The Mythology of Junya Watanabe
The Mythology of Junya Watanabe
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date February 26, 2018
Copying, whether nefarious in nature or simply inspirational, is pervasive within fashion. Fashion brands cultivate ideas from disparate sources, while in turn their designs are often blatantly plagiarized and sold for pennies on the dollar. Fashion is cyclical, not only due to the constant recycling of trends, but through this permanent meta-referential mentality. Perhaps that’s why Junya Watanabe has managed to consistently captivate people’s attention. A master of fine-tuning familiar concepts and presenting them in a mind-altering ways, discovering Junya Watanabe for the first time is puzzling yet sublime. His work is strikingly different, to the point where people often have a vivid memory of the first Junya piece they stumble upon. Watanabe’s clothes are the manifestation of a duality, a struggle between simplicity and complexity.
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Born 1961 in the Fukushima prefecture in central Japan, Watanabe’s mother owned a small made-to-order stor that undoubtedly left an impression. “It may have been an influence,” he admitted to the T magazine in a rare interview, though with the caveat that “there [was] nothing in particular that made [him] want to start creating clothes.” But, by Watanabe’s own admission, discovering Pierre Cardin and Issey Miyake pushed him to take an interest in fashion. Watanabe holds Miyake in particularly high regard, arguing that Issey—he prefers to use the informal when referring to Miyake—challenged the notion of form-fitting clothing. Watanabe explains “the impact was profound on [me], [it made me] want to create something, the idea of clothing, much different from previous designers.”
Inspired by Miyake and Cardin, Watanabe distinguished himself at Tokyo’s legendary Bunka Fashion College, whose long list of prestigous alumni need no further mention. In 1984, quickly following graduation, the young designer landed a job at Comme des Garçons as a pattern cutter and apprentice pattern maker.
Only 23 at the time, Watanabe’s obvious talent and vision were quickly apparent, and the young upstart caught the attention of Rei Kawakubo, who took the young pattern maker under her wing. By 1987, Kawakubo promoted her protege to design director of CdG’s Tricot line, a position he held until the launch of his eponymous label—still under the Comme des Garçons umbrella—in 1992. A keen eye for spotting talent, Kawakubo has built a reputation for plucking individuals out from the woodwork and setting them up for success, yet always keeping them in the greater framework of Comme des Garçons. Watanabe was the first such instance, and established the mould for those who came after. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2011, Kawakubo elaborated on her philosophy, explaining that “Junya Watanabe is a part of such a necessary company-expansion policy…collaborations have no meaning if 1+1 does not equal much more than 2.”
Kawakubo’s aforementioned mathematics were no doubt a reference to her and Watanabe’s different, albeit philosophically-similar, design approach. Both are disruptors, challenging the industry's status quo. While Kawakubo explores the surreal and magical, Watanabe focuses on the functional and utilitarian, redefining classics and stretching the rules of fashion to their limits. In that sense, Watanabe fits within the Comme des Garçons “anti-fashion” fashion ethos. Still, he retains the ability to honor tradition in a contemporary manner, a critical asset in expanding the CdG empire. Despite being Kawakubo’s protégé, Watanabe is not shy about their different aesthetic tastes, explaining that his “idea of something being beautiful or aesthetically pleasing is completely different from what Kawakubo’s vision of beauty is.” While the two agree on certain points, and were able to work closely together for eight years, Watanabe “didn’t end up working right alongside Kawakubo [because] she felt that [he] had a vision of his own.”
Between launching in 1992 and the early 2000s, Watanabe initially focused on womenswear. His work through the ‘90s revolved around intense examination and experimentation with tweed, flannel and plaid—later a signature in his menswear. His breakout collection was inarguably Spring/Summer 2000, titled “Function and Practicality.” While apt descriptors considering Watanabe’s future work, at the time the collection served as an introduction to a different sort of high-fashion designer. Apart from pleated designs eerily reminiscent of Issey Miyake’s work—an ode to one of Watanabe’s idols—Watanabe applied his own intuitive utilitarianism to Miyake’s plissé, creating a radically different collection. While ostensibly tame, the slips and skirts were in fact reversible. As the models walked down the runway, they stopped to undress and invert each piece, revealing a different print or colour. Following the wardrobe change, they valiantly strode beneath an isolated, simulated rain cloud mid-runway—the two-for-one items were waterproof to boot. In its review Vogue, described the show, as “nothing short of an epiphany: one of those rare fashion moments when creative genius, artistic integrity and down-to-earth sensibility come together as one.” Since that thought-provoking exploit, Watanabe has been regarded as creative genius, embraced by the fashion community.
With rave reviews, the fashion world’s expectations for the designer reached new heights, and Kawakubo made sure to meet them. In 2001, Kawakubo appointed him as designer of Comme des Garçons Homme and Watanabe debuted his menswear line, Junya Watanabe MAN. Like his womenswear, what Watanabe refers to as “dumb clothes” account for a majority of his menswear. From the aforementioned plaids, flannels and tweeds, to absurdist reinventions of denim, trench coats and chore jackets, Watanabe’s menswear is defined by instilling an unexpected complexity into mundane staples. While his collections are revered for their unique nature, there exists a misplaced notioned his pieces are entirely original. Rather, they are quirky reinventions of established classics.
Watanabe—and the team that surrounds him—is clinical in his research and uncompromising in his devotion to a collection’s guiding theme. Their “creation is based on becoming maniacs,” explained Watanabe. That research does not, however, include looking at contemporary fashion or the work of fellow designers, admitting to The New York Times that he “doesn’t really know what they’re doing.” Even Kawakubo keeps her distance from Watanabe, mindful to not interrupt his process. “Whatever Junya does, I don't interfere,” she said to Mr. Porter. According to Watanabe, Kawakubo’s influence on his work is limited to the inspiration he draws from the universe she has created at Comme des Garçons. Apart from some shared philosophies, Watanabe “rarely gets to work with her directly, nor does [he] get any day-to-day advice.”
Rather than reference contemporaries or present a specific take on current trends, Watanabe collections are physical encyclopedia on a particular textile, colour, or garment. Inspired by traditional uses, cultural significance, or their place in the fashion canon, each collection is a master class on fabrication, fit, and history, while always cohesive and highly specific. His Spring/Summer 2002 womenswear collection, for example, was almost entirely constructed from denim, with every look including the fabric in some form. While many designers attempted similar feats, few were able to rival Watanabe—that is until Spring/Summer 2015, when the designer outdid himself with with a menswear collection filled with denim and indigo.
Over the past two plus decades, Watanabe has explored disparate themes, with collections that reflected each topic to a tee. Highlights include offerings from the Spring/Summer 2002 menswear collection, which focused on the use of typography and all-over-prints. A specific item from that era, a screen-printed pair of Levi’s, became one of the most iconic—and sought after—items in the designers oeuvre. In the years since, the printed denim concept has reappeared numerous times, with Watanabe even adding trompe l’oeil flare courtesy of a two-toned pair of jeans (circa Spring/Summer 2010) that featured raw denim at the back, with a vintage denim pattern printed on the front and sweatpants that mimicked a vintage pair of Levi’s 501s (Spring/Summer 2011). Both were achieved thanks to inkjet printing.
Spring/Summer 2003 was an exploration of the jacket in all its various forms—garage, moto, biker—and tropical prints, while Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter were dominated by mountaineering and alpine references that were well ahead of their time. By 2006, Watanabe was no longer known in just womenswear circles, but a cult figure in menswear as well.
The 2006 collections reflected Watanabe’s self-professed “love of workwear and the American tradition.” Spring/Summer 2006 was an ode to the American working class. "Janitors, carpenters, and kitchen staff across Middle America might have recognized familiar details,” said Tim Blanks in his review for Vogue. From “the pinstriped canvas, for instance, or the topstitching, or the hardy zippers” to the “fabrics: canvas, denim, nylon, and pleather,” every item was a case study on the American laymen. The follow-up Fall/Winter 2006 collection, on the other hand, was inspired by American cult classic Taxi Driver. With Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle as his main muse, Watanabe created a collection rife with military styles almost entirely in olive. Camouflage, zippers and patchwork gave the collection flare, while strong outerwear and the use of military fabrics to create traditional blazers made it unmistakably “Junya.”
The Fall/Winter 2007 menswear collection was strikingly different from what came before it. Black leather dominated the runway, though what truly made the show memorable was Watanabe’s ingenious use of zippers, with which he gave pieces structure and versatility. Focused around the metal detail, he broke down the cultish stigma surrounding motorcycle jackets and rebuilt them from the zipper up. More interestingly, though, was the following season—a complete 180 from the preceding collection. According to Blanks, the Spring/Summer 2008 menswear show was a master class on “relaxed suiting,” and the pastel-coloured, soft-shouldered tailoring certainly reflects that notion. Shirts, pants, blazers—practically everything, really—were pre-washed, shrunken and wrinkled, the exact opposite of what was expected in the boardroom. It was poignant societal commentary, again directed at American culture (Watanabe’s collaborator of choice that season was, after all, Brooks Brothers): American suiting does not have to be stiff.
While the collections following Spring/Summer ‘08 were nothing to scoff at, offering utilitarian tailoring that blended carpenter pants and baseball jackets with chino pants and blazers, or reversible clothing inspired by travel and, one assumed, warmer climates, they didn’t quite touch the rarified air of mid-aughts Watanabe, or the proceeding collections at the turn of the decade.
“One of the most beautifully paced, quietly emotional menswear shows we're likely to see,” said Tim Blanks—quite clearly a noted fan at this point—of Watanabe’s Fall/Winter 2011 menswear presentation. Praise for the collection was not limited to high-fashion publications, with Highsnobiety adding that Watanabe’s latest work was “simply stunning overall […] playing with textures, colors and patterns in a way no one else can touch.” It’s hard to boil the collection down to a standout piece; instead it was a distinctly Japanese take on Northeastern America—filled with Fair Isle knits, duffle coats, varsity jackets, Ivy-league inspired tailoring, and plaid. Reinforcing Watanabe’s seemingly prophetic nature, the timing was perfect: hashtag-menswear was in full swing on Tumblr and elsewhere on the internet, stores like UNION—a key Comme des Garçons and Junya stockist over the years—were increasingly accessible online, creating a perfect storm where Americana was a covetable aesthetic outside of Japan. North American men, suddenly, were right in Watanabe’s crosshairs. But, for those who were already acquainted with Watanabe (in the West at least—Watanabe was more accessible across Asian and in the designer’s native Japan), the new found exposure proved to be a double-edged sword. When Justin Bieber showed up to the TODAY Show wearing the red and white fair isle wool and leather-sleeved varsity jacket in November 2011, many diehard fans were conflicted. Yes, it was amazing that his clothes were more accessible than ever, and surely they did not wish for him to languish in anonymity, but he was their secret, and followers cherished his hard-to-find —and harder-to-appreciate— collections for all of their intricacies. Now that the public was suddenly aware diminished the collections’ seemingly mystical quality.
Still, it was an inevitable development for a designer who deserved to be truly celebrated. If 2011 marked Junya Watanabe MAN’s entry into the North American mainstream, new fans were quickly exposed to just how varied and versatile Watanabe could be. Both 2012 collections, as well as Fall/Winter 2013, were an examination of workwear, albeit in a way that only Watanabe could manage. 2012 was dominated by utility wear: overalls, pockets upon pockets, and straight cuts, with farming and manual labour clear references—“Junya was making a statement about the dignity of labor,” said Blanks. Fall/Winter 2013 then, was a natural evolution to 2012’s examination of workwear—there were hints of utilitarian workwear in some pieces (mainly shirting) but the collection, on the whole, was a study of patchwork, once again using those beloved “dumb fabrics.” It was a snapshot of how men dressed during the industrial revolution; the palette was dark, fits were slightly off-kilter, fabrics wrinkled and textured and the general aesthetic dirty and unpolished. That string of collections came to set the standard for what to expect from Watanabe in terms of aesthetic: re-worked workwear.
Even the aforementioned Spring/Summer 2015 collection—focused almost entirely on denim and indigo—was inspired by traditional Japanese peasant clothing, with boro patchwork a common thread in nearly every piece. The pieces embodied what makes Watanabe’s approach to workwear so unique—he instills a beauty that is rarely attributed to the item in question, elevating elements typically viewed as low-brow into works of art appreciated by the fashion elite. It is this very notion that makes Watanabe aspirational, yet also attainable, for so many people: the pieces are familiar in a way, yet mesmerizingly foreign. Yes, everybody has a plaid shirt, but a Junya Watanabe version exudes an aura that even those not well-versed in fashion or menswear can recognize as being “different,” in the very best sense of the word.
This desire to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary inevitably pushed Watanabe to become fashion’s foremost collaborator. Long before Vêtements built an entire collection around collaborations, Watanabe worked with some of the most recognizable names in clothing. Throughout his career, Watanabe has built up a massive portfolio of collaborations that knows no equal: Levi’s, Tricker’s, Converse, Pointer, The North Face, Brooks Brothers, Lacoste and many others. Watanabe’s prolific collaborative streak may seem counterintuitive for a designer seen by many as highly individual. The common thread though, is that his collaborative partners share a rich history and reputation for being among the very best at what they do. Like the styles, colours, textiles, or periods that Watanabe uses as inspiration for his collections, his collaborators are meticulously researched and chosen out of respect for their heritage and tradition. Why make a Harrington jacket, when he can simply partner with Baracuta, the originator of the style, as he did in 2009. Not only do these partnerships add authenticity to each collection, they allow Watanabe to present the truest expression of the intended item or style, while still reworking them to his own specifications. It harkens back to the Levi’s poetry denim from Watanabe’s debut menswear collection—the designer wanted to offer “the real thing”. More than a reference to the emotional weight of the poem, he was talking about the jeans themselves.
Watanabe’s collaboration with Porter, for example, transformed the iconic brand’s small bags into pockets on a series of Gore-Tex-lined parkas, vests, and jackets. The jacket doubled as a tote bag, thanks to a series of metal loops and fabric straps fitting of the most advanced ACRONYM piece. Collaborations have, more recently, become Watanabe’s bread-and-butter, with sweeping collections with The North Face and Carhartt W.I.P. garnering critical acclaim and popular support alike. The North Face bags were transformed into rugged outerwear—bearing the hallmarks of Watanabe’s utilitarian menswear—while his work with Carhartt W.I.P. for Spring/Summer 2018 focuses on the brand’s iconic Hamilton Brown canvas, a nod to its importance in workwear.
For all of Junya’s achievements, though, his career has not been without controversy. Unlike prior collections, Spring/Summer 2016 didn’t draw inspiration from America, industrial Europe, nor his native Japan. Rather, Watanabe focused on the African continent to unveil a collection rife with lighter textiles and vibrant prints. The show’s models were “draped in beads, bones, masks and other tribal accoutrements. The African-inspired pièce de résistance: headpieces piled high with braided, twisted hair,” said Ellie Krupnick in a scathing rebuke ford WWD. Noticeably missing, however, were any models of African ancestry, absent from both the runway show and accompanying marketing. Watanabe was accused of cultural appropriation by many, both on social media and in major publications like British daily The Independent. While some within the industry downplayed the controversy, arguing that if “knee-jerk negativism” is overlooked, the collection embodied “mutual fetishizing of foreign dress.” Insensitive, perhaps, but the collection was, like all things Watanabe, deeply researched and instilled with details of the utmost historical importance. The fabric used throughout the collections myriad pieces was sourced from Dutch company Vlisco—considered a seminal figure in shaping West and Central Africa’s visual cultural identity after supplying the area with fabric since the mid 1800s. Yes, the models were white, but maybe that was the point—maybe Watanabe was commenting on European colonialism through his use of Vlisco textiles and caucasian models. If we’re as objective as possible, the collection was, at least, a poorly-thought-out idea. At worst, it’s an example of Asian designers’ ignorance—or in the absolute worst case, disregard—of the troubled history surrounding black-white race relations across Europe, the United States and across post-imperial Africa.
For any other designer, it would be a stretch to make that claim, but Watanabe is unlike any other designer. In fact, calling him a designer may be disingenuous, he is more of a fashion anthropologist or historian. Watanabe claims that “when [designing] menswear, it's important to consider where you wear the clothes and what purpose they serve,” but its apparent that he also considers where the clothes have come from, and what historical significance to they hold. Yes, he is revered for his workwear-cum-menswear, but it is about more than simple utilitarianism for Watanabe. His primary concern is the journey that the clothes have undergone, and, occasionally, exposing uncomfortable dualities. In his 2006 Taxi Driver-inspired collection, for instance, the olive drab pieces were adorned with “LOVE” patches to undercut the overly-militaristic aesthetic. The collaborations, too, underscore Watanabe’s anthropological grandeur: only the best and most notable are tapped to work with his brand, and no collaboration is insignificant.
Now a revered veteran, Watanabe has undoubtedly earned himself a spot amongst the pantheon of Japanese greats—or any fashion greats, for that matter. Perhaps the most ironic part? He probably does not even care. After all, he is a designer who pays no attention to what is currently happening, preferring to study fashion history and pay homage. While some designers’ legacies have been carried on by family members or protegés, its hard to imagine someone filling Watanabe’s shoes and helming his eponymous line as he has. When he inevitably retires, we may not lose the brand, but we surely lose fashion’s living encylopedia, debatably its greatest anthropological mind.