Skov, department stores started stocking male and female

Skov, (1996), a fashion history author states that Japonisme indicates a travel of styles and ideas and therefore is unstable and unpredictable, yet, one hundred years after the popularity of Japonisme, the west was once again influenced by the arts of Japan through the designs of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto (Martin and Koda, 1994, P77). Japan’s constant influence on Western creative fields for over 100 years suggests “some measure of the continued allure of Japan and the Japanese aesthetic” (Martin, 1995, P221).


Western influence on Japan

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Significant influence from the West on Japanese fashion first appeared during the Meiji period (1968-1912) (Knox 2011). Knox (2011) describes this as an “aggressive westernisation and modernisation agenda” where the government encouraged men to wear the European style suit, breaking the tradition of wearing kimonos (p142). By the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese department stores started stocking male and female ready-to-wear Western clothes, but they also offered a hybrid of the kimono which became popular among women in Paris, the first time Japan has been placed on the “global fashion scene” (Knox, 2011, P144). Kawamura (2004) describes this as the beginning of the Japanese appetite for Western fashion that will never be satisfied (p110).


Rise of Japan

Before looking at the success of Japanese designers in Paris in the 80s, the economic and political state of Japan must be examined. Skov (1996), describes the parallels between the success of the designers and the success of Japan’s political state as “an upstart economic super power” (p134). Quinn (2002), and author, journalist and independent scholar specialising in Fashion, textiles and design states that the “economic boom which allowed Japan to develop so quickly into a modern state enabled it to look towards the West in unequivocal terms and begin exporting creativity and innovation along with manufacturing and industry” (p142). Of course, the success of these designers cannot be pinned down to this one factor, and fashion cannot be reduced to economic trends, but it must be considered as a contributing influence (Skov, 1996, P134).



Emergence of prêt-à-porter

During the 1950s and 1960s, the influence of haute couture expanded through promotion in fashion magazines and films, but “at the end of the ’60s some signs of decline began to appear” (Hiramitsu, 2005, P36). The changed in lifestyle brought with it a decline for the demand of Haute Couture and expensive clothing (Kawamura, 2004, P118). In the 1970s, many fashion designers in Paris “moved into the lower echelons of the luxury clothing business, where they provided expensive, avant-garde clothes for a younger clientele than those served by the couturiers” (Crane, 1993, p59, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p118) through a new industry; le prêt-a-porter (a direct translation from the term ready-to-wear) (Steel, 1998, P281).

Ready to wear had existed in France for over a century, but it was known as ‘confection’ and was “rather limited” in comparison to other fashion capitals (Steel, 1998, P281). Additionally, as confection was mainly a Jewish industry, it was destroyed after the Nazi defeat of France in 1940 (Steel, 1998, P281). After the war, with the “rise of a mass society and a growing population interested in fashion, the ready to wear industry changed both its methods of fabrication and its conception of creation” (Steel, 1998, P281).  The heart of high fashion financially, and in relation to innovation had now “shifted to industrially produced ready-to-wear collections which are shown to buyers and to the press, rather than to potential wearers” (Skov, 1996, P133). Ready-to-wear appealed to a much larger market and thus, designers were able to generate more profit (Kawamura, 2004, P118). This rise in prêt-à-porter was representative of the “new democratization of fashion and a greater standardization of mass production” (Steel, 1998, P281). Prêt-à-porter began to “challenge couture, by offering its own interpretation of contemporary fashion” (Steel, 1998, P281) and by the 1970s, there was an increasing trend among retail buyers visiting Paris to purchase more ready-to-wear than haute couture and this aided the success of many new designers of ready-to-wear (Blaszczyk, 2008, P97).


Japan before these designers

Fashion news from Paris, with a slight delay, started to reach and influence Japan in the 1960s and this newly emerging fashion industry grew very quickly (Fukaki, 2005, p19). Department stores in japan also made special contract with French couture designers in the 1960s as their popularity rose (Ostuka, 1995, p13, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p109). During the 1970s, “Japanese domestic market had been growing fast, and consumer lifestyles were proliferating” and women in particular relished in the trend of personal consumption of fashion (Skov, 1996, P135). Skov (1996), states that Japanese women’s passionate support for Paris fashion helped to “secure its prestige as well as its economic well-being” in the 1970s (p135). Japanese ‘salary-men’ (business men) would wear western style suits and Japanese women would combine different Western designers clothing into their outfits (Skov, 1996, p136). By the 1980s, Japanese women’s love for personal consumption and appetite for Western high fashion, combined with the lack of interest in high fashion in the west due to the economic crisis meant that Japan became the largest high fashion market and where “new trends were subsumed the fastest” (Skov, 1996, P135).


When Japanese designers arrived in Paris – Kenzo

While the ‘western’ consumer culture is booming in Japan, there are also “movement in the opposite direction” (Skov, 1996, P136). Japanese women were purchasing Paris fashion at high rates and European women are influenced by Japanese designers who showed their designs in Paris in the 1970s (Skov, 1996, P136). The first designer to start the Japanese revolution in Paris was Kenzo when he showed his designs in 1970 (Kawamura, 2004). Kawamura (2004) points out that this was not the earliest example of Japanese fashion influencing western dress (p93). Kawamura (2004), adds that what made Japanese designers stand out was “not merely the clothes they designed, but their position and status as non-western fashion outsiders” and states that the “marginality of these Japanese has become an asset” as before Kenzos arrival in Paris, there were no other designers from Asia showing in Paris (Kawamura, 2004, P95).


(to be able to show the styles that were in fashion in Paris before the Japanese designers showed their collections, should I include images of designs shown in vogue at the time? I have collected a few from the vogue archive, but was unsure weather I should put them in or not)


Dissertation – chapter 2


Martin (1995), states that it is impossible to examine or define fashion in the west during the 20th century without first discussing the substantial influence of Japanese designers (p215). Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s designs “offered an aesthetic and practical possibility beyond conventional Western tailoring” (Martin, 1995, p216). Mitchell, (2005) describes the work of these two designers as “Radical and conceptual, challenging and uncompromising, functional and sometimes incomprehensible” (p9).  “Japanese fashion in the eighties provided a new way of looking at fabric, texture, cut and image. It questioned the artifice of tailoring and couture, literally deconstructing garments”, recalled art critic Sudjic (2004, cited in Mitchell, 2005, P12).


History of the designers

By 1981, Paris was already familiar with Japanese designers through the work of Kenzo who “typified Parisian fashion” and Issey Miyake who was highly regarded who both showed their collection in the 1970s (Fukai, 2010, P13).

Rei Kawakubo was born In Tokyo in 1942 and during her childhood years, the US army occupied the country (Quinn, 2002, P144). She graduated from Keio University in Tokyo where she studied philosophy and the history of aesthetics (Mitchell, 2005, p13). She then worked in advertising for a Japanese textiles company and later as a stylist (Quinn, 2002, P144). Kawamura (2004) states that her involvement in styling and advertising explain “her control over the visual aspect of her work, on the catwalk, within retail environments and in the company’s publications” (p127). She set up her own brand ‘Comme de Garçons’ (like the boys) in 1969 (Quinn, 2002, p144). As Kawakubo has no formal education or training in fashion, “initially she had no preconceptions about the design or fabrication process” (English, 2011, p77). In her first years of designing she took inspiration from innovations in architecture and philosophy and she was mindful of the significance of fashion as a “construct of identity, time and space and Kawakubo began using her clothes as a vehicle for exploring themes not commonly addressed by fashion” (Quinn, 2002, p144).


Yohji Yamamoto was born in Tokyo in 1943 and as a child, used to help his mother, a dressmaker at work (Quinn, 2002, p147). He also attended Keio university and studied law as his mother wanted him to be a businessman, but later went on to study fashion at Bunka college of Fashion in Tokyo after which he returned to work for his mother for some years before establishing his own label in 1970 (Quinn, 2002, p147).

Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo are often compared, linked and discussed together as they debuted in Paris in 1981 together and they were “great friends and soulmates for ten years” (English, 2013, p122). Another reason for this is their shared Japanese Heritage (English, 2013, 123) and they both pushed beyond the type of constraints that most designers held on to (Quinn, 2002, p148).

Although both designers were established in Japan in the 1970s, as they were not members of the French federation and not known in Paris, their debut shows in 1981 were “seen by only a handful of people” (Fukai, 2010, p13). They were the first foreign designers to be accepted onto the official Paris Fashion show schedule (Quinn, 2002, p145). They shocked Paris fashion which at the time consisted of “opulent gowns, tailored suits, gentle colours and floral motifs of the houses of Saint Laurent and Dior” (Quinn, 2002, p145), with their “intentional flaws, a monochrome palette, exaggerated proportions, drapery, asymmetrical and gender-neutral styling” (Mitchell, 2005, p12) and they received mixed responses. At the time, no one could have known that this was just a temporary shock and that these designers would lead the change into the “postmodern realm and the twenty-first century”, they opened European eyes to the existence of non-European aesthetics (Fukai, 2010, P22).


Preparing for the Paris show

Japan offers a brilliant commercial opportunity for Western designers as Japanese companies require western fashion to satisfy the needs of Japanese consumers, but there is little to no space for Japanese designers in this system (Kawamura, 2004, P110). Although there are a vast number of Japanese design schools in Tokyo and numerous companies that invest in these designers, “Tokyo is still far from Paris” (Kawamura, 2004, P110). The diffusion mechanisms tha connects Japan to the West was still extremely limited and therefore, Japanese designers had to present their work in Paris if they wish to gain international recognition (Kawamura, 2004, P110). Both Kawakubo and Yamamoto was aware of this and knew that going to Paris was a “long-term investment and shortfalls in the short term were to be expected” (English, 2011, P81).


Yamamoto explained in an interview that he purposefully planned to organise his debut show in Paris with Kawakubo in 1981 during the Prêt-à-Porter season as it would have the maximum impact (Tajima, 1996, p586, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p128). Their decision to show in Paris was a business decision and was strategically planned (Kawamura, 2004, p126).

They did not hold high expectations as they did not have many contacts in Paris and had no connections with journalist and they didn’t not even have a showroom ready for potential buyers to see their collections after the show (Kawamura, 2004, p128). English (2011), argues that the reason the designers showed their collection in the prêt-à- porter collection rather than the haute couture collections was because for these designers and Japanese culture in general, “elegance and refinement do not concur with glamour, or with status or class” (P2).


Description of shows – this section will be combined with the visual analysis of the garments

There are several accounts for the description of the designers first show in Paris.



English, (2013) describes Kawakubo’s shows by commenting on the deconstructed, black clothing that “looked cadaverous, with either shaved head or seemingly dirty, unkempt hair, with pasty white faces that were devoid of make-up, apart from a disturbing bruised blue on their lower lips” (p120). Kawakubo’s debut show in Paris in 1981 consisted of “trousers with sweater cuffs around the ankles, tunics that transformed into shawls, oversized overcoats and shapeless boiled knitwear constructed with holes” (Quinn, 2002, p124, cited in English, 2013, p74). English argues that these “torn, ripped and ragged fabric and uneven and unstitched hemline” with their “sense of random disorder was very carefully calculated to give the impression of spontaneity” (English, 2013, p74). Adding  that “large, loose-fitting garments such as jackets or coats of oversized proportions were constructed in an atypical manner” (English, 2013, p74). There garments has no recognisable line, form or silhouette and many had misplaced lapels, buttons and sleeves and mismatched fabric. English (2013), describes the “calculated disarray created by knowing, tearing and slashing fabrics, which were crinkled, creased and woven in unusual textures” (p74).



“Models strolled down the catwalk under a strong, flashing neon light, and the music which accompanies them was abruptly switched on and off. But the main reason for the attention was that the clothes did not look like normal fashion clothes at all. The whole collection consisted of natural materials and dark colours, and the garments themselves were loose so that the fabrics could move around the models, concealing rather than highlighting their bodies. More nonconventional than this was the fact that it was not easy to see how the clothes could be put on in the first place. For example, there was a sweater with four sleeves, so that it was up to the wearer to choose which two to put their arms through and to use the remaining two as a shawl. There was also a dress with four holes, leaving the wearer to decide which to use for armholes and neckline. Nor were the clothes symmetrical” P129 (Skov, 1996).



“The clothes and models looked shabby, in stark contrast to the to the power suits and fantasy evening dresses, paraded on immaculately groomed models, in vogue at the time. Although the clothes by these two designers were just as new looking for the Japanese, it has been argued that the aesthetic of traditional Japanese culture (by Akiko Fukai), particularly of wabi-sabi (beauty that is imperfect, impermanent or incomplete) and of the kimono, were inherent within their work (Mitchell, 2005, p12).



“The onslaught continued in their successive shows. In Yamamoto’s spring/summer 1983 collection, Models marched down the great runway to the amplified thud of an electronic heartbeat, their faces blanked of colour by a film of whitened paint, their hair shorn or slicked back harshly. Not a smile broke those serried ranks who marched with grim, military precision … The clothes … there were armholes that bore no relation to the line of the shoulders, trousers that were neither trousers nor skirts but some new mutant jackets that seemed to be half finished with some major part completely missing. They defied convention as they defied the shape of the human body” (English, 2011).