Future Beauty 31.01.11

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A few months ago Kieran Long published a review in Icon about the Venice Biennale (089, November 2010). "Finding history and philosophy bewildering, she looked into the mirror and discovered an ambition to make architecture like her Issey Miyake skirt," he wrote of the biennale curator Kazuyo Sejima's practice. "Cheap shot, I know. Her architecture is better than that." Long's cheap shot perfectly sums up the prejudice that architecture writers often have towards fashion. It implies that a Miyake skirt is a lesser point of inspiration and it shows no understanding of the complex process, extensive research and philosophy that have gone into making it. A show like Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at the Barbican could serve a vital function: it can educate those who are ignorant of the powers at play in fashion history and the close links to the worlds of architecture and design.

Future Beauty surveys 30 years of Japanese fashion innovation. The show explores the new directions introduced by designers of now cult status, and the close connection to other art forms. In the same way as Pierre Poiret did with his pleats and hobble skirts in the 1900s, or Cristóbal Balenciaga with his innovative tailoring in the 1950s, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto stirred up the fashion establishment when they showed in Paris for the first time in 1981. This is where the Future Beauty exhibition starts: a white cotton dress by Yamamoto fraying at the edges, ripped and partly deconstructed. The way to Paris had already been prepared by Miyake and Kenzo Takada a decade earlier, but where these two fitted in comfortably with the 1970s preoccupation with "exoticism", Kawakubo and Yamamoto physically turned the notion of fashion on its head. Inspired by the punk movement, this wasn't a punk aesthetic, it was a completely new way of wearing and constructing clothes. It was the antithesis to the fashion world that Roland Barthes immortalised in his seminal text The Fashion System in 1972. Against the current stalemate of the fashion world, this exhibition is a reminder that fashion is capable of innovation.

The exhibition space, designed by Sou Fujimoto, is divided into two. The lower galleries are arranged into four sections looking at themes and inspirations that are present in contemporary Japanese fashion – from flatness to street style. The upper galleries are dedicated to case studies, with each designer given their own "cubicle": the stalwarts, such as Junya Watanabe and Kawakubo, are all on one side, while facing them is the next wave, such as Mintdesigns and Tao Kurihara. The apprenticeship culture of Japanese fashion is explored in this layout as many of the newer talents have honed their skills in the studios of Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto.

The garments serve as the main focus, the mannequins fading into the background behind the stiff ruffles, the padding and the voluminous constructions, with a supporting role played by printed material: invites and special collaborations, such as Kawakubo's label Comme de Garçons' work with artists Ai Weiwei and Cindy Sherman, or Miyake's work with Irving Penn. A wealth of filmed interviews complete the show.

Japanese fashion represents some of the most interesting garment construction of the past 30 years, fundamentally challenging what a garment is and how it is worn. But it is the end result rather than the process that is on show here. The technological innovation and the incredible infrastructure, such as the specially built machinery and the expert skillbase, isn't explained. Therefore this exhibition risks preaching only to the converted and misses a good opportunity to settle the score with people of Long's conviction once and for all.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion. Barbican Art Gallery, London. Until 6 February.

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Lyndon Douglas



Johanna Agerman Ross

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Japanese fashion represents some of the most interesting garment construction of the past 30 years, fundamentally challenging what a garment is and how it is worn

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