Redefining Beauty: Japanese Fashion at the Seattle Art Museum

Posted on July 16, 2013, 3:58 pm
15 mins

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum. Image by Tuffer Harris

In their first foray into presenting fashion as art, Seattle Art Museum has partnered with the Kyoto Costume Institute on an exhibit highlighting Japan’s influence on global fashion. Appropriately titled Future Beauty, the exhibit focuses on just the last thirty years, starting when a few bold designers from Japan debuted their radical collections in Paris, the largest stage in the world of fashion.

The show has been up roughly three weeks now, and I have been a half-dozen times. I plan to visit at least a dozen more, and probably wouldn’t stop there, but they do rotate exhibits and this one will end in September. I can only hope that in the short span of its two and a half month run, it will captivate Seattleites to embrace the farther reaches of expression in fashion and see designers as the artists they are.

For the fashion obsessed, Future Beauty will be a pilgrimage. The mere presence of these garments in Seattle poses the opportunity of a lifetime, as most have only been viewed in brief video clips and in the pages of high fashion magazines. The overwhelming variety of materials will be cause for repeat visits for many.

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum

How it got here

These strangely beautiful clothes have traveled across the Pacific from the Kyoto Costume Institute to dazzle us before moving on to Salem, Massachusetts, their only other stop in America. They have visited London, Munich, and Tokyo en route to Seattle, a journey of three years thus far. But that is what KCI does; the institute is set up to put on traveling shows and has no permanent galleries of its own in its hometown of Kyoto. Aside from curating shows, the institute’s main purpose is to collect for research and publish findings from the study of garments. The institute has specialized in historical Western fashions since its founding, and more recently has started to collect contemporary Japanese fashions. Basically, you won’t find historic Japanese kimonos in its collection.

What you can expect to see in the exhibit

Future Beauty provides the essentials to understanding Japanese high fashion in one cohesive presentation, so whether you are a fashion fanatic or a novice, this show offers something entirely new. The designers represented do not conspicuously brand their clothing, sell to a mass market often, or get into the accessories trade. There are perfumes and colognes out there from Comme des Garcons, but they are rare and extravagant. In fact, my introduction to Comme des Garcons happened when I stumbled upon a cologne that was designed to be the “scent of gold.”

The show focuses on three major designers: Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. In addition to these heavy hitters, their protégés are represented and the talents of Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and the ‘ambassadors of cute’ Mintdesigns round out the exhibit. These are the names to know in Japanese fashion, and these are the garments that made the designers who they are.

The show is only exhibiting some of the more extreme examples of these designers. Rest assured that each brand also makes wearable clothes that generate enough profits to support their companies. The curated examples suggest the direction that the brands were headed in for each collection and exemplify the vision that each designer had in mind before scaling back for less adventurous clientele.

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum.  Image by Tuffer Harris

Fashion as art

At the start of the special exhibit you will be met with a monochrome collection in black and white. For modern day fashionistas this will not cause shock, but I learned that black was not a color in the high fashion palette when these clothes were presented in the early eighties. By bringing collections of only black and white, these Japanese designers were making a bold statement in Paris—one that would be later referred to as the “Japan Shock.”

As you can imagine, affluent women in metropolitan areas embraced this trend. Black, along with the formless silhouettes that these Japanese designers debuted, became something that would spread down the chain and into the mainstream. It just took a decade.

Moving on, the next room shows that these clothes are sculpture and even worthy subject matter for fine art photography. Whether the garment is on the body or displayed flat on the floor, it is art. And with some large scale photographs from artist and photographer Naoya Hatakeyama the garments take on the role of contemporary art as they look like abstract expressionist paintings on the gallery walls.

Kawakubo’s most recent winter collection jackets are also on display in this gallery, and as things go, it is a safe bet that what she is presenting will become fashionable years down the road. Basically, get ready for oversized coats that appear to be made from felt with bean shaped arms and sandwiched seams.

Rounding out the gallery is an example of Miyake’s obsession with pleats as they appear on a very angular raincoat, Watanabe’s exploration into accordion organdy and color blocking, and Hiroaki Ohya’s encyclopedic wardrobe based loosely on the Wizard of Oz: a collection of 21 volumes of “books” that transform into garments. Ohya’s collection is titled The Wizard of Jeanz, as many of the volumes turn into denim garments. However for this show we get volumes 17 and 18 which when opened up and draped on the body appear as a red cotton skirt and top.

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum.  Image by Tuffer Harris

As you enter the show’s most theatrically lit room, you will find Tamae Hirokawa’s seamless knit bodysuit encrusted with rhinestones, the one famously worn by Lady Gaga for a photoshoot. The suit is paired with its less flashy but equally impressive ivory lace twin. After you’ve taken in the token celebrity piece of the show, the gallery is worth investigating further for the clothes made out of unusual materials and high concept designs. Upon seeing Kawakubo’s wedding dress made of batting I was in awe, I knew I’d seen this material before, but wasn’t sure what it was or where it would have been used. This is exactly what makes these designers the brilliant artists they are; they transform materials outside of the fashion realm into creations of beauty with true originality.

My favorite piece in the show happens to be Kosume Tsumura’s raincoat. The coat itself is made of pockets and was conceptually created to function as an urbanite’s must have accessory—a garment that could carry all of your necessary belongings. Created from transparent material, one could store their accessories, lunch, or even garbage in the pockets of the coat. In the museum setting it is filled with lovely silk flowers, not something it was meant to carry, but a stunning visual.

Transitioning from dim lighting to the brightest room in the exhibit, one can find a few examples of Japan’s ‘street style’ culture that has been closely associated with Tokyo’s Harajuku area. There are garments showing the Gothic Lolita look as well as a fashionable take on the Mexican luchador wrestler.

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum.  Image by Tuffer HarrisFuture Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum.  Image by Tuffer Harris

Getting to know the designers

The remaining rooms in the exhibit are given to individual designers to showcase some of their most avant-garde creations. This set of rooms begins with Issey Miyake and his 132 5 Collection, a line of clothing inspired by origami and regeneration, engineered through computer software, and made of high tech polyester. The collection debuted in 2010 and now is a line with its own stores. What’s in the name you might ask?

“The number 1 refers to the single piece of cloth used to make each item, 3 to indicate its three-dimensional shape, and 2 to the fact that it can be flattened two-dimensionally. The single space denotes the time between the completion of the folded form and the moment someone puts it on, while 5 signifies the concept’s multiple permutations.”

The next room is all Yohji Yamamoto, and it is a testament to his prolific career as a master tailor. Yamamoto currently has multiple lines and even has collaborated with global sportswear company Adidas. You can find everything from sportswear to unstructured overcoats in this impressive collection.

What comes next is probably one of the most out-there concepts in fashion, and could only be from the mind of Kawakubo. In an interview with Comme des Garcons’ CEO and Kawakubo’s husband, Adrian Joffe, it was stated that this collection was created after the designer made a visit to New York and observed all black clothing in the windows of the GAP store. All black had been a revolutionary idea for the designer only a decade before, and it sickened her to see it corrupted by the mainstream. In response, the collection later termed “lumps and bumps” by critics was born. The collection pairs loud gingham patterns with padded areas in asymmetrical positions, appearing as deformities and irregularities over the body’s surface. Although it is far from practical, and nearly unimaginable to most that anyone would wear these clothes, it is in true Kawakubo fashion to be this original and bold. The collection was validated when world renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham collaborated with the designer on the costuming for one of his modern dance works inspired by this very collection.

Future Beauty at the Seattle Art Museum.  Image by Tuffer Harris

By far the best room in the show—in my humble, pattern-obsessed opinion—is the one featuring Jun Takahashi’s line UNDERCOVER. These assembled garments pull together an intense gathering of similar patterns to make a fully saturated statement. You can find plaid, polka dots and floral in this room, paired dramatically with matching wallpaper. After inspecting the garments, which combine multiple fabrics that somehow work together, I would highly recommend a long look at the runway video from the show in which this collection appeared. The video really shows just how committed the designer was to his vision, and the hair pieces that the models wore were absolutely brilliant.

And before you exit the show in a fashion-induced delirium, you can take in one of Japan’s hottest designers and Comme des Garcons protégé Junya Watanabe. Watanabe’s clothes have been featured throughout the show, as he has been designing for CDG for a very long time, but here you will see some of his own work. Nothing is more stunning than a dress in floral with saddle bags and what appears to be an umbrella hat. It is not a functioning umbrella however, just a wildly creative accessory.

For a first showing of fashion in the museum setting, SAM has exceeded my expectations. Future Beauty is both a show of amazing visuals as well as a thoroughly educational exhibit—one that is about the potential of creative vision to have great influence in reshaping how beauty in fashion is perceived.

All photography by Tuffer Harris Photography. Tuffer’s work can be found on his Web site.


Jeremy Buben goes to art galleries, museums, performance dance shows and the best gumbo restaurants in Seattle. All of the time. You can read more of his suggested events and short subject posts at his blog Le Dandysme.

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