The newest works of art at Seattle Art Museum, currently being unpacked for an exhibit opening June 27, flutter in a passing breeze, their colors ranging from shadowy grays and blacks to boisterous floral prints, exploding before the eye. These masterpieces aren’t crafted from canvases or sculpting materials, but from fabric and thread. Just arrived from the Kyoto Costume Institute, these artful garments — more than 100 of them — make up the exhibit “Future Beauty: 30 years of Japanese Fashion,” curated by Japanese fashion historian Akiko Fukai.
Though SAM has previously shown exhibits of costume art (most recently, Nick Cave’s “soundsuits” in 2011), and its collection of historic Asian art includes some kimonos and other garments, this is the museum’s first show focusing entirely on fashion. “Future Beauty” has garments from a number of Japanese designers, but primarily showcases the work of five: Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and Jun Takahashi. All are credited with revolutionizing the way we think about fashion and clothing. Unlike traditional Western couture, their designs do not hug the body, but instead create their own shapes.
These innovators, said SAM modern and contemporary-art curator Catharina Manchanda, were working with “what we might consider negative space, rather than creating a garment or using fabrics as a way of wrapping the body tightly. It was more a play between the layers of fabric and the body underneath. The body is not really paraded in full view, the way we would be accustomed to it.”
A Watanabe chiffon skirt in the exhibit, in egg-yolk yellow, is constructed with elaborate honeycomb pleating, as if the wearer has stepped into a puff. A long-sleeved black dress by Kawakubo seems to float over the body like a cloud; and one of her knitted skirts and sweaters, in soft pink, has a tubular bustle extending from the back, like a flower’s extra petal.
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Miyake, one of the first Japanese fashion designers to become internationally prominent, first showed his collection in Paris in 1973. Eight years later, Kawakubo and Yamamoto caused a sensation on the Paris runways, with collections that seemed like the antithesis of Western couture: At a time when high fashion involved bright colors and meticulous finishes, their work was intentionally ragged, distressed, oversized and predominantly black. Writer Judith Thurman, in The New Yorker, called Kawakubo’s work of that era “a piece of shock theater in the venerable tradition of ‘Ubu Roi’ and ‘The Rite of Spring.’ ”
“It struck some people as apocalyptic, because so much of their approach was kind of deconstructive,” said Manchanda. Nowadays, distressed and torn clothing is commonplace, as is the idea of black as a default high-fashion color, and these Japanese designers were at the forefront of those trends.
“Future Beauty” will begin with garments from that then-radical early ’80s era as well as video from catwalk shows. “From there,” said Manchanda, “the exhibition unfolds and there are a lot of dresses and costumes from the last decade. People will be able to see how some of the Japanese artists have been evolving into the present and have been very happily embracing color again at different moments.”
Kawakubo and Yamamoto were both inspired by the writings of Juni’chirō Tanizaki, who wrote in his 1933 book “In Praise of Shadows” that “We find beauty not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.” Their clothing isn’t often conventionally pretty, but its movement and silhouette is remarkable; it seems to be collaborating with its wearer, rather than mirroring her.
And they, along with Miyake and other designers, were intrigued by the principal of flatness. A kimono, the traditional Japanese garment, is rectangular and flat when you lay it out; traditional European couture, stitched to conform to the body, is three-dimensional. Many of the garments in “Future Beauty” share both asymmetry and a geometric complexity; laying them flat — as several will be in the SAM exhibit — allows viewers to examine the garment’s architecture from a different perspective.
Other elements of the exhibit include a section on “Tradition and Innovation,” which considers the use of traditional Japanese techniques, such as origami (which Miyake revolutionized with his “Pleats Please” line in the ’90s), in innovative new ways, as well as displaying new kinds of textiles.
“Cool Japan,” the final section, explores street style and popular culture in contemporary Japan — including, said Manchanda, the “Gothic Lolita” look, as well as fashion inspired by manga (Japanese comic books). Throughout “Future Beauty” will be video displays, so visitors can see the clothing in motion.
The garments in the exhibit, all in pristine condition, were samples from the designers’ seasonal collections and now belong to the Kyoto Costume Institute. Though few people can afford off-the-runway pieces, several of these designers have lower-priced lines that brought their aesthetic to a wider audience — sometimes very wide indeed, such as Kawakubo’s 2008 “guest-designer” line for the mass retailer H&M.
Originally conceived as an exhibit at London’s Barbican art gallery, “Future Beauty” will make its first North American stop in Seattle, then will move on to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. It may, Manchanda hopes, bring a new audience to SAM, with our Pacific Rim location perfectly situated for an exhibit with an Asian focus, and with fashion extending its reach beyond the art world.
“Future Beauty” required a lot of thinking, said Manchanda, about how to exhibit clothing. (The garments won’t be behind a barrier, but will be up on pedestals to discourage touching.) As the team from Kyoto makes final touches to the display this week — complete with special irons and meticulous undergarments for the mannequins — there’s a sense of excitement at the museum at the arrival of something very new and different from other shows.
“Every time I walk through,” said Manchanda of the emerging exhibit, “ I think, ‘I want to wear every one of these.’ ”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com