What symmetry that as soon as I return from Tokyo, Tokyo would come to me through an incredible opportunity to see a Kansai Yamamoto show at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of their Fashion in Motion event. Even more so that Yamamoto, whose name you'll probably know as the man, who dressed David Bowie on his seminal Aladdin Sane 1973 tour, would be returning to London 42 years after his 1971 explosive debut in the city. The Japanese wave of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto hitting Paris in the 1980s may be the most prominent in the scheme of things but Kansai Yamamoto's show in London a decade earlier was notable for being the first Japanese designer to make real international impact.
Since that 1971 show, Yamamoto has branched off into show production, becoming an unofficial ambassador for exporting his vision of "Japonica" abroad through events like the Super Shows in the early 1990s. They're extravaganzas that express Yamamoto's flair in catching the eye with a mix of costume, dance, performance and ultimately cultural exchange. As a result, his Fashion in Motion show on Friday at the V&A was very different from previous straightforward fashion show retrospectives. In fact most of the clothes created for the show were brand new, intended to be choreographed into a specific performance. This is a show that needs to be understood for its overall contribution in exporting Japanese culture abroad. I couldn't help but think about the vaguely stiff presentation I received in the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Tokyo about the "Cool Japan" initiative. Yamamoto's show certainly demonstrates one specific aspect of what's "cool" about Japan – the overall aesthetic of mixing up tradition with the future is something that a young generation of designers in Tokyo are unknowingly borrowing from.
Yamamoto and his team had created a show inspired by the spirit of "basara" and "kabuku" – terms that loosely mean "out-there" and "slant" – in other words a slanting deviance that is rebellious in nature. It's the antithesis of understated Japanese "wabi-sabi" and draws from the exuberance of namban art of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. In Yamamoto's words, it's a "rebellious spirit found in extreme beauty". "Basara" is the opposite of say the quiet elegance of Yohji Yamamoto's work.
Yamamoto has no qualms about exploiting the most recognisable aspects of Japanese visual culture and remixing them up in a way that feels relevant today. If forty years ago, Yamamoto shocked and delighted the London fashion scene with his "Oriental" flair, then he did so again at the Raphael hall as the show began with group of "kuroko", dressed in black and moving swiftly through to transform and change, showcasing the Yamamoto's greatest hits in his collaboration with Bowie's Aladdin Sane persona. We saw the art of "boro" the use of vintage kimono, beautifully embroidered with tigers and dragons. Erotic Edo-period shunga get a new lease of life on robes. Bold psychedelic rainbow prints, inspired not just by Japan's vitality but by Yamamoto's travels to Tibet rave their way down the runway with paper umbrellas. A Hokusai wave strapless gown is paired with a surreal iPad bodice. John Galliano's S/S07 couture collection for Dior springs to mind but updated with a twenty-tens touch. Yamamoto himself was present throughout the entire show at the back of the runway, playing the role of master of ceremonies, wearing one of the most impressive pieces in the show – a showpiece woven holographic foil jacket made in collaboration with Koho Tatsumura.
I've been sifting through the McKinsey-edited book "Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works", which presents various solutions and opinions on how Japan can move forward after years of economic stagnation and their reduction of power in Asia. This show was a complete contrast to all that doom and gloom. Yamamoto prefers to focus on the veritable energy of Japan and it was a privilege to see such a unique expression of that energy in London, where he makes impact once again.