Japan Fashion Week | Under the radar

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TOKYO, Japan – Just before the fashion world turned its laser focus on New York, a lesser known semi-annual week of fashion shows in Tokyo failed to garner much attention.

Not surprisingly then, a key activity during Japan Fashion Week is listening to other people grumble about Japan Fashion Week. Although Tokyo is one of the world’s most important fashion cities, overflowing with amazing daily dressers, avant-garde masters, and street fashion innovation, the organized collection week has yet to muster up a global impact on par with Paris, Milan, or New York.

And the problem is not just international reception: most of the cooler domestic Japanese brands aren’t even on board.

Japan_fashion_week_2 Long ago, there was a very loose event called Tokyo Collection, which stretched seasonal shows over three months. In 2005, the Japanese government stepped in and concentrated most shows into a single week, enabling foreign buyers and media to stop in briefly and spread the gospel back home. The bureaucrats understandably saw Japan Fashion Week as an important step towards promoting exports for Japan’s domestic designers and apparel producers. They are also generously helping out young designers pay for the costs of a collection show.

That being said, this is fashion, and front-and-centre government sponsorship creates some dissidence in the super chic brand image the event needs to succeed. Fashion weeks elsewhere are about glamour, celebrities, parties and exclusivity. Not Tokyo. The crowd is a strange mix. Front row: trade journalists, foreign invitees, greying bureaucrats and corporate VIPs in boxy suits and company pins. Back row: fashion school students.

Without the mass popular brands (seen at Tokyo Girls Collection) or the internationally-feted Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe, Undercover, and Number Nine or the coolest men’s brands (who intentionally show after JFW), the line-up does attract the Japanese style establishment. Only rarely do editors from the top fashion magazines come by. Since the brands are new (and too artsy for 95% of Japanese women), the week only gets serious coverage from trade publications.

But in light of these issues, the week is actually quite rewarding, and the brands, while not super influential, are on-the-whole interesting.

First and foremost, the total lack of glamour returns attention to the clothing. No one is celebrity-spotting. When the show starts, the crowd gets serious and dedicates themselves to the collection. With no hype to
distract, the week’s gossip and chatter is about cuts, patterns, colours, and materials (and the aforementioned problems with JFW.)

Second, the participating brands are generally artistic and diverse, reflecting many facets of the Japanese fashion experience.

Tiny_dinosaur_1_2The most dominant aesthetic this season combined Japanese traditional inspiration, organic materials, and soft layered styling. For example, Matohu reinvented the Asian robe as a sexy feminine item, while fur fur looks like finding a treasure chest of earth-toned beauty in your grandmother’s attic. Tiny Dinosaur made men’s suits out of Japanese fusuma door material. Young Aguri Sagimori went achromatic, but still found inspiration in Japan’s literary history by printing tiny Japanese texts as a grey jacquard.

In the opposite corner, there is another set of brands that takes the pop obsession of Tokyo’s streets into a deeper fashion context. Mercibeaucoupmercibeaucoup, imagined a subcontinental ethnic costume made from earth tones over pop comic prints over big pastel solids over classic gingham over trad red-white-and-blue over madras madness over stripes. Zechia did freak-folk pop: psych’ed out planet pattern dresses and multiple-sizes of black-and-white stripes. mint designs, on the other hand, printed newspaper texts in primary blue and red over nylon raincoat material. Mikio Sakabe continued his retro-future Stepford Wife take on 1950s sunny elegance, while G.V.G.V. mixed Helmut Newton superwomen and Futurist geometry.

Overall, Japan Fashion Week does bring out one strength of the Japanese market: the infinite number of small indie brands with unique vision and a low production run. This kind of market fits perfect with a new era of consumers mixing and matching in a search for the most perfect fashion individuality.

JFW may not be the voice of Japanese fashion nor a spawning point for world-conquering designers, but still works quite well as a showcase for some very distinct viewpoints on clothing.

By W. David Marx, Contributing Editor of The Business of Fashion and Chief Editor of Mekas. Photos by Sean Wood, courtesy of Mekas