Textiles 2002, p148). For the west, black


Another distinguishing factor that Yamamoto and Kawakubo shared was their ability to create textures unlike anything found in existing fabrics (Fukai, 2010, P17). In general, Japanese fashion designers tend to be textile oriented and unlike the west, where textiles are usually sourced from industry shows, Japanese designers usually work closely with textile specialists and create their own textiles (Mitchell, 2005, p15). Mitchell (2005), believes that this comes from Japan’s rich textile traditions and their dominance in the textile industry as a leader in cotton and silk production and due to the fact that the textiles were “one of the first crafts to be industrialised” after the war (p15).

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Yamamoto is famous for working mostly with black (Mitchell, 2005) and the colour black fully dominated Yamamoto and Kawakubo’s early shows in Paris. Yamamoto was named the ‘Poet of Black’ by journalist and fashion critic, Suzy Menkes (English, 2011, p44). English (2011), states that for these designers, the colour black represented ‘non-colour’ playing the part of absence, rather than presence.


Rawsthorn (1996) describes their colour choices as “funeral palette of black and greys” (p190), however, at the time, black was not even recognized as a colour in fashion in Paris (Quinn, 2002, p148). For the west, black represented dignity, bleakness and sadness, but for Yamamoto and Kawakubo it embodied secrecy and surreptitiousness, “a colour that became invisible in the dark” (English, 2011, p44).



Wilcox (2001), the senior curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, noted that the designs of Yamamoto and Kawakubo “consistently explored issues surrounding body shape, sensuality and the sartorial gender binary” and were “often interpreted as feminist expression” (Wilcox, 2001 p31, cited in English, 2011, p71). Early Japanese feminists in the 1970s were usually older professionals, but by the 1980s “issue-oriented activities became the main focus for debate, including gender and education, sexism in the mass media, equal opportunity in employment and the importance of the advancement of women’s studies through major nationwide and regional women’s associations and study groups” (English, 2011, p68).


Shoji (2005), a New York Times journalist, notes that Yamamoto, whose father was killed in the second world war and who was raised by his mother who worked hard to support him and taught him her skills in dressmaking, ‘made it his mission to serve working women (Shoji, 2005, cited in English, 2011, p71). He resented his mother’s clients and from early in his life he perceived society to be controlled by men and that women lived in a “low situation” (English, 2011, p72).


Kawakubo on the other hand was a daughter of a professor and studied literature and philosophy at university in the 1960s and therefore, it is safe to say that she would have been “familiar with intellectual debates relating to women’s status and positioning within society” (English, 2011, p69).  English (2011), argues that this was a major factor that influenced her work in questioning “stereotypical images and perceptions of women through fashion” and is the reason for the underlying feminist ideologies in her designs (p69). She describes her cliental as women who ear her own way and that she designs for “strong women who attract men with their minds rather than their bodies” (English, 2013, p123).


Dress, sex, body

The designs of Yamamoto and Kawakubo were known for being unisex or gender-neutral, defying gender roles and social rules and regulation (Kawamura, 2004, p133). For Kawakubo, “fashion design is not about revealing or accentuating the shape of a woman’s body, its purpose is to allow a person to be what they are” (Jones, 1992, p72, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p137). She comments on the Western obsession with fitted clothing: I don’t understand the term ‘body-conscious’ very well … I enter the process from interest in the shape of the clothing and from the feeling of volume you get from the clothing, which is probably a little different from the pleasure Western women take in showing the shapes of their bodies. It bothers Japanese women … to reveal their bodies. I myself understand that feeling very well, so I take that into account, adding more material, or whatever. It feels like one would get bored with ‘body-conscious’ clothing. (Kondo, 1992, p124, Kawamura, 2004, p137). In traditional Japanese culture, sexuality is never revealed overtly, this philosophy can be seen in the style of the Kimono where the only parts of the body not covered are the face, neck and hands (Kawabata, 1984, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p137) and this is reflected in contemporary Japanese fashion (Martin, 1995, p219). Japanese fashion teaches an alternative attitude to the body “beyond the sexual obsessions of the West” (Martin, 1995, p221).


It is important to note that at the time that these Japanese designers debuted their collections in Paris, “women’s clothes by most traditional Western designers were moving in the opposite direction, toward a snugger fit and formality” (Kawamura, 2004, p129). “The tightly sculpted silhouettes of Western high fashion were jettisoned for new motile shapes, a radical asymmetry and revolutionary technical ways of forging wearable volumes out of flat fabric” (Fukai, 2010, p9) Kawakubo and Yamamot shared a common rejection on of this “tightly sculpted silhouette beloved of European couture in favour of body-concealing, over-scaled volumetric forms” (Cooke, 2011, p192). Yamamoto believed that the tight fit of clothing on a women’s body is for the amusement of a man (Duka, 1983, p63, cited in Kawamura, 2004, p138). Quinn (2002), argues that Rei Kawakubo uses her designer as an “explosive medium with which to challenge issues concerning body shape, body image, gender and sexuality”.  Their designs were “made to be worn by the mind as well as the body” (Quinn, 2002, p141), meaning that they were thought provoking as well and aesthetically rewarding. Kawakubo, wanting to distance her designs from from social restraints and the norm “comments on the stereotypical Western image of the body, and the idealistic concept of sartorial beauty and glamour, versus the way that female role-playing can instead embrace the notion of dignity and perseverance through dress” (English, 2011, P69).


The west was accustomed to being able to “immediately discover the individual’s biological sex” through clothes (Kawamura, 2004, p133), and for clothing to be “fitted to accentuate the contours of the body” (Kawamura, 2004, p137). What shocked the west was the realisation that Japanese fashion has always known, and now proven to the west that “the body carries the garment organically, but that the garment may secure its own expression beyond that which is merely the body’s double or interpreted silhouette” (Martin, 1995, p219).  The British fashion writer Coleridge (1989), clearly not an admirer of Kawakubo’s designs, condescendingly describes her garments as deprived of all sexuality and wonders how “to seduce a woman dressed like that” (Coleridge, 1989, p76, cited in Skov, 1996, p142). Contrary to Coleridge’s views of Kawakubo’s designs, Martin (1995), states that her designs did not “deny the body nor do they deny an impulse to the erotic”, and that Kawakubo and Yamamoto have “Discovered a way through the Occidental mania that permits no body to be shown without sexual provocation” (Martin, 1995, p221).


Fukaki (2005) states that “in no way did they respect the notion of clothing as something to show off the beautiful body” (p25), but what was there for these designers to respect? (Can I ask questions?) There were no rules or regulations that had to be kept to through their designs in terms of concealing the body and they were offering a “new and unique expression of creativity, challenging the established notions of status, display and sexuality in contemporary fashion” (English, 2011, p1). A possible reason for why the west found it hard to comprehend these designs was because the root of their skills in fashion, traditionally, have lied in tailoring (Martin, 1995, p219) and for this to be thrown out as unimportant and non-critical in the design process was a completely new and unaccepted notion. Yamamoto and Kawakubo deconstructed the principles of classical or western tailoring during the design process (Quinn, 2002, p141) and challenge the “normative concepts of fashion” (Kawamura, 2004, p129).


Skov (1996), argues that, although their designs were not conventionally sexual, “sexuality is not a fixed set of desires and looks” and that that it is “unstable and sometimes contradictory, and it would indeed be difficult to deny that in the 1980s there was a kind of sexuality to be explored in the way loose fabric moved over a moving body” (p142). Fukaki (2005) argues that the concealment of a woman’s curves through their designs was not a feminist statement, but they were inspired by the Kimono in which “fabric is put on the human body in a manner that acknowledges the fabric’s two-dimensional nature” resulting in an excess of fabric that forms drapes (p22). And that the designers were breaking down the barriers of gender age or body solely because that is what the kimono traditionally achieves (Fukaki, 2005, p22).


In the 1970s and 1980s, western culture looked to redefine the arts and practices affecting women and Martin (1995) concludes that Japanese designers provided an exemplary model for the west’s “new-found desire to reconcile dress for men and women” (p220). Martin argues that “Western fashion has been so long, so insensitively, and so unquestioningly propelled by erotic desire” that the work presented by Yamamoto and Kawakubo for “women of power and independence have been a fundamental option” (Martin, 1995, p220).



Yamamoto and Kawakubo also produced a range of menswear that resulted in a similar changed in the western male attire and deconstructed the male western business suit which they believed “had always been allied with commercial success and corporate image rather than an emphasis on the individual” (English, 2011, 43).


The aesthetic of poverty

The fabric used in Kawakubo’s designs are of critical importance and the “feel of a particular garment is as important as the look of it” (Skov, 1996, p140). Kawakubo states that the machines that make fabric are uniform and flawless and that she likes it when something is off and that often, hand weaving or loosening a screw in the machine is the best way to achieve this (Koren, 1984, p117, cited in Skov, 1996, p140). Some textile design professionals believe that with growing industrialization and complex technologies, a more humanistic approach was needed in the creation of new textiles (English, 2013, p124). This would explain the success of her materials and textiles as a more relatable expression for the audience and for fellow designers. Fashion Historian of the Metropolitan Museum of Art named this new aesthetic in fashion, seen in the work of Yamamoto and Kawakubo as “the aesthetic of poverty” (English, 2013, p118).


English notes that this deconstruction of fabric and finishing techniques “seemingly reflects the deconstruction of past values” (English, 2013, p118). Fukaki (2010), believes that the holes and tears in the fabric were an expression of protest directed at European hegemony (P18). English explains that this contrast of an high fashion masked in clothing of moral poverty creates “a paradox particular to the Japanese culture” (English, 2013, p118) and that it could be passively symbolising Yamamoto and Kawakubo’s reaction to Japan’s to the post-war years whilst mocking the refined, delicate and professional techniques used in western fashion.


Dissertation Chapter 3

Culture in general

Before looking into the cultural influences that Yohji Yamamot and Rei Kawakubo had on their designs, the term ‘culture’ must be reviewed as several meanings are attached to this word (Hwang, 2013, p1). In anthropology, culture refers to “what people think, what people do, and what people produce” (Cho, 2009, p490, cited in Hwang, 2013, p1). Culture can also be defined as “structured and repeating patterns of daily life that represent a system of ideas including values and other mental processes” and “a system of ideas and behaviours including habits and customs that are shared by groups and that determine the actions of an individual” (Jantzen, 2004, cited in Hwang, 2013, p2). Culture allows individuals to make sense of the world around them by providing a “frame of reference or perspective” (Khoza & Workman, 2009, p62, cited in Hwang, 2013, p15). From a historical viewpoint, culture results from the evolution of “human language, environmental adaptation, settlements, and economic systems” (Mohammed, 2011, p9, cited in Hwang, 2013, p16)


Culture encompasses not just the objects used by a group of people, but how these people interpret, observe and consume these objects (Banks et al, 1989, cited in Hwang, 2013 p16). Culture, as well as social and environmental factors have an influence on one’s creativity (Lewis, 2005, cited in Hwang, 2013, p47). Creativity, the “ability to produce original and useful work” (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999, p3, cited in Hwang, 2013, p44). But it must be noted, at this stage, that creativity is one of the most baffling and unresolved subjects of the human thinking behaviour (Liu, 2000, cited in Hwang, 2013, p43).


Hwang (2013), states that it is important to understand “how designers incorporate cultural meaning into their designs and how design meaning is shared among people of different cultures” (Hwang, 2013, p4) and the study of culture in all fields of design is imperative (Khoza & Workman, 2009, cited in Hwang, 2013, p14). Cultural inspirations affect the design process as designers are influenced by their own culture and societal values (Razzaghi et al, 2008, cited in Hwang, 2013, p4). And “understanding the impact of cultural values on product development may facilitate self-reflection on the part of a designer and possible adjustment when designing for a global market place” (Hwang, 2013, p5). The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) promotes the idea that, “designers shall strive to embody and further the cultural traditions of their national societies while incorporating the best characteristics of international design principles and standards” (ICSID, 2001, p3, cited in Hwang, 2013, p7).


Knox (2011), states that “culture and fashion have always been inexplicably intertwined” (p8) and that the way in which we make our clothing is a reflection of our culture an of who we are. Historically, multiculturalism has enriched and infused western dress and this is especially apparent in the cultural exchange between Japan and the west (English, 2013, P4). Japanese dress’s influence on the west began in the late 19th century (Hiramitsu, 2005, p40) and their clothing brought with it a flow of history and culture (Hibi, 1989, P45). Dr Fewster, the director of the Powerhouse Museum explains that “fashion is too often viewed as essentially ephemeral, yet as a unique form of cultural heritage, it provides an astonishingly accurate index of the system and social mores of the times” (Fewster, 2005, P6).


Some academics suggest that fashion is a hybrid subject as it combines influences from different “conceptual frameworks and disciplinary approaches, including those from anthropology, art history, cultural studies, design studies, economics, history, literature, semiotics, sociology, visual culture and business studies” (Skov & Melchior, 2008, p2, cited in Hwang, 2013, p1). Song (2009) conducted research on design students in different countries and conclude that “people of different nationalities approached a given problem differently because of their varying cultural backgrounds” (Song, 2009, cited in Hwang, 2013, p7). Two different groups of individuals who come from different cultures will react and feel differently to information (Hwang, 2013, p16). Fashion design is heavily influenced by the designer’s person experiences (Stecker, 1996, cited in Hwang, 2013, P40) and many fashion designer globally have used a conceptual method to share their story with others (Bugg, 2009, cited in Hwang, 2013, P42).


Japanese culture differs from the west in many ways. Japanese culture incorporates values such as harmony, emotional dependence, unity, honouring elders and emphasizes politeness and humbleness whereas Western culture often value individual needs, emotional independence, autonomy, individualistic traits such as intelligence and individuality (Sung & Tinkham, 2005, cited in Hwang, 2013, P19). Japanese cultural norms are often shared with their neighbouring countries such as China and Koreas due to their geographic proximity (Hwang, 2013, p20).



Japanese designers

Japanese designers Kawamura argues that Yamamoto and Kawakubo used their heritage as their strongest weapon in the designs that they showed in Paris (Kawamura, 2004, p. 97). They started many of their designs with influences form “ancient Nara and Edo periods, including the kimono, the quilted silk kosode and Noh costumes” (Quinn, 2002, p142).

English (2011), claims that Yamamoto and Kawakubo rejected the Western pop culture popular among the younger generation in Japan and through their work “tried to re-instil a respect for traditional cultural traits” (English, 2011, p70). Neither Yamamoto, nor Kawakubo were “willing to compromise their ideals for commercial success” (English, 2011, p73).


Kawakubo finds beauty in the unfinished, the irregular, the monochromatic and the ambiguous which, in Zen Buddhist philosophy, is interpreted as the “appreciation of poverty, simplicity and imperfections” (Leong, 2003, cited in English, 2013, p122). Their work “underlines the notion that culture, conceptualization and the experimentation can be integral to fashion, as they are to art” and their “Zen-based philosophy, based on a preference for simplicity and naturalness” inspired their designs (English, 2013, p117).


Yamamoto also spends a lot of time travelling Japan in the search for fabrics and old costumes for inspiration (Kawamura, 2004, p136). Yamamoto has often noted that he is inspired, in the design process, but tradition in different forms (Salazar, 2011, p5, cited in Hwang, 2013, p5). He acknowledges that fashion design is stimulated culture, tradition and history (Quinn, 2002, p148) and has also noted that there is a connection between Japanese religion and his designs (Skov, 1996, p138). Asymmetry, a crucial technique used in Yamamoto’s designs is a “distinguishing characteristic of Japanese aesthetics” (Fukai, 2010, p16).


Their designs were “as much a statement of philosophy as they were of design” (McDowell 1987, p178, cited English, 2011, p42) and “draw on a distinctive and uniquely Japanese approach to style, cut and fabric that immediately set them apart” (Fewster, 2005, p6). Their work is “very personal and self-reflective” and Kawakubo states: “When I am designing, what’s important to me is to express what’s happening in my own life, to express my personal feelings through my designs” (Undressed 2001, cited in English, 2011, p77).


Skov (1996), points out that connections between Kawakubo’s debut collection in Paris and Japanese peasant and fishermen clothing through the use of natural fibres and layered indigo dyes which create the colour back (p140). Skov (1996) believes that this inspiration came from the boom and popularity of rural traditions in Japan in the late 1970s. It was considered trendy to go back to the country on bus tours and traditional crafts became increasingly popular, resulting in a thriving market for pottery (Ivy, 1988, cited in Skov, 1996, p140).


The designs of Yamamoto and Kawakubo were “historically underpinned by its samurai origins, an intrinsic part of Japanese culture” (English, 2011, p2). Historian Ikegami (2005) explains that “in terms of dress, when the role of the samurai changed by the late 17th century, and their military duties were replaced by bureaucratic duties, their lavish and luxurious custom-made kimonos, made from expensive fabric and worn especially for ceremonial purposes (which had been seen earlier as appropriate to their rank in society), were replaced by a more sober style of everyday clothing. Instead, the wearing of darker clothing, especially black which symbolised self-discipline, became accepted as more sophisticated urban attire and a sign that good taste was expressed by subtle stylistic differences and intelligence in design” (p275, cited in English, 2011, p2). Kawakubo and Yamamoto “produce work that is imbued with the history of the past, yet looks dynamically towards the future” (English, 2013, p130).




Their designs, in tune with the minimalist movement, were inspired by Wabi-sabi (Fukaki, 2005, p27).It represents a comprehensive Japanese aesthetic system finds beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, favours and modest and simple and is also the beauty of the passage of time expressed in material form (Fukai, 2010, p113). Wabi-sabi also includes the “rejection of excess and luxury in favour of modesty and restraint” (Cooke, 2011, p193).


Wabi-sabi can be seen in Yamamotos white cotton plain-weave cutwork jacket and dress from his Spring/Summer 1982-3 collection (see figure 18). His loose-fitting assortment of garments are pierced with methodically cut holes, creating stylised patterns of abstract shapes. These holes cast subtle shadows onto the skin of the wearer and other parts of the garment. The soft, black and white Japanese traditional ink wash paintings (Sumi-e) come to mind when observing this garment.