The Origins of Deconstructionism in Modern Fashion

Ann Demeulemeester 1999

In today’s fashion, the deconstructive impulse is everywhere. In fact, it is so pervasive that it has become almost unnoticeable, establishing itself as a primary undercurrent of what makes modern design modern. Deconstruction happens when styles of the past are disassembled into their functional elements and reassembled into something new. Deconstruction brings things to pieces so it can bring them together again. Today, deconstructionism remains associated with the leading lights of European fashion, such as the Antwerp Six. But where did this movement come from? Who inspired deconstructionism in the first place?

Comme des Garçons SS1994, Rei Kawakubo

Deconstructionism in Japanese Fashion

In Japan during the 1980s, a new approach to making clothing was emerging. In the early 80s when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo debuted their first collection together in Europe, audiences were met with an exhibition of tattered rags, garments riddled with holes and torn at the edges. From then on, fashion would never be the same.

Ann Demeulemeester was just finishing her studies when the Japanese designers had their first major European debut. At the time, Rick Owens was only a 19-year-old art student. When these young designers were exposed to the radical aesthetic break that Japanese deconstructionism signified, it would inspire their work for life. Working between cultural movements like punk and a lifetime of experience in Japanese tailoring, Yohji and Kawakubo opened the doors for a new movement that transformed the creative outlook of designers around the world.

Yohji yamamoto, Yohji wedding dress, yohji 1989,

As Bonnie English puts it in her book The Japanese Fashion Designers, “For the Japanese, ‘deconstruction’ meant that seams did not just hold two pieces of fabric together but, when exposed, gave energy and dynamism to the design, and asymmetrical points created movement and an interesting imbalance.”

Where the legacy of haute couture concerned itself with producing increasingly maximalist garments, which made the most of expert construction, the Japanese designers worked differently. They made use of techniques not only as aesthetic devices, but as metaphors to communicate new messages about fashion’s history and its possible futures. Not only did designers like Rei and Issey Miyake break the rules of construction, but they challenged Western traditions of garment sexualization by producing clothes that defied the distinction between male and female bodies.

Martin Margiela, Archive Clothing, SS1996, FW1996, Margiela 1996

The Legacy of Deconstructionism

Deconstructionism does not destroy or efface the constructive histories of fashion before it. Instead, it selectively intervenes on these histories, pulling on specific threads and tying new knots. Its approach is not to abolish traditional technique, but to selectively subtract and juxtapose the techniques of the past into a new, vital formation of the present. Deconstructionism works to disperse the motifs of fashion history, producing garments that are more complex, more contradictory in their cultural meaning.

Margiela 1997, AW1997

In 1997, Margiela took the fascination with dispersal to an extreme when he planned an entire exhibition in which all of the clothes were seeded with mold and bacteria—literally rotting away. In her brilliant essay, ‘The Deconstructionists,’ fashion theorist Ingrid Loschek describes how Margiela compared the natural processes of birth, death, and decay to the buying cycles of consumer capitalism. In this sense, deconstructionism’s project has always been tangled up with the economic, political, and social conditions of our current moment. More than many other movements in fashion, deconstructionism intentionally seeks to communicate a message about our present.

While it is often associated with names like Margiela or Demeulemeester, deconstructionism is a movement that began in the 1980s. Its roots are in the groundbreaking work of the postwar Japanese designers, who broke down the past in pursuit of something new.

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