Japonism in fashion

How I dug into Japan through a wardrobe

Despite my evident passion for interior design I’ve always been interested in fashion. It has always been a source of inspiration for colour and pattern mixing and matching for me, and an interesting field of research in the area of Japanese influences. This led me to online shops selling Japanese kimonos, both very old ones, that have been kept in the wardrobes of Japanese families for generations, and the post-war ones, which delighted with colours and patterns no less than the antique ones. And the deeper I dug the more it occurred to me that the similarities between the proposals of contemporary designers and Japanese kimonos are striking.

I realise that "filtering out" direct inspiration from the Japanese aesthetics is simply impossible in many situations. This miracle was quite successfully accomplished by PhD Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen in my beloved book "Influences from Japan in Danish Art and Design 1870-2010", which I will refer to more than once in my articles. PhD Jørgensen's task was 'easy' in that many Danish designers have either visited Japan, have come into contact with it through third parties, or simply have spoken out loud about their admiration for Japanese culture. But even she admits that the thesis she puts forward are sometimes grounded in circumstantial evidence, which she has, however, always tried to investigate personally. The Kyoto Costume Institute, which has also done a brilliant job in tracking the Japanese influences in the European fashion category, also admits that "understanding the phenomenon of Japonism in fashion is a fascinating but formidable task".

What is born in the head of a given artist is a reflection of his life experiences and the emotions stored in his soul. Inspirations may in fact be already processed by others. Therefore, I suggest that this article, as well as my private collage "investigation", be treated with a wink, bearing in mind, however, that there is certainly an element of truth in it.

The Japanese revolution: how the kimono replaced the corset

In the 19th century, the Japanese influence on European fashion was mainly limited to textile production techniques and the use of motifs associated with Japan, such as plants, birds or sea waves, along with their asymmetrical presentation. On the other hand, when the world of fashion entered the 20th century, with the rejection of the traditional corset, Japanese influences became deeper and settled into the design of clothes for good. As in the traditional Japanese kimono, the neckline was lowered to reveal the neck, and sleeves were widened to allow for easy draping. Akiko Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute, which is a rich source of information on, among other things, Japanese inspirations in European fashion, writes in her essay, Japonisme in Fashion, that "probably most people looking at the dresses of Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) would not perceive them as cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles, as are Japanese kimonos; yet at every turn we were struck by their resemblance to the essential flatness of kimono". I would argue with this statement, because in my opinion these influences are visible to the naked eye.

Other designers and fashion houses such as Mariano Fortuny, Callot Soeurs, Paul Poiret and Amy Linker also experimented with the form. Alice Mogensen, wife of the famous Danish furniture designer Børge Mogensen, decided to create her own kimono, using fabric produced by Vibeke Klint, an artist who has travelled to Japan many times and brought back new weaving techniques from there.

Neo-Japonism in fashion

The 1970s marked the beginning of another chapter in the history of the European Japonism, when designers such as Kenzo Takada, Hanae Mori, Kansai Yamamoto and Issey Miyake began visiting France to show their pret-a-porter collections, taking inspiration not from the silk kimonos worn by the elite, but the everyday outfits of the working people. This is when the term 'oversized' first entered the Parisian salons. In the 1980s names such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto became known in Europe. They in turn became a source of inspiration for John Galliano or Martin Margiela.

Today it is hard to keep track of who was an inspiration for whom and how much "pure" Japaneseness is in it. I can still see and feel Japaneseness in the form of clothes, or in the way of combining colours and patterns, which is something I’m trying to prove in my collages on the left. However, I will leave the accuracy of these associations to your own judgement.

I hope that after reading this article you will no longer associate Japan only with minimalism and the colours of nature. As you can see, the Japanese are also unrivalled masters of combining colours and patterns.

Maison Margiela Spring 2016, Via Vogue.