Since the Japanese trio of Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake wrote the book on how to modernize non-Western traditions in the nineteen eighties, it’s hardly surprising that the Asian fashion fraternity has turned to Japonisme for inspiration.

What was the secret to the trio’s success?

They correctly identified the following philosophies underlying traditional Japanese dress and then applied them to a modern context.

Egalitarianism

Despite the opulence of the Kimono, there is an egalitarian streak running through Japanese fashion. The Kimono has its roots in the humble Kosode, a commoner’s robe in ancient Japan.

The same egalitarian spirit infuses the trio’s works, which can be almost anti-fashion–albeit very modern– in its plainness. The designers have also, to one extent or another, shunned the flashy world of Haute Couture, as contrary to their principles.

The Concept of “Ma”

It was only later, as Japan entered an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity, that the Kosode morphed into the sumptuous Kimono of today. This early Kimono could have anywhere from five to twenty layers, depending on the social class of the wearer. When wearing the Kimono, an uncut length of fabric was put on the human body. Excess fabric was artfully folded and draped by hands already skilled in Origami (folding paper) and Furoshiki (wrapping). The fabric did not lie flat against the skin, creating a space between the body and cloth known as “Ma.”

 

The trio have acknowledged their creative debt to “Ma,” a space that “crackles with possibility” and creates freedom and flexibility in a garment. They each have their own interpretation of “Ma,” as can be seen in their pleated, layered and draped clothes, none of which hug the body.

 

Gender Neutrality

Men and women alike wore the Kimono –in fact the most extravagant specimens often belonged to men. Similarly, the clothing of these designers, by refusing to reveal the body, allows women, like men, to “be what they are” (in Kawakubo’s words).

Subversiveness

As Japanese society became more mercantile, it became harder to differentiate between wealthy commoners and the elite Shoguns on the basis of dress alone. Thus, the Shogunate issued sumptuary laws regulating dress, reserving for themselves the grandest colors and styles. The masses followed the rules superficially but rebelled through the adoption of a surreptitious luxury, by lining a nondescript Kimono with silk, for example.

The trio’s work similarly subverted norms. In an era when western designers were experimenting with structured, stiff garments such as the power suit, Yamamoto and Kawakubo deconstructed the suit in the name of comfort. They removed linings and paddings and created larger armholes, aiming for a visual imbalance which threw the entire Western capitalist paradigm off-kilter. Rejecting conspicuous consumption, the trio presented an alternative vision of luxury: sombre, anonymous and all about details.