While Milan, Paris, and London are fashion cities of Europe, there’s only one city that dominates the fashion scene in Asia, and that’s Tokyo. That’s right, this country is more than just sushi and temples — it’s one of the world’s leading fashion cities.
The Land Of The Rising Sun has contributed to the fashion industry with groundbreaking fashion designers of traditional and contemporary — all with one common ground: fusing their local culture and sharing it with the world. It’s thanks to these legendary fashion designers that the world today knows and appreciates Japanese aesthetic.
If you’ve ever walked down the streets of Tokyo, you’d realize that there are dozens of local boutiques boasting their local designers and establishments. It’s no doubt that this island nation creates creative fashion icons like it’s as easy as breathing — but there are a named few that have been dominating the fashion world.
We have the top 6 fashion designers from Japan that have not only changed the fashion scene for their own country, but the whole world!
1. Yohji Yamamoto
The revolutionary Japanese fashion designer who reinvents Western technical and aesthetic values is none other than Yohji Yamamoto. For fashion enthusiasts who weren’t given the opportunity to go to fashion school, don’t give up on your dreams just yet — this pioneer of the 1980s Japanese New Wave didn’t either. In fact, he studied law at university!
Now one of the most distinguished fashion designers of the industry, Yohji Yamamoto is known for his excessive usage of the color black and the free-spirited concept portrayed in his crafty tailoring and androgynous silhouettes with a notion of concealing rather than revealing the body.
Look at any of his collections and you’ll realize this one common point: there is excessive use of black. I was told growing up that black is a depressing color because it’s not even a color at all, but Yohji Yamamoto saves the day by saying that black is actually a combination of all colors.
Yamamoto has his reasons behind the intentional usage of black — black is modest but arrogant at the same time. Black is easy and lazy, but also mysterious. What’s better than black? He also believes that dressing is to look sexy at the same time, and to add to this feature, he uses a fash of white or a glimmer of crimson red as a little tease.
Yamamoto’s designs are made to be timeless. Instead of putting the garment on the body, he puts the body on the garment — with every cut made to make body movement beautiful. A typical Japanese approach that is used religiously by Yamamoto, is to start a design with the fabric, rather than the silhouette.
Apart from the dark, androgynous image he sets, Yohji Yamamoto is especially famous for collaborations. Some might say he’s one of the first few designers who celebrate collab culture and gives access to high fashion to the masses. Y-3, anyone? This Adidas-Yohji Yamamoto collaboration that began in 2003 is one of the most successful collaborations to this day, altering the perspective of menswear fashion and giving the male market an opportunity to play around with shape and movement, just like the ladies.
For those who didn’t know who Yohji Yamamoto was — now you do, and it will be easier to spot his shop on the high road: the one with the black clothing.
2. Issey Miyake
The pleats master himself, Issey Miyake, was one of the first few Japanese fashion designers to showcase in France. Not only that, he was the first to restructure sartorial conventions, blinding in contrast to the conventional ways of Western designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, and Christian Dior. Instead of obliging to the Western concept of women’s clothing of fitted silhouette and exposure of body contours, Miyake proudly introduced loose and baggy designs, free of traditional construction.
And just like his compatriot, Yamamoto, Miyake has roots deep in traditional Japanese design philosophy, which is evident in all of his creations, and converting them into fashion-forward pieces. Miyake didn’t think his lack of western heritage in the world of Western fashion was a disadvantage, but an advantage. He introduced a new definition of aesthetics, by crafting to the way of life — the garment flows where the body moves.
And to this day, Issey Miyake’s brand — even though the mastermind himself has retired — continues on the legacy of approaching garment construction in original ways, prioritizing the user first. If you think about it, that way of doing things is more of a product designer’s approach — and it obviously works out.
Miyake did once say, “I make tools. People buy my clothes and then they become tools for their creativity.”
Miyake is kind of like Einstein when it comes to original fabrics, and the whole pleat thing came from his most commercially successful collection to this date, 1993’s Pleats Please. Instead of going for the traditional method of permanently pressing pleats before cutting out a garment, Miyake did the opposite — he cut the garment out twice the size, put it together, and then started pleating. To call him a genius is really an understatement.
And that’s only one of his creations. Another one worth mentioning is A-POC, or “A Piece of Cloth”, which is a concept by Miyake and his team, involving a long tube of knitted jersey which one can cut without wasting any material. There’s nothing quite like this that screams “fashion of the future”.
3. Rei Kawakubo
Also known as the founder of Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo is another significant Japanese fashion designer. She once said she never intended to start a revolution, but she did — and there are absolutely zero regrets. If I could sum up Kawakubo’s aesthetics into three words, it would be: monochromatic, asymmetrical, and voluminous.
With that said, Kawakubo is similar to Issey Miyake — in a sense of focusing on perfectly imperfect cuts and asymmetrical lines in her designs — and also like Yohji Yamamoto — with the dramatic usage of black. I guess you could say that she ties the trio all together, making the Japanese avant-garde aesthetics coherent, but still very much a broad category.
As Kawakubo studied art in university, her collections for Comme des Garçons weren’t based on trends, but rather artistic concepts that created designs of an unorthodox silhouette, using an exaggerated amount of fabric. These all play a part in offering women the opportunity to look “like some boys”, which, if you haven’t clocked it in yet, is the meaning of the brand itself.
This concept is about providing comfort and mobility — although we can all admit, some of them restrict any sort of movement, let alone comfort. But most of all, Kawakubo’s designs scream to the girls who don’t want to succumb to the wants of men, seduction, and approval. Unlike Yamamoto and Miyake, Kawakubo’s designs play around with exposing the body without it being sexy. That’s her brand’s concept.
But what about Dover Street Market? For anyone who is familiar with Kawakubo, it is known that she and her husband (who operates as the CEO), created a multi-brand retail store in London. Now with stores all around the world, the idea of Dover Street Market has evolved into bringing people from everywhere into one beautiful chaotic space. They succeeded with this concept, establishing an area for up-and-coming designers to display and sell their work as they please. Kawakubo still remembers her Japanese roots, giving Dover Street Market what the Japanese call tachiagari, or a new beginning.
From rebellion of traditional feminine aesthetics, to providing opportunities of expression for other designers, it’s safe to say Rei Kawakubo is quite an inspiration.
4. Jun Takahashi
If you’ve read our guide to Japanese streetwear, you would’ve already come across this name. Jun Takahashi is the founder of one of the biggest Japanese streetwear brands to this date, Undercover. He started this brand back in 1993 when he was still studying at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Little did he know back then that his baby brand was going to take off in the 21st century.
Takahashi started his label, inspired by the likes of punk designer Vivienne Westwood, and avant-garde designer Rei Kawakubo. As he progressed, he grew to create his own visual identity with a focus on the exploration of opposites and portraying what is known as the ‘Japanese Cool’ aesthetic. While originally offering classic punk clothing like ripped jeans, shirts, and leather clothing, it has now expanded to include a variety of well-evolved collections whereas the original starting ones lacked in detail and design.
If you have ever seen his runway shows, impracticality will scream out at you. Flower arrangements on model’s faces, jackets with branches, it doesn’t exactly seem practical. Takahashi is much more conceptual than a fan of his own brand, Undercover, would think. His plays with cultural references and experiments are just a few reasons that caught the attention of other notable designers like Valentino. The two collaborated in 2019, which could be considered one of the most groundbreaking collaborations to this date.
However, Takahashi’s other collaborations with various brands prove that the fashion designer can be very practical. His running lines with Nike called ‘Gyakusou’, Supreme, and Uniqlo Undercover, are some of the most sought-out designs for streetwear in the present day. Let’s not mention his extreme measures of shooting his lookbook in freezing weather to prove the functionality of his clothing. Fair enough, if I wanted to show off the design features of my collection, I’d be doing the same!
Jun Takahashi has decided to stop making womenswear in 2018 and put all his focus into menswear — not that any of his loyal followers stopped supporting him. Undercover has taken ventures far and beyond since, and I don’t think we’ll see the end of its reign on the streetwear scene any time soon.
A list of Japanese fashion designers isn’t complete without this other streetwear legend, Nigo. He founded one of the biggest streetwear brands in the world, A Bathing Ape, also known as BAPE. While he no longer owns the brand, Nigo did build the foundations of exclusivity and designs that BAPE still preaches.
Ever since the early days, Nigo was a huge hip hop lover. While he was born in Gunma, he frequently visited Tokyo to visit record shops and shopping for hip hop style clothing. He went on to attend Bunka Fashion College like many others, where he met Jun Takahashi — a life-changing encounter for the both of them. The duo went on to create Nowhere, a brand that’s now regarded as one of the original ones that started the Ura-Harajuku culture. So theoretically, both Nigo and Jun Takahashi are founding fathers of said culture.
We all know how that ended — Takahashi went on to open his own brand, Undercover, and Nigo with BAPE. Alongside the brand’s visual aesthetics of popping colors combined with miliary camo and cartoon prints, BAPE went through quite a bit of up-and-downs. From dozens of stores scattered around the country to only focusing on one in Tokyo, it eventually led to Nigo making the decision to scale it back and limit its production. That’s how BAPE’s exclusivity came about.
Despite a couple of successful years — with exposure from mega-famous artists like Pharrell Williams who threw BAPE into the center of the Western hip hop scene — things didn’t really go well with Nigo and BAPE. He eventually sold it to a Hong Kong company. For a few years, the fashion designer was still part of the creative department, before he eventually left for good in 2013.
Don’t worry, Nigo fans, as of now he’s managing another label called Human Made. In my opinion, Nigo’s original essence from BAPE and Nowhere can still be found in this new and refined brand which focuses more on vintage, high-quality reproductions. Despite his collaborations with big-name brands like Uniqlo and Adidas, nothing has yet reached the same vibrant energy BAPE had in its glory years.
May he rest in peace — Kenzo Takada was the first Japanese fashion designer to conquer Paris. Even though the avant-garde trio — Yamamoto, Kawakubo, and Miyake — made quite an impression in the Western world, Kenzo was the one that paved the way for them. The world lost a revolutionary fashion designer late last year to COVID-19, but his impressions live on through his works and his brand, Kenzo.
This fashion designer was not subtle about his inspiration for his designs — known for his floral explosions, kimono silhouettes, and proud use of patchwork, Kenzo was the bridge for the traditional and modern. Not only did he bring exposure to his native country, but he was the figure for ethnic inclusiveness and global interconnectedness. He wasn’t afraid to infuse traditional Japanese craftsmanship and other features into modern-day designs.
Kenzo had taken inspiration from his travels. His designs were mostly influenced by Eastern European folklore to Middle Eastern textiles. Unlike other Japanese fashion designers, Kenzo was never afraid to use colors to express his contemporary, unorthodox, and geographically informed ideas.
Nevermind clothes — this fashion designer was also experimental with stages. A traditional straight-faced, perfect walk down the catwalk is so boring, so Kenzo turned his runways into a full-on performance — models were dancing, and it was much more of a show than a display of clothes on moving mannequins.
Even though his label is now in the hands of Felipe Oliviera Baptisa, Kenzo has never strayed far away from the original essence of narrative, globalization, and fondness for traditional looks. He once said, “Fashion still has the power to unite, to bring people together.” That had been his number one goal from day one, and until he took his final bow during his last show in 1999 — we can all agree that the brand Kenzo is still striving for what its founding father set out to do in the first place.
7. Junya Watanabe
The last on our list of Japanese fashion designers is Junya Watanabe. Watanabe takes avant-garde to a whole new level. Even more so than others before him. Born in Fukushima, he went on a similar path as other fashion designers by attending Bunka Fashion College, and then moving to Paris. After graduating, he worked for Rei Kawakubo’s brand, Comme des Garcons, and was known as her unofficial protégé.
What stands out for me when it comes to Watanbe’s works, is that its refreshing. Others are always inspired by another’s culture or things around them, but this fashion designer seems to create something new all the time. His take on fashion makes everyone, and not only people in the fashion scene, reevaluate their views on clothing.
Watanabe’s creations are often structured using high-tech creations crafted with intricate cuts and details. At a glance, it’s like an exhibition piece, but when you ask Watanabe what he aims to create with his designs, he’d tell you that he’s only making the old seem new. He’s known to call trench coats, bike jackets, and the like ‘dumb clothes’, then reworks them into fresh constructions. There are a few iconic displays, but one, in particular, will always stick out. During a runway in 1999, Watanabe showcased a collection that was made using fabrics reversed to become waterproof, and demonstrated by an isolated rain shower mid-runway.
You would say he’s extremely modernized, but Watanabe often mentions monozukuri when talking about his work. The word translates to “craftsmanship”, but he’d say that it’s more than that. If you break it down, monozukuri is a combination of the words “thing” and “to make”: to make things. He describes it as something specific to Japanese culture, and he’s proud of it.
It seems like there’s one thing that all seven of these Japanese fashion designers have in common: they are all extremely proud of where they came from, and they’re not shy to showcase it in their work. Even though individually, they have created aesthetics for themselves and reinvented the fashion industry, but they have collectively remained coherent with one another. That, to me, is one of the most Japanese-y things of all.
You can take a Japanese out of Japan, but you can never take Japan out of a Japanese.