ED6MYW Vincent van Gogh, Courtesan: After Eisen 1887 Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Courtesan: After Eisen’ (1887) © Alamy

Tailoring tends to change by millimetres rather than inches, but for SS19 the creative directors at the major fashion houses have looked to Japan and taken a leap forward. While jackets and suits continue to be influenced by athleisure — adopting often exaggerated, looser shapes akin to David Byrne’s mid-1980s “Stop Making Sense” stagewear — Jason Basmajian at Cerruti 1881, Kean Etro at Etro, John Galliano at Maison Margiela and Kim Jones at Dior menswear have put an elegant spin on the aesthetic, borrowing from the yukata summer jacket and kimono in their designs. Collars are absent, and fastenings work across the body, with a pleasing asymmetry of line. The result is sophisticated, considered and modern, whether it is the romanticism of brocade obis wrapped around suits at Etro, or the reworking of vintage kimonos into new shapes at Margiela.

Meanwhile, the rise of gender neutral dressing continues to shape fashion. “What seems relevant here is that kimonos are worn by both men and women, and that young men in the Edo period often wore garments that were just as bright and eye-catching as women of the same age,” says Anna Jackson, Keeper of Japanese textiles and dress at the V&A in London, and author of Kimono.

As is often the way, many designers have, as if with a single hive mind, been drawn to the same well for inspiration. Over the past couple of years, it seems as if everyone has read Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, the 1933 essay pondering the richness, allure and unique patina of Japanese aesthetics. After a first English translation in 1977, and then another in 2017, it has become a contemporary cult classic.

Cerruti 1881 SS19
Cerruti 1881 SS19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans
TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 30: A model walks runway during the Dior Pre-Fall 2019 Men's Collection fashion show at Telecom Center on November 30, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Dior Men Pre-Fall 19 © Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Tanizaki’s discourse may be nearly 90 years old, but what he says about a Japan still torn between Edo-era Classicism and western-leaning Futurism could have been penned yesterday. “That book was a huge inspiration for this collection,” says Basmajian, whose SS19 designs for Cerruti 1881 incorporated voluminous yukata-style coats and kimono-style sleeves on tailoring. “I was thinking about traditional Japanese codes in architecture, clothing and design,” he continues. “The colour palette was also inspired by a more muted, sophisticated Japanese mood, which is something Tanizaki talks about in the book.”

Japan will, it seems, forever appear exotic and several steps ahead to western designers. Kim Jones’s second collection for Dior harked back to the eponymous founder of that storied house and his obsession with the history of the country — the kimono and obi were recurrent motifs in Christian Dior’s canon. Jones took those same interests but shot the whole thing into space, with a hypermodern vision of pink floral sakura and metallics, shown in Tokyo around a 39ft gleaming silver super-sexed-up female robot created by artist Hajime Sorayama. It was a brave and dazzling glimpse at the future of a certain kind of menswear.

Balenciaga AW19
Balenciaga AW19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans
A model walks the runway at the Etro show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019 on September 21, 2018 in Milan, Italy.
Etro SS19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Along with the powerhouses of LVMH, Kering et al, niche indie designers are also carving out an aesthetic mixing west and east in a way that is both credible and commercially viable. The designer Kai D Fan — previously creative director at Nautica as well as a consultant for Lacoste and John Varvatos — runs the Brooklyn-based store and label Kai D Utility. The brand is known in New York fashion circles for its reworking of the classic Japanese farmer’s coat, which fastens across the body with a cord tying to one side. “I took a vintage farmers’ coat, traditionally handmade by women for their husbands, and reinterpreted it with a modern silhouette,” explains Fan.

Western designers have also always paid deference to the greats of contemporary Japanese fashion — Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Kansai Yamamoto and Issey Miyake — all of whom have taken traditional Japanese dress and western tailoring and created a third way of dressing, in the most liberated and innovative of ways.

A model walks the runway during the Maison Margiela Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 22, 2018 in Paris, France.
Maison Margiela SS19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans

It might be said that what menswear designers in Paris and Milan are doing right now is what the Japanese have been doing for decades. After all, much of their voluminous and deconstructed work pre-empted luxury athleisure by a considerable distance.

Similarly, younger Japanese designers are blending traditional dress codes with American sportswear tropes with élan — Hiroki Nakamura’s Visvim label is a paradigm of advanced streetwear in 2019. His yukata-style oversized quilted down coats, created as part of a capsule collection for Mr Porter, border on iconoclastic. They are pure Blade Runner. “His designs are rooted in global experiences,” says Daniel Todd, senior buyer at Mr Porter. “Many of this season’s pieces have elements of traditional Japanese codes, reimagined through the lens of vintage Americana.”

If commercial sportswear design seems to have run its course, resorting to ever more cynical branding exercises to try and appear new, borrowing from Japanese dress codes offers an interesting and apposite way forward. “There is an affinity between sports, or should I say leisurewear, and the Japanese idea of space between two things — in this case body and cloth,” says Ligaya Salazar, the director and curator of the Fashion Space Gallery at the London College of Fashion.

Dries Van Noten AW19
Dries Van Noten AW19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans
Louis Vuitton AW19
Louis Vuitton AW19 © Jason Lloyd-Evans

“Allowing space for the wearer to inhabit the garment is something that is intrinsic to Yamamoto’s work, for example. Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons have been playing with, and deconstructing, the shape of men’s tailoring for decades, which is perhaps a reason why some of the first sportswear and fashion collaborations were with Japanese designers — Mihara Yasuhiro for Puma, and Yamamoto with Adidas for Y3 respectively.”

Basmajian was also drawn to the blurred gender lines of Japanese dress, and sums up one key appeal of this new tendency in tailoring, and fashion across the board: “Shapes and details are often very similar in Japanese dress for men and women,” he says. “It’s a trait that contributes to it being such a modern way to dress.”

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