Tradition meets tech
the young Japanese designers set to join the global catwalk
Japan has a long fashion tradition, led by major labels such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons.
But beyond the big global names, a new generation of brands is also looking to make their mark. Some are building on the country’s strong street style, others are looking to marry artisan techniques with modern methods and some are deploying the latest technology to radically rethink the clothes that we wear.
Two names earning plaudits are Maiko Kurogouchi, the designer behind Mame, and Kunihiko Morinaga of Anrealage.
Misha Janette, a Tokyo-based fashion stylist and blogger, says both designers have created “amazing collections” and are finally getting international recognition. She describes Mame’s collections as “charming, delicate, feminine” and easy-to-wear, while Anrealage’s clothes allow the wearer to express “a very strong and unique personality”.
Fashion in full bloom
Maiko Kurogouchi founded her label in 2010, after a period at Issey Miyake. She takes inspiration from nature and combines traditional Japanese artisan techniques with a modern approach. “I grew up in a rural area and I was surrounded by nature and traditional handicrafts,” she says.
Kurogouchi carries a notebook at all times to make sketches and collect materials such as leaves that might provide inspiration.
She says she never knows when “fallen leaves on the ground or blooming flowers” might stir her creative impulse. Her designs include long dresses with fine lace details that are perfectly symmetrical, jacquard weaves and denim distressed by an 80-year-old craftsmen.
Kurogouchi says she learns a great deal by travelling to meet craftspeople. “We as designers can create something new from these old techniques and pass them on to the next generation,” she says. She cites the example of travelling to the northeastern region of Tohoku and discovering kimonos made with linen but lovingly embroidered with cotton patches to make them warmer. Kurogouchi determined to find a modern way to produce a similar result, eventually doing so using multiple layers of torchon lace.
The vivid pinks in Mame’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection reflect the inspiration she found in a photographic record of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's wardrobe and in cherry blossoms near her office.
The sound of silence
In sharp contrast to Kurogouchi’s focus on tradition, Kunihiko Morinaga at Anrealage is unashamedly avant-garde and uses technologies such as augmented reality (AR), smartphones and tablet devices to reshape our approach to clothes. He once created a garment capable of repelling mobile phone signals as a way of highlighting the impact technology is having on our lives.
Morinaga founded his label in 2003, after studying at Waseda University and the Vantan Design Institute in Tokyo, and counts Keisuke Kanda, Comme des Garçons and Maison Margiela as among his inspirations.
He says fashion and technology are “difficult to fuse”, yet he creates garments that can change colour or emit sounds. Black lines and motifs in garments have AR functionality that cause the clothing to pulse with voice or sound when read by a smartphone or tablet device. Light and flash photography can cause white clothing to become colourful or make stripes re-form in an altogether different pattern.
'We want to shake people up with our clothes,' says Morinaga of Anrealage
Morinaga has always strived to be different. Remembering his first show during Tokyo fashion week, Janette describes patchwork dresses puffed up by inflatable balloons inside. “It was something we call a ‘fashion moment’, something you’ve never seen before… it’s a small jolt of adrenaline,” she says.
Freedom to push the boundaries
Janette believes there is greater freedom to Japanese fashion than in other countries. The short history of western fashion in Japan means people “haven’t had this concept of how you’re supposed to dress”. Indeed, while Japanese clothes are referred to as wafuku, Western-style fashion is given an entirely different name in yofuku. This bifurcation is one reason international businesses working in the country often employ madoguchi, bilingual mediators who broker deals that can introduce niche Japanese labels to a wider audience.
Kurogouchi and Morinaga clearly both believe fashion has a wider purpose. “There are many ‘fights’ women face and in the ‘fight,’ I believe in the power of clothing,” says Kurogouchi.
Morinaga is equally clear about his goals, declaring: “We want to reform fashion, move it forward and create new values.”