A side effect the aging population in Tokyo is that children’s schools are scattered throughout the city with no children in them. Predictably enough, in recent years a number of these vacant sites have been turned into artist studios, galleries, performance spaces and the like – such as 3331, the buzzing new arts centre in the former Chiyoda Rensei Junior High School in Tokyo’s ‘electrical town’ Akihabara.
It was in the gymnasium of a former elementary school, reformed as ‘Taito Designers Village’, that the conceptual fashion label writtenafterwards unveiled their collection for Japan Fashion Week in October 2009. We sat on the polished floors in total darkness, while smoke machines and the haunted sounds of Icelandic singer Nico Muhley filled the space. Slowly, a succession of senior white-haired white men emerged and earnestly made their way down the catwalk, each one wrapped in 50 metres of white fabric. The designer, Yoshikazu Yamagata, called it The Fashion Show of The Gods. The collection had been ‘made’ the afternoon of the show; there was no real plan, no cutting and no sewing, just the formless forms of volumes of fabric wrapped around the bodies of old men. Aging population indeed.
Over green tea and popcorn at the designer’s nanoscale central-Tokyo studio a few weeks ago, I asked Yoshikazu about the faded saffron-yellow children’s harlequin costume that was hovering over us, and he explained that he had found it as a wide-eyed 19-year-old at Portobello Road Market, and for the last 11 years has hung it up wherever he works as a reminder of why he was first drawn to fashion. After graduating from Women’s Wear at Central St Martin’s in London, Yoshikazu had worked for several labels including Ann-Sofie Back, McQUEEN and John Galliano before returning to Japan and forming writtenafterwards in 2005. He recalls he had never been good at verbal communication and always struggled to connect with other kids at school. He discovered fashion as a mode of expression and exchange that made sense to him; clothing exists next to the body as the most immediate means of communicating. Writtenafterwards was founded on the notion of fashion as interaction, and collaboration with other artists and designers has always been a major part of the label’s ethos.
When Issey Mikaye’s bamboo bodice made the front of Artforum in 1982, it was the first time fashion for fashion’s sake had graced the cover of a major art magazine. By this time, Miyake was well known in both fashion and art circles for his mind-boggling patterns, futuristic textiles and playful treatment of bodies in space. Along with Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Miyake was part of a radical new wave of Japanese art-fashion. They became known as ‘the big three’ and dominated the high-end conceptual fashion market of the 1980s. Since then, the other chapter of Japanese fashion that everyone knows about is the bright, playful DIY dress-up cultures of Harajuku, as chronicled by FRUiTS magazine in the 1990s.
But Yoshikazu is part of a new generation of exuberant fashion artist-designers who are at present barely recognised outside Japan. Along with Theatre Products, Spoken Words Project, fur fur and Anrealage, writtenafterwars frequently crosses into the realms of performance and installation art to exploit the most expressive, experimental, conceptual and creative dimensions of dressing. It’s a reminder that while fashion might be classified under ‘design’ or ‘craft’ rather ‘art’, in Japan the Hegelian dichotomy between ‘useful’ artefacts and ‘meaningful’ artworks did not historically exist in the same way: a kimono could be an autonomous objet d’art without being separated from or compromised by its utilitarian capacities.
Collaboration has always been such a major part of the label’s ethos. In 2007 Yoshi joined forces with the knit artist mafuyu on the My Town In My Home collection of wearable houses that could double as children’s toys (above), and he has done joint projects with the likes of designer Hedi Slamane (see here), photographer Naoki Honjo (below) and children’s picture book publisher elaelaopa.
Five years ago, Yoshikazu also set up a small fashion school in Tokyo named Coconogako. Unsatisfied with the hierarchical structures of existing fashion colleges in Japan, he believes a teacher should be a collaborator. “I want to be as open as Bruno Munari,” he says, citing the Italian designer, teacher, inventor, artist, researcher and children’s book author as a major source of inspiration, and a reminder that teaching has been a vital part of the creative process for many of the world’s best designers. “Fashion comes from young people; you have to always be open to the untrained.” Countering the façade of exclusivity that usually plagues fashion, he admits school kids (there are some left in the city), young professionals and grandparents alike to create a dynamic and inclusive community for broadening the possibilities of fashion and how it can be defined.