reached their beloved in Japan, the bad reputation of Western clothes faded alongside their previous misconceptions.
After seven years of Occupation, the U.S. customs and habits spread, and Japan could not help but embrace them into its own culture, even after the SCAP troops left the country. The cinema industry, in particular, had a significant role in shaping the fashion trends of the youngest generations. Among the many Hollywood actors, the postwar generation saw in Audrey Hepburn the symbol for the new Japanese ideal beauty. In the first place, her delicate features and “next-door-girl” look were qualities appreciated by the Japanese sensitivities at that time. Other than that, her worldwide fame and American origin were facts “unconventional” enough to turn her into the most inspiring icon of the Japanese post- war era. Through Western cinema, Japan became closer to the European fashion reality as well. Thus, Euro-American fashions became the main reference point for the emerging local trends and, as a result, Western clothes replaced the traditional wear as the most used in daily life. Parisian fashion was the pinnacle from which the Japanese Western-inspired aesthetics had to draw inspiration. Following Christian Dior’s New Look, tight-fitted waisted gowns with voluminous skirts, for instance, marked the Japanese trends both in the 50s and 60s. Nonetheless, when Japan joined the global fashion scene, Paris was no longer the only fashion capital of the world. Shortly after the end of the war, other nations expanded their fashion market and managed to match the popularity of the French capital. New youth cultures in the 60s, like the Swinging London in the UK and the Hippies in the U.S.A., set the stage for the innovative Prêt-à-Porter fashion system, undermining the centuries-long dominance of the Haute Couture system. Consequently, Paris shifted from being the only fashion capital to being the symbolic fashion capital. By contrast, even though Tōkyō had developed a deep sense of fashion, it was still far from being a vibrant fashion city. This is primarily owed to the first generation of Japanese designers establishing their businesses overseas rather than Tōkyō. In their view, leaving Japan was fundamental to achieving the worldwide recognition they were seeking.
If we are to look at designers in chronological order, the first Japanese designer to gain worldwide success was Hanae Mori 森英恵 (1926-2022). To date, she has been the only Japanese (and East Asian) designer who has entered the exclusive Féderation Française de la Couture and achieved the status of Couturière. Hanae started her career right after her marriage to the textile businessman Mori Ken森賢in 1946. Six years later, she opened her first atelier in the Shinjuku district and also worked in the cinema industry, achieving significant success. In 1961, she visited Paris to find new stimuli and learn more about Haute Couture. She meets Coco Chanel and becomes her first Asian client. That same year, she had the opportunity to attend a performance of “Madame Butterfly” in New York. There, she could not help but notice how limited the idea of Japanese clothing was abroad. According to many of her interviews, it was at that moment that Hanae decided to propose her vision of made in Japan fashion to the world . In the given context, it is important to highlight that, in the mid-twentieth century, the perception of Japan abroad was still being affected by the fictitious imagery developed by the Orientalist current in the previous century. That is to say, Japan was still thought of as a spiritual country of geisha and “samurai” where tradition overpowered contemporaneity. Thus, it is no wonder that, when Hanae Mori presented her first collection “East meets West” on the New York runway in 1965, it was positively received by critics and the press. Her fashion aesthetic is perceived as “authentically” Japanese since Hanae was a Japanese designer in the first place, but at the same time, it overwhelmed the fashion industry, offering a different representation of Japanese clothing. Her concept of Haute Couture embraces the traditional aesthetics of the Japanese heritage: the large use of silken fabrics, the floral and geometrical patterns, the furisode-tailored sleeves represent the will of Hanae to renew the idea of Japan all over the world. Nevertheless, the garments on her fashion shows are far from being a perfect replication of Japanese traditional clothing. The brightly coloured caftans and the loose maxi dresses worn by the models on the catwalk suggest that she was also aware of the ongoing tendencies in the fashion market and her will to embody the Western fashion taste in her design. Thanks to her international success, Hanae became very popular in her native country as well. In 1967, she was chosen as the official designer by Japan Airlines for their flight attendant uniform. Ten years later, she moved from New York to Paris, where she started working not only as an Haute Couture designer but also as a Prêt-à-Porter designer. Both in her Haute Couture and in her ready-to-wear collections, her fashion is meant to fit an ethereal, refined woman who goes beyond the stiffness of the body. It is no wonder that many upper-class women, such as Princess Grace of Monaco, Crown Princess Masako, and Hilary Clinton, wore her gowns to social events. Moreover, while still working as a couturière, Hanae never stopped designing for the film industry and theatres. Ironically, in 1985 she also designed the costumes for the Madame Butterfly in Milan. Because of the link that she has had with this performance, the butterfly becomes the icon of her brand. According to Hanae Mori herself, the butterfly perfectly embodies the core of her fashion aesthetic: a delicate, elegant creature able to enchant whoever is watching it.
Hanae Mori has undeniably been the first to trigger many afterthoughts about Japanese clothing. Despite that, she often is considered a one-of-a-kind designer. That is because the story of her brand has many special features that cannot be found among other Japanese designers who came after. For instance, Hanae was rich enough to start working as a couturière, entirely bypassing ready-to-wear attire. However, what truly makes the difference between her and her colleagues is that Hanae Mori does not seek the “avant-garde effect”. Her fashion adapts traditional Japanese clothing to Western canons, yet the way she does that is by no means an attempt to provoke the audience. Instead, she pursues already existing fashion standards, also abandoning the goal of refining her cultural heritage. It is under this light that the mainstream fashion scene sees in Takada Kenzō 高田賢三 (1939-2020), better known as Kenzo, the true pioneer of Japanese fashion in the world.
Kenzo was drawn to fashion from a young age and he became one of the first male students of the Bunka Fashion College in Tōkyō. He moved to Paris almost by chance, when the Japanese Government provided him with a refund after demolishing the building where he was living in 1964. He spent his first five years selling his sketches and designs to other fashion houses at a very low price, struggling to afford a decent lifestyle. In 1970, Kenzo managed to rent a cheap space for his first store at the Galerie Vivienne4 which he named “Jungle Jap”. The store drew inspiration from Henri Rousseau’s painting “The Dream” and nature, flowers, and trees were its main theme. When Kenzo was asked to present his first ready-to-wear collection, he still had a limited budget. Therefore, he decides to purchase some “scraps” of fabrics at the flea market. The result on the catwalk is astonishing, for he gives birth to a new mix-and-match aesthetic, fusing Japanese traditional textiles and ethnic prints. Loose garments further emphasize the boldness of his outfits. The lack of form-fitting garments is a trait that Kenzo is particularly eager to highlight, for he is not fond of the winding, close-fitted clothes proposed by the Parisian trends. The press positively welcomes Kenzo’s original collections and the critics already see him as the new forerunner of the international fashion industry. Throughout the 70s, his brand adopts the use of cotton, knitwear, and quilted fabrics to produce baggy, Victorian-inspired clothes that barely show the natural shapes of the body. This choice is probably one of the most powerful links with his heritage since the Japanese clothing system has always preferred looseness over snugness. In addition, colourful, floral patterns and camouflage prints often pair with garments made by yukata and kimono fabrics, becoming a landmark for the then popular Flower Power look. For his whole career, Kenzo always insisted on being labelled as “fashion designer”, rather than “Japanese designer”. Despite that, he was never hesitant to use his heritage in his creations, though he did it peculiarly. Kenzo destroyed the canons of the Japanese traditional aesthetic, recombining them into a unique fashion taste. He showed that Japanese tradition is not a synonym for stillness, and it can be readapted to modern times and Western standards as well. That is why he is considered the first Japanese designer to have truly given an international value to Japan in the fashion scene.
As soon as Kenzo accomplished global success, he also became extremely popular in his home country and many other designers took him as a model to pursue their career outside Japan. Three of them, in particular, managed to make their fashion worldwide famous: Issey Miyake 三宅一生 (1938-2022) Rei Kawakubo 川久保玲(1942) and Yohji Yamamoto山本耀司(1943). They are usually called “The Big Three”, because of the innovation implemented in their ready-to-wear collections. Their fashion aesthetics have given birth to a new trend often called “Japanese Avant-Garde”, and they undoubtedly have many common points. In the first place, the three of them drastically redefined the standards of the mainstream sartorial system, introducing new techniques to sew the garments and offering the chance to wear them in more than one way. Their outfits were indeed the opposite of what Parisians were used to seeing in their shows. On their catwalk, unfinished, asymmetrical clothes wrapped the body of the models whose only recognisable parts of the body are the head, hands, and feet. The final effect is an essential, monochromatic look where the human body disappears. Like Kenzo, the Big Three destroyed the traditional canons of the Japanese aesthetic in order to rebuild it, but the way they do it is by far more extreme. They rejected the Parisian definition of fashion beauty and created a new one that transcends shape and size. That is why at first the critics did not appreciate their outrageous creations, but eventually, could not help falling in love with them due to the novelties they brought to the fashion scene. Moreover, their outfits often are gender neutral and can be worn by anybody. Even the Big Three would not like being called “Japanese designers”, but it cannot be denied that Japanese fashion, especially the kimono, played a significant role in shaping their fashion. Moreover, they used textiles and fabrics traditionally destined for law-class workers in Japan. Despite their many similarities, each of them also has a personal style that renders each of their collections unmistakable.
In 1976, Miyake proposed “A Piece of Cloth”, where the complete outfit consists of a single piece of cloth that wraps the entire body. Rather than aesthetic, Miyake aimed to demonstrate an unexplored relationship between the covering fabrics and the covered body, forming a new space. The collection was so outstanding that he proposed a new version of it in 1999 with the name “A-POC”. This time, a complete, monochromatic look is obtained by cutting a single, large piece of jersey to make each garment. A computer controls the cutting process to avoid the useless waste of fabric. In the early 90s, Miyake gave birth to his revolutionary collection “Pleats Please”, drastically altering conventional manufacturing techniques for pleated garments. Instead of pleating the cloth prior to it being cut, Miyake decides to press the pleats in the presewn garment. The final result is an ensemble of multi-layered pleats going in different directions, also reshaping the figure. Sometimes, famous artists collaborate with Miyake for the making of his Pleats Please collections, drawing the fabric with their artworks before pleating it. The “Pleats Please” garments are also very practical, as they can be machine-washed and need no ironing.“Pleats Please” collections are still ongoing, and the brand presents new ones on the catwalk every year. In contrast with his usual trends, in the same years, Miyake launched the “Tattoo Body” collection, where polyestere, patterned jumpsuits fit the body as a second skin.
Rei Kawakubo established her fashion brand “Comme des Garçons” in 1969, and she has produced all of her works under this brand since. Surprisingly, she did not create her brand in Paris, but in Tōkyō, prior to her move to the French capital. Her fashion concept is still regarded as the most “Avant-garde” of the Big Three. Unlike other Japanese designers, Rei did not undergo the usual training and education customary for formally educated fashion designers. Thus, her collections often go beyond the standards of established sartorial rules. The catwalks of Comme des Garçons challenge the conventional fashion tastes of those years. In 1981, the collection “Hiroshima chic” shocked the press: the ripped garments hanging loose on the mannequins look unfinished and unsewn, as if the models survived a global apocalypse. Oversize jackets and dresses wrap their bodies, and giant crinoline skirts and trousers redefine the canons of geometry. In general, the ideal beauty portrayed by Comme des Garçons does not have to highlight the body; it is indeed free from all the gender roles imposed by society. During the 80s, Rei Kawakubo produced several monochrome collections in black, grey, and white, while also utilizing an excess of accessories made of leather and steel. As a consequence, her brand turned into a reference point for the Gothic and Dark Wave aesthetic of the 80s. In the early 90s, Comme des Garçons also launched a collection realized with paper-cut clothes, as it was customary in ancient Japan making clothes using paper. Eventually, Comme des Garçons included a more colourful selection of garments in its collections but never abandoned its emblematic “anti-fashion” taste.
In the late 70s, Yohji Yamamoto became a professional and romantic partner of Rei Kawakubo and their relationship unavoidably influenced each other’s work. He debuted for the first time in Tōkyō in 1977 and in 1981, his collections appeared in the Parisian fashion shows as well, initially under the label “Y’s”. This brand is nowadays his “value-oriented” line. Much like Rei Kawakubo, Yamamoto’s first goal was to offer women a different kind of beauty. Thus, his first collections mainly consist of a post-apocalyptic aesthetic obtained by the creation of torn, amorphic clothes. On his shows, women walk on the runaway wearing oversize, multi-layered garments, and there is no difference between men’s and women’s collections. Besides, Yamamoto enjoys matching modest and luxurious garments, combining chìc elements with humble fabrics. Yamamoto and Kawakubo both gave birth to what is still known by the name Boro Look, i.e. the Japanese word for “beggar”. In 1995, Yamamoto proposed a collection realised with shibori, the Japanese traditional tie-dye technique. However, the main character of his brand is the choice of black as the primary colour. Even when other colours are present in the outfits, they often have the task of further emphasizing its dominance. The result is a mysterious, gothic look that still represents the core of Yamamoto’s idea of fashion. Therefore, he also became one of the inspirational designers of the 80s Dark Wave. As years passed, his brand embodied some Western aesthetics in his fashion concept too. Gradually, more form-fitting garments started appearing alongside the usual baggy ones and fabrics like lace and tulle matched meeker fabrics like cotton and jersey. The Victorian-gothic aesthetic, in particular, became another symbol of Yamamoto’s fashion, alongside black colour.
By the end of the 90s, more and more designers from Japan joined the mainstream fashion industry, and being a Japanese designer in the international scene did not represent an exception anymore. The rest of the world understood that Japan was able to set fashion trends as much as any Western country, and Tōkyō shifted from being a city with a high sense of fashion to being a city able to produce high-quality fashion. The Japanese capital has hosted several fashion week events for over fifteen years, and it is regarded as the pinnacle of street fashion styles. Designers and stylists from all over the world come to the city, seeking inspiration for their work, the same way the first generation of Japanese designers did more than half a century ago.