When I came to Paris, I remember the reaction to Comme des Garçons as so strong. Rei and I had to fight because she made a collection inspired by the Japanese kimono or something, and I hated it. Rei, I said, we are not souvenir designers. Japanese designers bringing Japanese ideas to Paris is not comfortable to me. I don’t want to explain Japan to the world.—Yohji Yamamoto
Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto Come to Paris
In 1981 the fashion houses of Paris got their first taste of the new Japanese designers. In the fall of that year, Yohji Yamamoto traveled to France with his friend and colleague Rei Kawakubo. The two had conducted a joint show once before, in 1976 in Tokyo, but this would mark the first time they showed their collections on a European runway.
In 1981, Paris fashion was deep in the clutches of couture and its aesthetic world. Technical maximalism, luxury, and status defined the work. And the runway itself was more of a showroom for luxury garments than the vibrant and performative live art installation we know it as today. Together, Kawakubo and Yamamoto would begin to change this.
At this point in time Kawakubo and Yamamoto worked so closely that their clothes seemed inspired by the same aesthetic fascinations, the same hunger for subversion. Their work mixed sober minimalism with maximalist flourishes that departed from expectations—rips and asymmetries replaced the uniform, delicate stitching of the past. The clothes were markedly asexual when compared to their European contemporaries, revealing the countercultural bent of the Japanese designers.
One of the overriding influences for the collection was the aesthetics of poverty—rags, torn edges, uneven hems, and heavily layered, wrapped cloth. Japan had itself undergone a protracted economic crisis in the wake of the war, and its impressions left Kawakubo and Yamamoto inspired to bring the image of the Japanese working poor into the vaulted halls of Parisian high fashion.
1981 Transformed the Future of Fashion
The Parisian audience was unprepared for the new Japanese, avant-garde approach to fashion, which threatened couture’s investment in luxury, status, and tradition. The collection was both lauded as a revolution and lambasted for its excessive breaks with tradition. Racism figured too, as journalists derided the collection as ‘Fashion’s Pearl Harbour,’ and called Kawakubo a ‘rag picker.’
Critics compared the models to corpses. The pale, shaved heads, adorned with minimal makeup broke abruptly with convention, which relied on highly-feminized models who displayed clothing according to a predictable set of silhouettes. There was little precedent for such aesthetic breaks in catwalk shows at the time, with Vivienne Westwood’s “Pirates” show of the same year being one of the only to match their level of subversion and radicalism.
For the next generation of young European firebrands like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, the Japanese designers had opened up a new era of possibility. For the runway show, they had revealed the catwalk as a space of aesthetic critique, a platform to subvert the expectations and politics of the fashion industry. McQueen and Galliano would learn from the Japanese designers, absorbing not only their techniques but their penchant for radical aesthetic breaks.
After the fact, the word ‘deconstruction’ was used to capture this new aesthetic, which seemed to present garments not as completed works, but as caught amidst their own disappearance. It was a name borrowed from another exciting movement in France, the philosopher Jacque Derrida’s break with the French structuralists. In the philosophy of deconstruction, aesthetic judgment is a kind of impossible choice—deciding the undecidable, as Derrida put it. In other words, aesthetic value itself is founded in indeterminacy, in the irreconcilability of opposites and the creative motion born from dwelling in the murk of uncertainty.
By contrast, the preferences of 1980s French couture were founded in a commitment to the idea that European luxury was the objective determinant of aesthetic truth. Clothing was to communicate underlying cultural ideals of beauty, and it was to do so with clarity and certainty.
The deconstructionists departed from all of this. Derrida’s theory fit well as a name for the new movement, which did not seek to present its clothes as a new ideal of beauty, but as fragmentary traces of the indeterminacy of beauty itself. Yamamoto and Kawakubo played with indeterminacy by emphasising opposition, polarity, and the subtle balance of differences. As Bonnie English put it in her book, Japanese Fashion Designers, “There is an extraordinary tension that occurs in the East between the simple and the sophisticated, between natural materials and technological advance, between the empire of the senses and the tempered discretion of the feelings.”
The movement that would later be called ‘anti-fashion’ was ignited by this conscious break with the functional, status-oriented place of clothes in elite society. Ugliness, decay, loss, dispersal—these were no longer the point of contrast for fashion—they became new materials to work with. Keep reading the Gone Library to learn more about deconstructionism, Japanese design, and fashion history.