If you think fashion is superficial, or just about things you wear, you should think again.
According to the cutting-edge Japanese designers featured in a new exhibition titled "Feel and Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion," clothes can be not only conceptual, but used as floor coverings or even musical instruments.
Ten cult fashion labels were each asked to create an installation reflecting their brand's philosophy for the exhibition, which is showing through Dec. 25 at Tokyo Opera City in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
There's no whiff of convention here: rather than hanging the clothes up, this band of avant-garde inventors has created eclectic and interactive displays that range from the musical to the allegorical.
For example, menswear brand SASQUATCHfabrix welcomes visitors with an unorthodox mannequin: an enormous cow covered in a patchwork of brown leather jackets. Elsewhere the word "clotheshorse" becomes literal, with an equine version in black leather, in addition to a giant egg covered in military fatigues and a sphere "dressed" in denim.
Covering unusual shapes and objects in clothing is somewhat of a common theme. Keisuke Kanda uses knitted jumpers in lieu of tatami mats in a small Japanese-style room, in which everything, down to the lantern and tea cup, is dressed in woolen material. A handful of lacy white dresses, tutus and bodices in his trademark romantic style are also on display.
The most entertaining installation comes from Theatre Products, who want people to imagine how fun shopping could be if a symphony went off every time they snapped something up.
In their "La Boutique Fantastique," a mocked-up shop, visitors are encouraged to use a bar-code scanner to scan the labels of the clothes and accessories, which each set off a different melody or beat that rings out around the gallery. The faster the bar codes are scanned, the more complex harmonies--or discordant sounds--are created.
Just next door hang enormous baubles sheathed in lacy fabric, next to mannequins sporting similar body-hugging designs.
The bodysuits are the trademark of Somarta, a brand masterminded by Tamae Hirokawa, who previously worked for Issey Miyake. Hirokawa invented a technology to create seamless, intricately decorated tubes that act as a "second skin."
Some feature tribal graphics, while others are more ornate and seem almost regal--one outfit is topped with a chandelier hat.
Also swinging from the ceiling are some of h.Naoto's designs, which embody the popular "gothic lolita" trend, usually shortened to "goth loli," which mixes pink and frilly fabrics with bodices and big skirts.
Naoto Hirooka started the brand in 2000 and is credited with transforming the look from that of an insular subculture to a mainstay of Japanese street fashion over the past decade.
Street fashion has long been a driver of trends in Japan. While the rest of the fashion world was still myopically focused on the big seasonal shows in Paris, Milan and New York, Japanese consumers were blurring the delineation between high couture and casual streetwear, often wearing the two together.
Even Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, commented on this phenomenon when she was in town for "Fashion's Night Out," a series of events on Nov. 5 at flagship fashion stores organized by Vogue.
"It's just fantastic to see so much creativity on the street. You really don't see that so much in New York. It tends to be a much more blue-jeans-and-T-shirt world," she was reported as saying.
Japanese fashion has long been considered edgy, with designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Miyake leading efforts to redefine the silhouette with inventive cuts that "deconstruct" common features such as sleeves.
While those three have gained international acclaim, Wintour--somewhat of an oracle in the business--feels that younger Japanese designers need to reach beyond the domestic scene and market to an overseas audience.
"They really need to work a little more on global recognition … anything the Japanese designers can do to make themselves more known in a personal way (to foreign buyers), then that will help," she said.
One of the featured designers with a refreshingly international outlook is Akira Minagawa, whose "mina perhonen" brand is often mistaken for being Scandinavian, thanks to its name and aesthetic, which are both influenced by the region.
Minagawa describes his clothes, which usually feature prints on high-quality fabric, as "everyday" wear.
To emphasize this, he shows that anyone can wear them, by providing a life-size photo of a dress with a hole cut out above it for people to poke their head through and see how it suits them in the opposite mirror.
Minagawa's focus on textiles is also shared by Matohu, a label that has an unusually academic approach to its collections. On show here are clothes from the autumn/winter 2011-12 collection, "The Beauty of Solid Colors," which revels in the subdued colors found in nature. To complement the rustic flavor of the clothes there is a small pile of stones and moss, artfully arranged.
The label specializes in fusing traditional Japanese dress with Western sensibilities, one of its collections reinvigorated forms of clothing from the Keicho Era (1596-1615).
Other designers, however, have their feet firmly in the present. The first fashion show to bravely go ahead after the Great East Japan Earthquake was by mintdesigns, who changed the title from "Fashion Surgery" to "A New Hope" after the disaster.
A video of the show, held at the Tabloid event complex in Tokyo Bay, reveals how the main colors of the collection were changed from dark browns to pastel blues and yellows, with each of the models crowned with a neon "halo" to symbolize light and positivity.
That could also be a metaphor for the future of Japanese fashion, which from here, looks very bright indeed.
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