“What can young Japanese designers do to help their careers and make it internationally?” Loaded question but it’s one that frequently pops up whenever I’m in Tokyo, meeting designers in showrooms and discovering abundance. It was again put to me at this year’s edition of ITS – International Talent Support – the annual competition for recent graduates all around the world, held in Trieste with prizes of up to EUR25,000 up for grabs. I was once again part of the jury and a journalist from the magazine SO-EN was probing about the current state of Japanese fashion and without meaning to sound like I was some fashion knew-it-all oracle, the only thing I could muster up was “There’s heaps of talent. It’s just hard to communicate that to the world.” I meant it. There’s no doubt that the creativity and talent is there in abundance. I see it every time I’m in Japan and come home laden with lookbooks, clothes and general fashion-high because I’ve absorbed so much. It’s the matter of getting it out there into the wider world – the language barrier, the tendency not to publicise themselves out on social media and snazzy websites and the general unwillingness or fear of making that international step-up.
There might yet be another monumental Japanese wave though akin to Rei Kawkubo and Yohji Yamamoto storming Paris in the 80s but for now it’s about paving the way in small steps for a new gen of Japanese designers to make it to the forefront. Competitions like ITS are a good start and this year, there was no less than seven Japanese finalists across the fashion, jewellery, accessories and the newly created art categories (as in fashion designers who create art as opposed to bona fide artists). It was also great that four of them scooped up prizes in the final show ceremony, which is definitely encouragement for similar graduates from Japan to enter similar competitions. It was also interesting that the thought process of their work was so often incredibly personal and free from overarching and remote concept, which can often be the case with many student projects. It gave them an idiosyncratic edge that is hard not to be charmed by. Some were familiar to me, some were not but I thought I’d run through my favourites from this mini ITS 2014 Japanese wave.
Zetsumei, the exhibition of young Japanese designers and their wacked-out installations in Parco Tokyo last year was a real eye-opener for me. Amongst one of the newbies, two made it to ITS this year, following the guidance of their tutors Mikio Sakabe and Yoshikazu Yamagata, co-founders of the Coconogacco school in Tokyo and themselves unconventional designers. Noriko Nakazatu was one them and she had her work entered under the jewellery and art categories. A quick look at her Tumblr and she’s an a jack-of-all-trades, dabbling with image-making, installation, jewellery and fashion with an incredibly complex level of referencing. Kitsch would be a simplistic way of looking at it. Sci-fi, psychedelia and strange facets of Japanese culture all feed into her particular eye for the perverse and odd. Nakazatu’s jewellery won her the Swarovski Jewellery Price of EUR10,000 probably because she charmed the jury with her totally sensical more-is-more approach. There’s definitely more to her than piecing resin, crystals and toys together though. I’d love to see her create more all-encompassing installations that blend different fields together.
Yasuto Kimura’s portfolio was the thinnest of the lot. It consisted of an exacting newspaper format to talk up his collection about an alternative uniform for the Japanese salarymen. It’s such an iconic image, seeing Japanese commuters falling asleep on the metro or hanging out in packs at ramen bars. Kimura is I think the first to tackle this specific aspect of Japanese culture and he does it with a series of distorted, multi-functional and versatile grey suited tailoring. No boring grey suits here as Kimura declared that he’d love to be the “Thom Browne of Japan” when we asked him about his work in the jury session. Ambitious but great to see. The most prominent Japanese menswear has often skewed towards streetwear and casualwear in recent years and so it’s nice to see a tailoring focused menswear designer try and come and do something that feels unique to his experience. The best thing is that Kimura himself is that Japanese salaryman. He works as a designer for a corporate apparel company and so is well equipped to give a whole new spin on salarymen attire. Kimura was selected to create a film with SHOWstudio, which will definitely be interesting to see, judging by his lookbook images.
Maiko Takeda‘s work is now instantly recognisable thanks to what is known as the “Bjork Effect”. When I posted a pic on Instagram, somebody said “Very Bjork-esque!” Errr… well, Bjork did in fact wear Takeda’s Atmospheric Reentry collection of cut-acetate headpieces, straight after Takeda had shown her work at last year’s RCA graduate show. Takeda’s phenomenal work is the collection that keeps on giving though as she was belatedly selected for ITS this year and also has had it shot for Dazed Digital. Takeda currently has a job at Issey Miyake working as their accessories designer experiences like ITS might stir up a hankering to do her own thing, given the extra encouragement of the Vogue Talents Award.
“Made with naive love” is often something that I think of whenever I encounter Japanese designers who operate within their own world, removed from global trends and outsider influences. Takafumi Arai definitely falls underthis category. His Instagram account is brimming with enthusiasm and joy for his handmade shoes, stitched, patched and composed together with an incredible eye for detail. They’re shoes that showcase craftsmanship in a very overt way so that you can’t help but fall for them, even if they’re not necessarily your favoured aesthetic. Top stitching, cross-stitching, flecks of rainbow tufted threads and autumnal shades of leathers and suede come together in a sort of homespun craftwork fantasy. Arai was a revelation for me and it seems he impressed others too as YKK decided to award a special prize of EUR1,000 as a vote of encouragement to this young shoemaker.
Finally, I can’t not mention the charming project of Ryota Murakami and his mother Chiaki. I also encounter his work at Zetsumei in Parco last year. Some mothers draw and craft with their children. Chiaki sketches out what she deems to be her kind of “fashion” and brings them to live through crochet and knit. Together Ryota and Chiaki created a knitwear installation that was entered under the art category of ITS. To go with this rainbow brite mass of fun, is a children’s book to illustrate the tale about the way a mother and son co-create and inspire each other. It would be sickly sweet if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s so heartfelt and genuine, especially when you meet Chiaki herself. It brought a huge beaming smile to the proceedings.