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SALEM, Mass. — Most designers work to flatter the body, but avant-garde Japanese designers aim to transform it.

This story first appeared in the November 22, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Some stellar examples of transfiguration are on display in “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” which opened Saturday and runs through Jan. 26 at the Peabody Essex Museum here.

There’s Rei Kawakubo’s subversive “twinset”: a skirt-and-sweater combo that comes with a wheelbarrow-sized, tulle-stuffed pouf projecting from the back. And Junya Watanabe’s “urban survival” dress, its ladylike toile incongruous against bondage straps, built-in hip panniers and protective-canopy hat. Issey Miyake’s 2010 “1 2 3 5” collection explores two transfigurations — first, when the fabric unfolds from a flat, pleated polygon into a 3-D garment, and second when the wearer pulls the garment over her head.

Many of the 80-plus ensembles on display come from the Kyoto Costume Institute, a research archive of more than 12,000 pieces — 1,000 from Kawakubo alone. She, along with Yohji Yamamoto, Miyake, and Watanabe, the country’s acknowledged masters, dominate “Future Beauty.”

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“With these designers, there’s a serious conversation about which parts of the body to accentuate and which to distort,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes chief curator.

The show includes several ensembles from the collection said to be Kawakubo’s favorite, the spring 1997 “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” (better known as the “lumps and bumps” collection.) Printed, clinging nylon crop-tops and tube skirts bulge with padding at the back of the shoulders, small of the back, or sides.

“We see Japanese designers putting forth a radically different definition of beauty,” said Hartigan. “It goes back to the kimono, which didn’t celebrate the bust line, but the nape of the neck.”

The show spans from a Sixties Hanae Mori maxidress to present day’s cosplay looks, which take girlish cuteness to eerie excess (“Alice in Wonderland” pinafores, ruffled knee socks, sequined eyelashes, and Goldilocks wigs). In contrast, the 2007 face-concealing, seamless polyurethane bodysuit designed for Lady Gaga by Tamae Hirokawa for Somarta seems almost tame.

Presented as the first show in PEM’s new 11,000-square-foot Dodge Gallery, “Future Beauty” is a signal of the museum’s commitment to pursue fashion. Iris Apfel donated more than 600 looks after the “Iris Apfel: Rare Bird” show here drew strong attendance. PEM, known for its early American and maritime trade collection, owns primarily 17th- through 19th-century American garments.

“Future Beauty” encourages visitors to think about their own contours. The show opens with an “anteroom” created with wooden cutouts of the show’s more dramatic silhouettes backed with mirrors.  Halfway through, visitors can try on ready-to-wear pieces from Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and others procured “thanks to the miracle of eBay,” said Hartigan. “Our museum is experiential.”

The experience here is to see clothing a little differently, whether it’s to consider Koji Tatsuno’s 1993 bubbling swirl of nylon or to contemplate Kawakubo’s statement of mind when she created the Rising Sun dress. The delicate net number features a masculine leather vest falling away in pieces down the body and a red sun ascendant on the skirt.

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