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The mannequins in Seattle Art Museum’s fascinating exhibit “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion” stand on the balls of their feet, heels up, as if poised on the edge of a cliff. In a sense, they are: These dozens of garments, unique and beautiful and strange (sometimes all three), represent a shift in the fashion world — a moment when innovative Japanese designers began to make an international impact, changing the way we think about clothing.

Beginning austerely, with a grouping titled “In Praise of Shadows,” the exhibit immediately takes us back 30 years, when Rei Kawakubo’s landmark early-’80s work shocked the fashion world. These garments, standing quietly in a row, are made in a tattered rainbow of black and cream — early, controversial signals of the now-common sight of intentionally torn or unfinished garments, and of black as a default “color.”

These garments, and most in the exhibit, do not hug the body, but drape it (the kimono was a strong influence) and reshape it. A Rei Kawakubo black skirt and top — the second garment in the exhibit — looks like the fabric just dropped onto the body from above and elegantly puddled there, creating its own landscape.

Standing nearby, like distant acquaintances, are four more recent black garments, including perhaps the exhibit’s most conventional-looking dress: a stunning full-skirted silk taffeta ball gown by Yohji Yamamoto that would look perfectly at home on a red carpet — and yet, beneath its folds peeks a polka-dot underskirt; the garment’s playful exclamation point, reminding us to look for the details.

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Moving through the exhibit, we see more experiments with color, fabric and shape, some remarkably innovative. Issey Miyake’s short, spiky cocktail dresses look startlingly modern on the body; folded up on the floor, they appear to be intricate origami shapes, representative of an ancient art. Junya Watanabe’s “Techno Couture” collection, made of polyester intricately folded and pleated into honeycomb form, seems to hover around the wearer like an electric cloud; you wonder if they’ll float away. A Kawakubo “wedding dress” is made from what appears to be quilt batting; a Jun Takahashi black dress has a conventionally form-fitting silhouette, but is covered with patches from which long red threads trail, like scars dripping blood. Koji Tatsuno’s golden brown nylon dress is wired in dramatic swoops and swirls, both embracing and entrapping the woman inside it.

Later in the exhibit, rooms are devoted to several individual designers: Miyake, one of the first Japanese designers to establish a Paris presence; Kawakubo, with examples from her famously controversial 1997 “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” collection (complete with shape-distorting pads sewn into the garments; it was less charitably called the “Lumps and Bumps” collection in the press); Yamamoto’s romantic deconstruction (a cream satin gown seems to meander adventurously around the body, twisting as it goes); Takahashi’s fascination with all-over pattern; Watanabe’s playful takes on classic shapes, including a hoop skirt that seems to be escaping its wearer.

This is SAM’s first exhibit focusing entirely on fashion, and there’s no question, as you walk through the exhibit and take in the details, that these garments are works of art. Seeing them gathered together, as if assembled for some marvelously avant-garde party, is a rare opportunity to see a page of fashion history; don’t miss it.

Moira Macdonald: or 206-464-2725

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