By Suzanne S. Brown
One of first things Florence Müller’s did after being named fashion curator at the Denver Art Museum just over a year ago was what any fashion lover would do: she went out and bought a lot of clothes.
It’s not as simple as that, of course.
Müller, a respected fashion historian and author who first spent time in Denver when she curated the Yves Saint Laurent show here in 2012, had been tasked by museum director Christoph Heinrich with building the institution’s collection. Fall 2015 auctions in London and Paris gave her the opportunity to purchase garments that would become the building blocks for her first exhibition, “Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-90s.”
The show includes 70 outfits that will be presented on mannequins, as well videos and music, that tell the story of how Japanese designers challenged the status quo and revolutionized fashion through their reinvention of textiles and silhouettes.
Müller has long collected clothes by the Japanese and has traveled to the country numerous times, but didn’t conceive of the idea for an exhibit until acquiring the garments at auction and sensing the timing was right. “The prices are starting to go up and young people now want to wear the clothes,” she said.
In the early 1980s, the fashion capitals of the world were Paris, Milan, London and New York. “The rest of the world didn’t exist,” Müller said in an interview at her office. “And the fashion world in Paris was difficult to enter. It was a fortress.”
The Japanese designers who wanted to be noticed had to do something different in order to break through and they did so with collections that were bold and avant-garde. The designers who grew up in the era following World War II “grew impatient to show the new face of Japan,” Müller writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibit. “Fashion offered itself as an expression of the modern in a nation in which clothing had long been invested with considerable significance.”
While traditional Western designers created clothes that showed off a woman’s figure and had her perched on high heels, Japanese designers had the audacity to shroud the figure in oversized layers and put their models in flats. They “deconstructed” clothing, leaving hems frayed, put holes in sweaters so it appeared moths had destroyed them, and dyed fabrics in ways that made them look aged.
Some fashion observers at the time hated it; others hailed the Japanese for their creativity. Among the pieces in the museum exhibit is a “bump’ jacket and skirt by Rei Kawakubo from her 1997 Comme des Garcons collection. The line featured gingham check garments with padding in odd places, like the back, that distorted the female form. At the time, the designer told Vogue magazine, “It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”
Among the innovators featured in the show is Issey Miyake, who was born in Japan, got a degree in graphic design in Tokyo and went to Paris to study fashion. Among his textile inventions was a pleating process in the 1970s that continues to be used in his garments.
Designers featured in the show, like Miyake and Kansai Yamamoto, mixed clothing traditions of the East and West, such as creating kimono-style garments, but in knits or silk instead of traditional fabrics such as brocade, which confined the body. They also used such traditional elements as shibori, a dyeing technique.
The Japanese designers might have taken a very different approach from such traditional French designers as Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, but they ended up influencing the new wave of fashion creators coming onto the scene. Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten and Helmut Lang were among those inspired by the Japanese designers.
Some of the garments in “Shockwave” are so unusual that it isn’t easy to figure out how to wear them. In researching the exhibit, Müller found a video that was made to accompany Yohji Yamamoto’s 1995 spring collection that demonstrated to the dressers backstage how to put models in a few of the designs. The video will be shown alongside one of the dresses, which is on loan from the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Müller also arranged for clothes to be loaned from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, got items from designers, and connected with collectors, including local women.
Among those tapped for the avant-garde contents of their closets were Denver retailer Cathy Covell and advertising executive and former museum president Cathey Finlon.
When Covell and her husband opened their Cherry Creek North boutique Lawrence Covell in 1980 they were “in the thrall of the Italians,” she said. But then such designers as Yohji Yamamoto burst onto the scene, and the store owner couldn’t resist.
“It was incredible. Whether or not we could sell it wasn’t the first thing we thought about,” she said. “It was so different from what we were carrying.” What appealed to her about Yamamoto’s work? “It was all black. It wasn’t sexy clothing. It was esoteric and it was its own crazy world. We loved carrying it, and it was challenging because it wasn’t for everyone.”
The women who wore the Japanese designer clothing tended to work in creative fields or were artists. Among those early customers was Finlon, who at the time was running her own advertising agency. “Cathey told me the clothes gave her confidence,” Müller said. “When you wear a strong design, it tells people you are not afraid to express yourself.”
“Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-90s,” an exhibition of 70 looks from such iconic designers as Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada and Yohji Yamamoto, as well as photography and videos will be on view Sept. 11-May 28, in the Textile Art gallery on level 6 of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building, 101 W. 14th Avenue Parkway. Exhibit included with general admission. Denverartmuseum.org.
Note: This story first appeared in the Denver Post.