On March 11, 2011 an earthquake of magnitude 9 hit Japan. Four months later, as the nations journey to recovery continues, fashion writers Samuel Thomas and Rebecca Braund from Tokyo Telephone give their personal account of what happened in the week where designers, brands and factories were poised for Japan Fashion Week to begin but an entirely different pattern of events unfurled.
Despite being regarded as a country that pioneers progressive fashion, Japan's biannual fashion week in Tokyo goes largely unrecognised by both the Japanese and international media. Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Commes des Garcons all exhibited in Paris in order to gain significant status in Japan and this kind of reverse importing continues today with Japanese brands like Julius designed by Tatsuro Horikawa and Roar designed by Hamanaka.
At just eleven seasons old, Japan Fashion Week held in Tokyo is a newcomer on the international fashion week calendar and has been playing the odd one out since its inception. This is in part due to the idea in Japan that Europe is inherently ‘better’ in terms of fashion but also there’s a significant lack of exposure on Japan Fashion Week from its native fashion media. Kazuyuki Yamamuro, editor-in-chief of WWD Japan said, "It sometimes seems that Tokyo is the only place in the world where major magazine editors don't show up at the runway shows taking place only a short taxi ride from their offices… It's worth taking a chance on introducing the world to the Japanese fashion scene, renowned for fashion creators with of the most manic tastes in fashion."
When Japan was rocked by one of the worst natural disasters in decades it was the eve of Japan Fashion Week. While the northeast of Japan fared the worst, the Tokyo metropolis remained physically unscathed but shocked nonetheless. The days immediately following the earthquake were filled with contrasting and often conflicting emotions of confusion and hope. For those in the fashion industry, the question mark over whether late March's scheduled Japan Fashion Week would go ahead took second place to waiting and watching what was happening further north. The decision to postpone the main shows and events for what would have been the twelfth JFW was taken and most brands released only online look-books. Overall the mood for this most unusual of fashion weeks was sombre and reflective but for those of us looking on from the side-lines in Tokyo the spirit of perseverance against the odds was all around. Word quickly reached us that many of the factories that produced the samples for the Tokyo collections, which are based in the north of the country, were working by hand through rolling black-outs to get the pieces ready in time.
Just one week after the earthquake and tsunami, young designer Etw Vonnegut kept to the schedule and held her catwalk show deep in Omotesando near Harajuku where the flagship stores of many Western brands are situated. As Tokyo's fashion lovers took shelter from the March rains we watched one of the most moving fashion shows to date. It was a collection of digitally printed silks centering in on the symbolic theme of transformation. While models dressed on stage and transformed in front of the audience, Etw Vonneguet's designer Olga (one name) took to the stage and had her hair cut short – this in itself a traditional Japanese symbolic gesture of change that did much to capture the mood of those in attendance. It communicated a feeling amongst us the audience that Japanese fashion might exit all the stronger for all the huge hurdles.
The next show of note was by the spirited luxe-punk label Christian Dada, who has now come to international recognition following Lady Gaga's MTV Japan appearance where she wore a couture dress from this young brand designed by Zoo Morikawa. Morikawa studied in London, and much of his work reflects London's diversity of fashion styles, quite often the darker side of the city shines through. From gold-studded punk jeans to spiked headpieces and beautifully cut dresses, Morikawa proves that young Japanese talent such as Christian Dada are capable of bringing a fresh interpretation of Western fashion to Japan.
The design duo behind In-Process by Hall Ohara are London born Stephen Hall and Tokyo-native Yukira Ohara and together they epitomize the new breed of Japanese brands coming to the forefront of fashion. Autumn winter 2011 for In-Process by Hall Ohara was a look back at 1920s style featuring starkly parted hair and architectural design elements throughout. Playing with proportions and pattern, Hall and Ohara capture the playfulness found in Japanese street fashion and elevate it to sit alongside the glamour of days gone by.
Perhaps of most relevance to the state of Japan was Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College's charity fashion show Runway for Japan where more than forty designers showed to raise money for earthquake victims; it was a huge hit. Of particular interest was Hisui. Following a stunning collection that made us seriously thinking about the power of knitwear, the last item of Hisui's to take to the catwalk was a political statement itself: the model was shrouded in layers upon layers of fabric printed with the locations of all nuclear power plants across Japan and evacuation areas. It was a hugely powerful sartorial message and something we think our favourite anarchist fashionista Vivienne Westwood would have approved of.
With the eyes of the world on Japan for tragic reasons, will October's Japan Fashion Week be the phoenix arising from the ashes? In a country that’s amongst one of the worlds biggest spenders on fashion, statistics on markets vary but it’s well into double billion figures and an industry that provides upwards of fifty thousand jobs from designer to factory worker, we hope so. Stay with Nowfashion online magazine as we’ll be publishing articles that trace the journey and build-up towards JFW in October, your guide to modern Japanese fashion.
Samuel Thomas and Rebecca Braund write from Tokyo, Japan