Before Yohji, Rei or Issey: Kansai Yamamoto's Lost Legacy
Before Yohji, Rei or Issey: Kansai Yamamoto's Lost Legacy
- Words Gunner Park
- Date March 16, 2018
Kansai Yamamoto isn't exactly a household name when discussing Japanese fashion. Rather, another man with the same last name holds that recognition. Still, while Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake will always be heralded as the Big Three to upend Western ideas of dress in the early 1980's, Kansai Yamamoto got there first. He showed in London in 1971, a full decade before Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. His singular aesthetic—typically overloaded with bold colors and Asiatic-inspired prints—deviates heavily from the conflicted darkness and deconstructed silhouettes of his avant-garde successors.
In the wake of the resurged interest in archival and avant-garde Japanese fashion, it certainly begs the question why Kansai’s work does not receive the same attention as his counterparts. Perhaps his legacy was never meant to be one of resurgence, but one of longevity and influence. While his clothes may be too brash and bold to the point of being unwearable for some, Kansai’s work essentially laid the foundation for contemporary Japanese fashion and continues to influence contemporary clothing.
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Born in Yokohama, Japan in 1944, Kansai did not have any interest in pursuing fashion. He studied civil engineering at his local university, leaving in 1962 to study English at Nippon University. After he graduated, Kansai decided he wanted to enter the world of design and enrolled at the prestigious Bunka Fashion College. He received the Soen prize in 1967 and opened his first boutique in Tokyo a year later. With the help of Junko Koshino and Hisashi Hosono he opened his own company, Yamamoto Kansai Company, Ltd., in 1971. With all of the parts in motion, Kansai was finally ready to take his vision overseas.
His collections debuted in the United States at Hess's in Allentown Pennsylvania, a department store known for its controversial fashion shows featuring American and European styles selected for their potential in influencing the ready-to-wear market. That same year, Kansai made massive strides to become the first Japanese designer to show in London. The show garnered heavy attention from the press, even making the cover of British Harpers and Queen magazine.
His saturated patterns and exaggerated silhouettes were influenced by the colorful art of the Momoyama period (1573-1615) and also the vibrant costumes of Kabuki theatre. While his exuberant designs contrast with the inherent simplicity and deconstructed silhouettes favored today by the Big Three, they proved immensely successful when they were first released in the early ‘70s.
Follow the presentation in London, Kansai's clothing caught the attention of none other than David Bowie. The producer of Kansai’s show, Yasuko Takahashi, insisted Kansi fly to New York to see Bowie’s show, as the androgynous artist had pulled pieces from Kansai’s womenswear collection. They met after the show at Radio City Music Hall and sparked an immediate relationship. The eccentric, genre and gender-bending artist—on the verge of changing the state of popular music—commissioned Kansai to create the wardrobe for his Ziggy Stardust stage persona. The culmination of clashing synthetics, high-shine silks, and jarring shades were loud, even obnoxious. Featuring sculptural and abstract shapes in vivid colors, the costumes were ideal for viewing from the back of a stadium. Widely printed kimonos, jumpsuits that ballooned at the calves with exaggerated bell bottoms, colorful knit bodysuits, and space-age-inspired jumpsuits perfectly complemented Bowie's alien alter-ego. The two artist styles were perfectly in sync, the result greater than the sum of its parts.
Following the Ziggy Stardust tour, the two continued to collaborate, working on a range of one-off pieces as well as the wardrobe for Bowie's 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. If Kansai's London show was not enough to attract attention, Bowie's tours cemented Kansai's aesthetic in popular culture. To many music critics, Ziggy Stardust is regarded as the most influential and prominent pop album of the era, a cultural touchstone that has no parallel. Bowie discovered Kansai’s work moments before changing the face of popular music, incidentally shining a massive spotlight on Kansai’s work.
Kansai eventually began showing his collection in Paris in 1975 and opened his first Kansai boutique in 1977. He garnered critical success for implementing the Japanese concept of basara—a love of color and flamboyance. A direct contrast with wabi-sabi—the Buddhist ideal of beauty in imperfection/modesty that acts as a guiding force for many architects and minimal artists—Kansai embraced all that was loud, brash and bold. Considering the new-found sense of opulence that would dominate the 1980's, his aesthetic was right on the money. Kansai's utilization of art from the Azuchi-Momoyama period, a brief period of extravagance and wealth in the mid-16th and early 17th centuries in Japan, was particularly well received by the modern art community, at the time just gaining serious relevance.
Strangely enough, Kansai's aesthetic is seldom labeled as "Japanese." Perhaps due to a Western tendency to associate Japanese design with wabi-sabi over basara—the former bearing a clear connection to both Yohji and Kawakubo. While the imperfect and minimal aesthetic tends to dominate the modern Japanese fashion canon, Kansai's seminal work begs to differ. Rather than focus on a a single minimalist concept, Kansai's designs are inspired by all periods of Japanese history and roam through Japanese art as a whole. Irezumi tattoos, Imperial Chinese court robes from the Qing dynasty, a print derived from Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanazawa" can all make an appearance in a single garment. His prints and visual treatments echo the two-dimensional nature of much Asian art—bold and graphic, rather than nuanced and detailed. The theatrically of Kansai's style was quintessentially early ‘70s, but also played into the grandeur of the ‘80s as well .
This same ideal continued to characterize Kansai's collections and presentations into the late ‘80s. However, in the early ‘90s, Kansai’s designs lost the allure they once had. Opulence and glamour began to move out of vogue in favor of grungier, edgier, and far more contemporary prints and silhouettes. He presented his final collection in 1992, but continued to lend his name to licensed products ranging from eyeglasses to tableware. After his final colllection, Kansai also began staging what he called "Super Shows,"—over-the-top gigantic fashion shows held in large public areas. His first show was held in Moscow's Red Square (the first time the venue was used for such a frivolous event) in 1993 while subsequent collections were shown in far-flung locales such as India, Japan, Vietnam, and Berlin, almost a precursor to modern luxury Cruise collections.
Kansai was fairly inactive in the fashion community up until 2004. His more recent work is a return to traditional Japanese garments in a contemporary idiom. In 2004, he offered his extravagant take on the kimono and later released Hanten festival-inspired coats in 2007. He was also commissioned to design Japan’s Skyliner train in 2010. He continues to produce Super Shows as part of a larger initiative to invigorate arts in Japan and even serves a government advisor on tourism and cultural affairs.
In the last decade, Kansai has stayed relatively under the radar, except for a 2013 show during the East New Britain Mask Festival In Papua, New Guinea. However, thanks to Nicolas Ghesquiére's latest outing at Louis Vuitton, the innovative Japanese designer is back in the spotlight. Kansai served as both a muse and collaborator for Ghesquiére, creating classic Japanese art and Kabuki-inspired patterns and prints for LV's Resort 2018 collection. The designer’s extensive history with inordinate productions and super shows made him a perfect fit for such a daunting project. With Kansai being one of the original imaginative showmen in fashion, Ghesquiére is in good company.
Regardless of any recent projects, Kansai's true legacy is best seen through his influence on contemporary fashion as a whole. While it is fairly obvious that Kansai set the stage for his avant-garde successors, his influence on other facets of fashion seems to go unnoticed. In fact, there is a quiet Kansai revival happening currently. Kansai's signature use of basara is evident in Alessandro Michele's most recent Gucci collections. Valentino's Pre-Fall 2016 collection featured a graphic homage to Japan and Mount Fuji that clearly echoed Kansai's aesthetic. Even Ricardo Tisci patterned his final Givenchy menswear collection with totem-pole graphics that bear an uncanny similarities to Kansai's grotesque faces.
Kansai's legacy will always be best understood through his influence rather than his work. It's the reason you can scroll through the Grailed feed, or even the Core feed, and find hundreds of Kansai's colorful garments for prices far below retail. His work may not have the same place in menswear that it once did, but rather it is a reminder of a time when colorful and campy extravagance was used to distract from the existential threat, economic strife, and war. Kansai's clothes characterize a certain breed of 1970s escapism. Perhaps a renewed interest in his work is due to the increasing similarity between the Kansai’s anxiety inducing, politically turbulent era and our own.
Regardless, there is little argument that Kansai Yamamoto put Japan on the map as a fashion powerhouse. Still, he continues to be forgotten. His contribution to contemporary fashion is arguably one of the most profound to have struck the industry in the last century. As we continue to indulge in the fruits of “archival fashion,” it is imperative to note the concept of telesis: the way in which a design is expressive of a time and culture. Avant-garde fashion would not be what it is today if not for Kansai’s massive strides. His garments not only represent a snapshot of society and fashion at a certain time, but also the beginning of a global fashion movement that would resonate for decades to come.