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Japanese fashion is very much in vogue right now, in 2020.
Apart from the ever so popular kimono styles featured in movies, songs, catwalks and museums all over the world, Japanese fashion has contributed to the history of fashion in so many ways.
In this article, I will explore the uniqueness of Japanese fashion.
I will uncover its history, past influences and trends, present and even the future of Japanese fashion.
I’ll also detail on the latest Japanese fashion trends, styles, and conclude with the most popular Japanese fashion designers of 2020.
Finally, I’ll touch on how Japanese designers use sustainable development, for a cleaner and more sustainable future.
Without further ado, here is everything you should about Japanese fashion.
Japanese Fashion History
Japan has the reputation of being one of the world’s fashion epicentres, for so many reasons.
Japanese fashion became very popular thanks to its unique heritage and amazing culture.
Japan’s cultural richness has given shape to rare fashion interpretations and styles, observed to this point of contemporary street fashion couture.
For centuries, the West has looked to Japan for inspiration.
Often inexplicable [to those outside Japan] forms of art, traditions, respect and culture are what has driven so many artists to explore Japan.
From all forms of inspiration, the most immediate, evident and impactful was the realm of fashion.
Since the early 1850s, when international trade activities were initiated, Japan has been the main source of exotic fashion inspiration.
Japan has opened its doors to a world of new designs, styles, and even materials.
A world of paintings, unique prints, and luxurious textiles as some of the most inspiring and desired goods.
However, as time passed by, Japanese fashion has started to experience external cultural influences as well.
Western influence on Japanese fashion
Japanese fashion has a centuries-long history of being both, influenced and influencer.
At the end of the isolation (sakoku) period and the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), traditional Japanese attire has entered a period of cultural absorption.
Western culture caught Japan’s curiosity, and its influence started to become evident.
The United States, in particular, has exerted a strong influence on Japanese fashion.
The constant media exposure to American fashion designers and their styles has influenced, initially, the Japanese buyers.
However, seeing demand shifting, local designers started to follow and infuse their creations with the latest western trends.
By the beginning of the Shōwa period (1926-1989), men’s fashion styles had become largely ‘westernised’.
Moreover, the influence of Western clothing styles has started to influence women fashion styles as well.
As expected, Western culture had a profound impact on Japanese culture.
Initially, people wore Western styles at work only.
However, shortly after people started wearing Western fashion styles at home as well.
Tradition and modernity
After World War II, Japan began paving its own way towards the country’s ‘Renaissance’.
The movement covered art, architecture, fashion, and even technology with the aims of preserving and nurturing the country’s historical roots.
Also, adapt to contemporary trends and reach a unique blend of oriental and contemporary culture.
Simply put, this country of artists and craftsmen had to harness ‘the best from the past’ while keeping a daring eye on the future.
In the cultural rebirth process, the preservation of Japan’s aesthetic philosophy of Wabi-Sabi (the art of Imperfection) has become paramount.
It was out of this very philosophy that Japan managed to re-established itself as a modern creative powerhouse.
The movement was so successful that Japanese fashion designers began a systematic ‘take-over’ the world of fashion.
From ‘Japonism’ to Japanese fashion
As an influencer, Japan’s uniqueness has touched the French culture the most.
The influence was so strong, that French artists have invented a word to describe it: ‘Japonism’.
‘Japonism’ signifies a wide range of Japanese aesthetics, innovative techniques, themes and nature-based motifs, nowadays used by western designers.
Now, as we approach contemporary fashion times, we see how important was Japan’s role of influencer and influenced in the grand scheme of fashion.
Overall, Japanese fashion has changed the way we understand fashion and dress.
Since the early 50s, Japanese fashion designers have consistently impacted Western fashion, with their vision, craft, and creativity.
In the 60s, the legendary Rei Kawakubo – founder of Comme des Garçons – revolutionised women’s fashion with her avant-garde masculine approach.
As we approach modern times, Japan’s contribution to the world of fashion becomes increasingly evident.
A new era of celebrity-designers emerges, such as Tadashi Shoji and his ‘red carpet’ crepe gowns.
Another modern contributor, to Japan’s role as a global fashion influencer, is Issey Miyake.
Miyake is one of the most famous Japanese fashion designers, recognised and loved for his mesmerising pleats…
… And last but not least, the master tailor Yohji Yamamoto, known for his avant-garde tailoring and partnership with Adidas.
Iconic Japanese Fashion Trends
Nevertheless, it is important to understand what are the sources of inspiration for these popular fashion designers hailing from Japan.
When interviewed about iconic couture that influences their styles and perception of fashion, most designers referred to:
- The Kimono
- Wabi sabi
- Japanese Street Fashion
The kimono is the most famous, worldwide-recognised, traditional piece of clothing coming from Japan.
The word ‘kimono‘ can be roughly translated to “an object that is worn.”
At the same time, the word sums up the basic functions of any piece of clothing.
The kimono also incorporates the concept of garment simplicity.
The idea behind the kimono is to create a simple and functional piece of couture, from one piece of fabric.
The final form always depends on the chosen material.
Finally, the garment is augmented with decorative patterns.
The kimono’s SIMPLE, yet SOPHISTICATED form has made it one of the most explored and used pieces of fashion.
The kimono has become an iconic piece that highlights the depth and beauty of Japanese culture.
Moreover, given its constant media exposure, starting with the ’80s, kimono patterns and influences have started to appear in the collections of western designers.
The classic Japanese kimono became a key source of inspiration for famous fashion designers such as Armani, Eileen Fisher, and Zuhair Murad.
Wabi sabi (侘寂)
Wabi sabi is an aesthetic principle, centred around the idea of transience and imperfection as vital components of beauty.
The concept and its resulting design techniques have been adopted and used by some of the most popular Japanese fashion designers to date.
Some of the most recognisable figures employing Wabi sabi are Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Issei Miyake.
London, New York, and Parisian fashion scenes of the late 70s were rocked by their Wabi sabi inspired creations and styles.
With uneven, gender-free fashion, and androgynous designs, these avant-garde designers helped Japanese fashion gain global recognition and international success.
Japanese Street Fashion
The third important source of inspiration for Japanese creators is the Japanese street fashion culture.
While distinct and extreme Japanese fashion subcultures are still thriving, the streets of Tokyo are brimming with ‘slightly more accessible’ fashion trends.
The photographer Shoichi Aoki chronicled most of these unique trends in FRUiTS, a ‘bible’ for street-fashion enthusiasts.
“When it comes to fashion, Tokyo has this kind of unique flow of energy, with Harajuku as the source of this flow”, he explained.
We’ll cover Harajaku a bit later…
…right now, it is important to know that even big fashion retailers are impacted by Japanese street fashion trends.
On contrary to Western fashion trends, constructed by celebs and Instaparasited by fast fashion giants, in Japan retailers rely heavily on the street culture:
“Here, in Japan, the most popular fashion models are just normal shoppers. They are normal people wearing their unique styles on the streets of Tokyo”, said Parco’s President Kozo Makiyama.
Parco is one of the first chains of department stores in Japan to realise the power of Japanese streetwear fashion.
The influence is so palpable that when it opened its store in Shibuya, Parco used a very relevant slogan:
“The people you’re passing are all so beautiful.”
In other words, the streets of Japan are the real catwalks and people are the fashion stars.
The Rise And Fall Of Harajuku Style
Back to Harajuku and its influence on Japanese street fashion, it all goes down to Harajuku, a district in Tokyo.
Many generations of youths have walked the narrow streets of Harajuku.
It is the district that has risen and ended thousands of different original streetwear styles.
Harajuku is also known as the epicentre of ‘kawaii’ culture and the place that has inspired many Japanese designers, popular now both in Japan and abroad.
The 90s were the golden age of Harajuku street fashion styles and cosplay culture.
Those were times of Japanese street couture of uncontrolled creativity and exaggerated accessories, that became known to the whole world.
However, under increased pressure from fast-fashion giants, the Harajuku fashion scene has weakened in the last five years.
“Picture the streetwear creativity as a tinny river, free to flow. Sadly, large buildings and factories have been erected on its banks, stressing the limits of this little fountainhead,” explains Shoichi Aoki, a Japanese photographer and the creator of STREET Magazine.
Post-Harajuku Japanese Fashion
But the district of Harajuku has left something beautiful behind.
Post-Harajuku Japanese fashion remains filled with eclectic flavours of streetwear blended with well-tailored designer pieces.
Unusual and unexpected combinations [to Western fashion] are found everywhere, from the runway to the stylish streets of Japan’s cosmopolitan capital.
When leafing through streetwear looks, one finds displays of other-worldly glamour.
Modern Japanese styles are conveyed in unapologetic prints and patterns.
Moreover, to Western consumers, Japanese fashion unveils a new world of oversized and asymmetric shapes.
A beautiful world of bold accessories, layered kimonos, pleated garments, and genderless ensembles.
Japanese fashion was and remains a place for bold designers able to impeccably deconstruct and reconstruct our understanding of fashion.
It remains the land of those who invent novel styles, beautifully complemented by outstanding oriental make-up and hairstyles.
Contemporary Japanese Fashion
As a reinforcement on how Western culture impacts Japanese fashion, Vogue Japan chose Kendall Jenner for its July cover.
It is once again, a confirming indicator of how the West merges with East – an American model wearing Japanese summer trends.
Having “POSITIVE ENERGY” as the central topic, the magazine focuses on beauty and tips for a healthy body, mind, and soul.
The editorial showcases a minimal and monochromatic selection of photographs and styles…
… blending vintage-looking stripes with summer-appropriate outfits of functional character, selected for outdoor activities.
Inspired by the samurai styles, the waistline is a definite highlight.
The editorial concludes with Japanse styles below crop tops, belted high-waisted jeans, skirts, jumpsuits, and dresses, made from rescued materials, deadstock, and eco-friendly textiles.
Sustainable Japanese Fashion
And this takes us to the importance of sustainability in Japanse fashion.
Fashion is a 2.4 trillion dollar industry that 60 million people worldwide.
However, fashion is an industry that creates mountains of waste and up to 10 per cent of the world’s carbon output comes from the same industry.
Right now, there are over 21 billion tons of textile waste discarded in the landfills, each year.
Then, 20 per cent of the world’s water is used to create apparel.
These figures motivate Japanese, as a nation, to find better alternatives, especially now when the industry is at a crossroads.
As such, emerging Japanese designers are increasingly taking centre stage with next-generation hand-made couture from upcycled apparel and recycled textiles.
A tremendous example of sustainable fashion comes from SHOHEI, a unique brand that offers high-end sustainable couture.
Shohei’s unique ethos reflects Japan’s existential core values of freedom, simplicity and creativity.
The Future Of Japanese Fashion
As a densely populated capital city, Tokyo is a melting pot for ‘all new things‘ happening.
Japan has been and remains at the forefront of technological innovations.
Japanese startups are devising unique technologies, rethink business models, and search for eco-friendly alternatives at every step, from design to production, delivery, and reuse.
The latest advancement in Japanese fashion is the use of Artificial Intelligence and 3D manufacturing, as it is the case of Synflux.
Synflux is just one of the thousands startup blending technology into Japanese culture, seeking to rethink the entire fashion ecosystem.
“A new way to consume is on the rise. It’s all about on-demand, customisation, and sustainability,” says Kye Shimizu, one of the brand’s co-founders.
Using AI To Reinvent Japanese Couture
In 2018, the team’s first project was a raw-edged Spandex dress.
On its own, it was just a zero-waste puzzle of rectangles and trapezoids.
But the team fused a 3D-printed skeleton onto the stretchy fabric, to create figure-hugging pleats from collar to cuffs.
“With centuries of history and tradition behind, the kimono was designed to fit every type of body and signify one’s cultural identity. That’s why our generation has big responsibilities. For once, to remember our culture and traditions, and then, to update and refresh it,” ads Shimizu.
In the follow-up creation, the team used bio-engineered leather, laser-cut by AI.
First, a person was 3D-scanned so that the company’s proprietary algorithm could deduce the optimum pattern to fit the body.
Composed solely of rectangles and triangles, the fabric panels were cut to fit alongside each other.
It’s an AI cutting system the creators link back to the video game Tetris.
“It is the merging of the designer and the machine, via software,” explains Shimizu.
The team calls these explorations Algorithmic Couture.
Their creations got them noticed by the H&M Foundation’s prestigious Global Change Award.
Right now, Synflux’ garments are on display at the “Making Fashion Sense” exhibit in Basel, at Switzerland’s House of Electronic Arts.
Their creations are presented alongside unique pieces created by recognised fashion tech talents, such as Iris van Herpen and Hussein Chalayan.
Sustainability Through Innovation
As a nation of innovators and trailblazers, the Japanese understand that the path to sustainability is through innovation.
A 2019 McKinsey study revealed that 57 per cent of millennial and Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for custom made products that have a minimal impact on the environment.
As such, Japanese designers with a focus on customisation and sustainability are the rage right now.
These emerging Japanese designers are paying attention to two key factors:
- Customised couture – aiming to decrease return costs and textile waste resulting from standard-sized samples.
- Use sustainable materials – innovative, eco-friendly, cruelty-free materials that nurture and protect the environment.
Once again, Japan’s new age of design and technology experts are ahead, by blending culture and beauty with innovation and utility.
The future of Japanese fashion is in the right hands!
Japanese Designers To Watch In 2020
Finally, the global ‘out of the box’ stylistic movement owes a lot to modern Japanese fashion designers.
These creative minds are redefining fashion rules, inviting us to explore the next level of fashion and style.
Here are the top 10 Japanese designers to watch in 2020.
1. Chisato Tsumori
This Japanese designer has amazed the world with her wonderful prints.
As a lover of French culture and fashion, Chisato opened her first free-standing shop in Paris, in 1999.
The boutique was designed by Christian Biecher and is located on rue Barbette in the Marais neighbourhood.
The flagship boutique showcases Chisato’s love for the arts through various collaborations with photographers, visual artists and set designers.
Chisato’s hand-painted creations draw inspiration from Japanese culture and manga.
Also, the artist covers contemporary art, felines, and other Japanese specific motifs.
Originally from Tokyo, Japan, Sk8thing is the lead designer of streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (Bape).
In the past, the designer has created amazing streetwear for Pharrell’s Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream.
He has also designed for Neighborhood, W-Taps, undercover, Bounty Hunter, and T-19.
Also a founder of Cav Empt (C.E.) in 2011, together with Toby Feltwell, Sk8thing remains a popular but mysterious public persona.
He uses the mystery around him to promote Japanese street culture through exclusive streetwear couture.
3. Nicola Formichetti
Nicola was born in Japan in 1977, from an Italian dad and Japanese mother.
Now, despite looking about 18 years old, Nicola Formichetti is in his early 40s.
As he grew up in Japan but went to school in Rome, the fashion maverick is fluent in both, Italian and Japanese.
Formichetti is a former architecture student who dropped out of college in the 90s.
The designer worked in clothes shops and went clubbing every night, influences noticeable in his high-profile and upbeat collections.
As a creative director, Formichetti has launched several global projects and collaborations with glossy magazines and pop up shops.
He’s also loved by celebrities and consecrated brands such as Lady Gaga, Uniqlo, Mugler, Diesel and Brooke Candy, just to name just a few.
Since 2011 Nicola has overseen NICOPANDA, his own ‘kooky-yet-accessible‘ fashion and lifestyle label.
4. Shinsuke Takizawa
Shinsuke Takizawa is a Japanese designer and the founder of the famous streetwear label NEIGHBORHOOD.
Born in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, Takizawa showed a keen interest in fashion from a young age.
Interestingly enough, Takizawa’s creations display profound influences of punk rock subculture.
According to the designer, this taste was acquired while being an exchange student in London, in the 80s.
After his studies in London Takizawa returned to Tokyo, aiming to become a stylist and DJ.
Having been introduced to Hiroshi Fujiwara through friends, Takizawa joined his Major Force hip-hop record label.
Eventually, eight years later he would become the director of the studio.
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Fortunately, in 1994 Takizawa resigned from Major Force to launch his streetwear label called NEIGHBORHOOD.
Shortly after, the WTAPS designer Tetsu Nishiyama joined the newly formed brand as the creative director.
A pioneer of the Japanese Ura-Hara streetwear aesthetic, Takizawa is considered one of the most influential figures in modern contemporary streetwear.
5. Hiroko Takahashi
Hiroko Takahashi is a Japanese textile designer that became popular for her modern reinterpretation of the classic kimono.
Hiroko is based in Sumida, Tokyo, the home to the Ryōgoku Kokugikan (National Sumo Stadium) and sumo-beya – the stables where sumo wrestlers train and live.
Since 2018 Hiroko has been commissioned by the prestigious Kokonoe-beya to design the yukata (informal summer kimono) worn by its sumo wrestlers.
Hiroko’s work is characterised by patterns consisting of simple but essential graphic elements.
According to the designer, these circles and straight lines are the makeup of the universe.
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. I found beautiful Heidi wearing the kimono designed by me on Amazon’s program “Making the Cut”. It fits really on her! . @heidiklum @amazonprimevideo @makingthecuttv #amazon #makingthecut #heidiklum #kimono #takahashihiroko #hirocoledge #art #fashion #textile #design #geometric #pattern #dots #stripes #circle #straightlines #amazonプライム
“The ‘circle’ is a design motif used throughout time, beyond borders and cultures. The potential of the ‘circle’ is immeasurable“.
Early this year a kimono made by Hiroko was featured in ‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk‘ at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Europe’s first major exhibition dedicated to kimonos.
6. Junko Shimada
After studying at the Sugino Gakuen Dressmaker Institute of Tokyo, Junko has decided to treat herself to a three-month trip to Paris, to discover the fashion capital.
Charmed by the Parisian women she dreamed to dress one day, Junko settled in for good in 1968.
“As a teenager, this city represented to me the aesthetics of the ‘Nouvelle Vague.’ Above all, is represented liberty from the traditional Japanese ‘shackles’,” she said.
Not long after Junko became “The most Parisian of all Japanese designers,” thanks to a style that was ‘shaking up’ the Japanese minimalism.
Collection after collection, Junko shows a more audacious persona.
Mixing prints, dots, and panthers cohabit in harmony.
Her collections charm global celebrities as it is the case of Lady Gaga who has fallen for her pair of ballet shoes mounted on high plexiglass heels (Junko SS 2009).
“Fashion, to me, is all about passion. It comes from the heart. It is only with passion and heart that the fashion can be created,” explains the designer.
7. Tadashi Shoji
Tadashi Shoji is an American-based Japanese fashion designer known for his evening wear and bridal collections.
Born in Sendai, Japan, Shoji showed an interest in painting and drawing at a very young age.
After he moved to Tokyo to study fine arts, Tadashi became the apprentice of Jiro Takamatsu.
Takamatsu is a contemporary artist making art in Japan, very popular during the 60s and 70s.
Eventually, Tadashi launched his eponymous evening wear brand in 1982.
The designer uses traditional dressmaking techniques to turn stretched fabrics into elegant, easy-to-wear silhouettes.
Tadashi’s signature pieces include draped jersey gowns, pleated chiffon gowns, and shutter pleated cocktail dresses.
His unique creations are red-carpet staples, sought by celebrities and socialites alike form all over the world.
Right now, the Tadashi Shoji brand is offered in over 700 department and speciality stores worldwide.
8. Yoshio Kubo
Yoshio Kubo is a Japanese designer and a graduate of Philadelphia University School of Textile & Science.
Yoshio had been working for New York haute couture designer “Robert Danes” as an assistant for four years.
In April 2004, Yoshio Kubo returned to Japan to launch his label, ‘Yoshio Kubo’.
In Yoshio’s words:
“There are so many outfits in the world. It is an enormous quantity that paralyses people. People no longer think about what to wear or how to dress; they just keep buying. My designs are meant to make people think again, enquire about the meaning of symbols, lines, cuts, in the garments they’re wearing.”
Yoshio Kubo’s collections yield a steadfastness in the face of global upheaval.
His collections are wholly distinctive, with plentiful exclusive codes.
Yet there’s a sense of optimism driving Yoshio’s output.
Some of his latest creations hint at a bright future, offering a vivid contrast to society’s proclivity towards doom-mongering.
9. Satoshi Kondo
Born 1984 in Kyoto, Japan, Satoshi Kondo is the artistic director and head designer of the Japanese fashion brand Issey Miyake.
Satoshi’s mother was a sewing teacher, and his house was always filled with pattern cuts and fashion designs.
He studied at Ueda College of Fashion from where he has received a Master degree in ‘Fashion Industry Creator’.
“The joy that can be found in the ritual of getting dressed or finding outfits that can make you happy for the whole day – this is what inspires me“, explains Issey Miyake’s new head designer.
Indeed, Kondo’s clothes are designed for movement, dance and happiness.
For example, the latest Miyake collection was supported by dancers presenting choreography by Daniel Ezralow.
Under the glass ceiling of Centquatre, a cultural space in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, the runway was a veritable show.
Each part was made up of a series of mini-scenes, each dedicated to a different kind of clothing.
It was a truly mesmerising show accentuated by dancers, acrobats, and the musical interlude of a grand finale.
10. Junya Watanabe
Junya Watanabe is a Japanese fashion designer and a former protégé of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo.
Born in 1961 in Fukushima, Japan, Watanabe went on to attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, graduating in 1984.
Just like his mentor Rei Kawakubo, Watanabe is renowned for designing innovative and distinctive clothing.
He is particularly interested in synthetic and technologically advanced fabrics, as found in his spring/summer 2001 line.
Watanabe is also described as a “techno couture” designer, thanks to his unusually structured garments out of modern, technical materials.
One of the most relevant examples is his solar-power jacket/coat, part of his FW16 menswear line.
Without a doubt, Japanese culture has left a unique imprint on the modern fashion world.
Moreover, looking at the way emerging Japanese designers tackle the issue of sustainability in fashion, we can categorically say that this is just the beginning of Japan’s impact on global fashion.
If you’ve liked the article, make sure you follow us to see what’s next for Japanese fashion and its amazing designers.
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