Master Class: Undercover
Master Class: Undercover
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date October 20, 2016
It’s easy to write off Undercover as simply “punk-inspired” clothing. Designer Jun Takahashi makes his references, whether they are the Sex Pistols or Kurt Cobain, quite apparent. Simply taking this approach, however, would be both a disservice and vast under characterization of what his groundbreaking brand has accomplished in the past 25 years.
To truly understand Undercover, you have to understand the designer himself. Takahashi was born in 1969 in the small village of Kiryu. His youth was a mash of corny state-sponsored cartoons, international music magazines, and digging through his mom’s clothing and accessories, occasionally playing dress-up. These mundane children’s pastimes seem innocent, however they are crucial to understanding Undercover. With Takahashi, action figures and women’s costume jewelry are as essential as Nevermind.
Between 1970-1990, the prime of Takahashi’s youth, Japan underwent a period of drastic change. While the former feudal nation prided itself on being insular, following the war and seven years of American occupation, western influence began to creep in. By the mid ‘80s, metal and punk rock were as prevalent in Tokyo as they were in New York and London. The combination of globalization and dispensable income paved the way for a new era of Japanese influence. With the rise of Comme des Garçons—highlighted by Rei Kawakubo’s inaugural Paris runway show in 1981—suddenly the fashion set had their gaze firmly fixed on Tokyo. By the end of the decade, Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were cornerstones of the Paris fashion calendar.
In 1988, Takahashi enrolled at the prestigious Bunka college of Fashion. Apart from studying design, Takahashi was front man of the Tokyo Sex Pistols, an homage to the British renegades that had encapsulated his world only a few years prior. While in school, Takahashi was unsure of what to do, until he was dragged to a Comme des Garçons show. What Kawakubo could do with clothing—in terms of quality, drape, and art—was monumental. Shortly after the show, in either 1989 or 1990 (he claims he can’t remember), with the help of classmate Hinori Ichinose, Takahashi founded Undercover.
Initially, Undercover mostly consisted of tees and vintage pieces that Takahashi would customize himself with studs and patches. Success came rather quickly, and notable shops such as Billy in Harajuku and Milk Boy began stocking the brand. Alongside his label, Takahashi began to establish some personal notoriety through a column published in Takarajima magazine with friend and frequent collaborator Nigo. Apart from Hiroshi Fujiwara himself, Nigo and Takahashi became two of the most prominent faces of Urahara. They used this influence to establish their first storefront, the now infamous NOWHERE. The shop, split down the middle by a wire fence, carried Undercover on one side, and a curated selection of items by Nigo on the other.
Although Rei Kawakubo provided his initial push into fashion, it was Martin Margiela that ultimately had Takahashi hooked. During a trip to high-end department store Seed in Shibuya, Takahashi saw Margiela’s designs for the first time. A white T-shirt on a mannequin, with dropped shoulders, extended sleeves and an unfinished hem stopped Takahashi in his tracks. After seeing Margiela’s work up close, Takahashi finally felt his vision vindicated.
While the street-savvy Urahara set provided a steady flow of business, the burgeoning designer felt constrained and wanted to experiment with clothing in the same way his idols had. Inspired by famous producer and musician Yuyu Uchida—notorious for being just as likely to promote a concert as he was to play a full set—Takahashi felt the need to step out on stage and decided to present his first full-fledged collection. On April 18, 1994, at The Garage at Daikayama, Undercover held their first runway show as part of Tokyo Fashion Week.
The untitled Autumn/Winter 1995 women’s collection established aesthetic principles that Takahashi would continue to re-visit throughout his career. By playing with proportion and incorporating key punk elements such as tartan and mohair—think Cobain’s cardigans—Takahashi transformed items traditionally associated with street style into high-fashion must-haves. A shearling jacket was cropped and shrunk into a covetable perfecto. A flannel was elongated and draped as a flattering dress. A toggle coat sans sleeve and hood became a perfect layering piece. While currently the trend-de-jour, Undercover began elevating street style more than two decades ago.
Immediately, Takahashi was a critical success. More than a wunderkind, he became the designer to watch, with only contemporary, Kawakubo protege, Junya Wantanbe, garnering more attention. What made Takahashi so unique is undoubtedly how his clothes fall so firmly into both categories of “high” and “street” fashion without being exclusively one or the other. Undercover was just as important in Harajuku as it was on the Tokyo, and eventually Paris, runways. The man has always strived to take as much pride in his graphic tees as he has in women’s couture runway pieces.
While the show format was successful, Takahashi has been prone to step away from the runway and present wildly imaginative presentations. For S/S 1996, for instance, Takahashi sought out the help of celebrated special effects artist Screaming Mad George, most widely known for his work on the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Aptly titled “Under The Cover,” the collection featured grotesque ghouls and Freddy Kruger-esque monsters wearing fitted topcoats and military jackets with a repeating digital skull motif. While other designers would feel satisfied with a collection of photos, Takahashi did not. He created an art book accompanied with a “blister pack” consisting of a behind-the-scenes VHS tape, T-shirt and stage blood in order to document his collaborative effort.
The designer took a similar approach with “Underman” in 2011, where he once again decided to forgo a show and develop an intricate presentation. Focused around the fictional anti-hero Underman and the fantasy world he inhabited, the collection was an illustration of how everyday people, including the titular character, would hypothetically dress. Although inherently wearable, the collection was conceptually rich. Apart from a Daft Punk-like space helmet, the entirety of Underman’s costume was available for purchase. In addition to the hero’s costume, Takahashi created a comic strip, hi-res green screen action photos and a series of action figures in collaboration with Medicom. While the clothes may have been tame, the many worlds of Undercover only continued to expand.
The ability to seamlessly transition from fashion to conceptual art and toys is key to the success of Undercover. Takahashi refers to his mind as a filing cabinet, which he continues to store folders in. While the cabinets continue to grow, older folders never disappear. During his spare time, the designer peruses folders as disparate as action figures and ’60s German alternative rock. While they aren’t necessarily connected, they are by no means mutually exclusive. Thus is the magic of Undercover. Takahashi’s work is just as relevant to anime fiends as it is to Joy Division die-hards.
Collections following “Under The Cover” introduced recurring staples such as barbed wire, 3D cutting and juxtaposing gothic and decadent influences. For the landmark A/W 1998-99 “Exchange” collection, Takahashi incorporated zippers throughout garments that allowed the wearer to alternate pieces of clothing from one piece to another, cementing his status in Tokyo as an arbiter of all things punk, dystopian, and beautiful.
While men’s pieces had made brief appearances, Undercoverism, a dedicated menswear division, was introduced in 2001. While stateside both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear are sold under the Undercover moniker, in Japan Undercover refers only to women’s ready-to-wear. The first official menswear offering was presented as part of S/S 2001’s “Melting Pot” alongside the women’s collection. While women’s focused on pattern mashing, the men’s pieces were more technical in nature. Inspired by Star Wars, each piece was cutting edge with a subtle ’80s sci-fi flair. Although Takahashi has admitted that he prefers women’s wear—menswear feels constraining as he inadvertently designs for himself—outside of Asia he is predominantly thought of as a menswear designer.
Following the introduction of menswear, Takahashi continued to show and present in Tokyo. By 2003, Takahashi’s former role model, Rei Kawakubo, was his new champion, telling everyone—including influential fashion critic Suzy Menkes—about Undercover. With mounting press and international buzz, the label made the move to Paris. The now legendary S/S 2003 “Scab” was not only a highlight of Paris Fashion Week, but it firmly placed Undercover on the radar of international buyers and press. While Takahashi had already attained cult-status in Japan, he was still relatively unknown abroad. After “Scab,” there wasn’t a single fashion editor in Paris who didn’t know his name.
The collection was the first to present Takahashi’s now iconic—and highly imitated—slash and burn style. Presented at the Union Central des Arts Decoritifs, the show revisited the idea of “ethnic garb.” Takahashi attempted to add decorative tribal elements to basic pieces through layering nearly endless strips of fabric into multiple patchwork layers. While the clothing began intact, Takahashi, after creating the silhouette, would painstakingly rip, destroy and rework every garment by hand. The frayed hems and hanging strings made each piece feel both incomplete and one-of-a-kind. Takahashi showed slip dresses with trailing patterned tassels, reworked patchwork jackets, and patchwork denim that have become sacred to many a Grailed user. Meant to embody the punk spirit, the show’s finale featured a series of models in neon-colored Burkas in order to evoke clothing as spiritual as it was renegade.
Following “Scab,” Takahashi moved his runway show to Paris permanently, apart for a brief two-year absence following the Japanese earthquake in 2011. Memorable collections include A/W 2004’s “But Beautiful,” which featured hand-stitched items created through collage and an accompanying poem by the brilliant Patti Smith, A/W 2005’s “Arts & Crafts,” in which Takahashi made nearly every piece on the runway entirely out of felt, and S/S 2006’s “T” where progressive German rock from the ’60s and ’70s took center stage. Famously, Takahashi imagined five hypothetical bands and designed clothing based on their music—most notably “Sssss” and “The Amazing Tale Of Zamiang.”
Each season Takahashi returned to the Parisian catwalk, he was keenly aware of critical reception and subsequent collections were a response to comments both negative and positive. This process has not only curried favor with critics—Menkes believes he has never had a bad season—but helped Takahashi evolve as a designer. Moving away from individual experiments with felt towards much more complex undertakings such as A/W 2013’s mind-blowing “Anatomicouture” in which he created a white dress entirely from men’s button-up shirt collars.
While the brand achieved new levels of success following their Parisian debut and began a strong retail push in Europe, Undercover was still primarily limited to Japanese clients. In 2010, however, Takahashi was invited as the guest presenter at Pitti Uomo Imagine 76. Like many designers before and after—Raf Simons, Hiroki Nakamura and Gosha Rubchinskiy to name a few—the Florence trade show presented a chance to focus solely on menswear.
Takahashi’s first men’s-only runway show, “Less But Better,” was a reference to industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose famous mantra informed the simple and modern designs. Takahashi presented a series of reflective rain jackets, beige coats, gray slacks and simple graphic tees representing perhaps his most polished collection to date. Apart from the minimal clothing, Takahashi’s presence confirmed what many insiders already knew to be true: More than simply a women’s runway savant, he was a masterful menswear force to be reckoned with.
It’s no surprise then that following the presentation international conglomerates began to take notice. During the holiday 2010 season, Undercover began their on-going partnership with Nike, GYAKUSOU. Roughly translating to “running in reverse,” the activewear collection is inspired by those who run against traffic and designed for runners to question the path they have chosen while simultaneously providing the functional and technical requirements they need to maintain pace. Unlike other collaborations, which are often used to inject much-needed funds and reach a new audience, Takahashi is a prominent runner himself and created the clothing with his own scientific and aesthetic needs in mind. Subsequent Undercover collaborations—from Hello Kitty to Supreme and Uniqlo—all had one thing in common: an attempt to create something the brand was unable to do on its own.
In the recently released Undercover book by Rizzoli—the most in-depth look at the designers oeuvre to date—Takahashi admits that the business is not exactly giant. With tariffs and operations costs, Undercover is between forty to fifty percent more expensive stateside than in Japan. As the business has continued to evolve in the past five years, collaborations have continued to be both passion projects and act as a crutch during a sluggish period for the luxury market following the 2008 financial crisis.
The first Supreme collaboration released in S/S 2015 was a “street” collection at a more attainable pricepoint than the mainline. The leather jackets and graphic tees emblazoned with the repurposed “ANARCHY IS THE KEY” graphic harkened back to NOWHERE days. Considering the significant mark-up oversees and the brand’s humble street beginnings, working with Supreme allowed Undercover to travel, if briefly, back to Urahara. Similarly with the recurring Uniqlo “UU” children’s collection, Takahashi was able to realize his dream of designing clothes for his daughter, while simultaneously appealing to a mass audience and spreading the Undercover message.
There is a reason that most UNDERCOVER collaborations are not typically your standard, one-off affair. After working with Takahashi, brands realize that more than just a designer, he intimately understands the world he has created, one that goes well beyond clothing. His own artistic endeavors prove as much. Consider “Grace,” a project where Takahashi replaced a teddy bear’s eyes with vintage motorcycle lights to create a dystopian monster. More than a sculpture, Grace become a recurring character in the Undercover universe, with an accompanying children’s cartoon and a series of art images highlighting the creature’s evolution. Grace’s greatest ally is the mysterious GILA organization—named after the infamous brass knuckle-bearing GILAPPLES—whose intentions are shrouded in mystery.
Twenty-five years later, apart from international fame, cult-status, the JOHN and SUEundercover diffusion lines and millions of dollars, Undercover has not changed all that much. Yes, it is, and always will be, punk-inspired clothing, but Takahashi’s gift is to make you wonder what the word really means. Is punk a style of music? A subculture? Or is it an attitude, a worldview to question what came before? We Make Noise Not Clothes. That’s the Undercover motto. Takahashi and his brand have been making noise since the early ’90s and they are only getting louder.