Subverting subversion

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How do you simultaneously subvert convention whilst acknowledging your debt to heritage and tradition? The stories and anecdotes about the emerging punk scene in 1970s New York in Chris Stein’s fantastic Negative – Me Blondie and the Advent of Punk are thick with the themes of subversion, disillusion and economic hardship.  It started me thinking about how you keep destruction (or deconstruction) creative and whether economic downturn is necessarily a route to artistic creativity.

Japanese fashion makes a fascinating case study of creativity, traditional values and macroeconomics. Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons have built their design reputations on subversion of conventional values but at the same time repeatedly referenced their Japanese heritage. A silhouette may recall a kimono or hakama; materials may use traditional artisanship like indigo or shibori dyeing; or collections may embody traditional values like wabi-sabi (the desire to cherish objects as they age and return to their natural form). At the same time, their distinctive design aesthetics have deconstructed, challenged and rejected convention. In Yohji Yamamoto’s own words: “Ever since I began, over 35 years ago, I’ve been designing for people outside society”.

Though these houses were founded in the 1970s during the Japanese post-war boom that created corporate giants, they continued to blaze a trail for new designers throughout the economic stagnation that set in in the early 90s. They have encouraged subsequent generations of designers towards a design-led rather than commercially-led aesthetic. Kunihiko Morinaga of Anrealage, for example, has produced highly conceptual clothes in geometric shapes or in distorted proportions that nevertheless transform into beautiful and practical garments on the body.

As with many societies experiencing economic difficulties, street culture emerged that sought to subvert convention. Where 1970s London and New York had punk, Tokyo has seen an array of street cultures referencing manga or anime cartoons, theatrical and film costume or traditional concepts like Kawaii (or “cuteness”, at the root of the Lolita and Gothic Lolita trends). Interviewed in 2010, Naoto Hiruka of the Japanese street fashion label, H.Naoto said: “the key to our future success is to keep our eyes open for things that are marginal and idiosyncratic”.

This seems a million miles away from the European fashion industry. Though macroeconomic comparisons are increasingly made between Japan and the Eurozone, it is hard to find European designers reacting to economic downturn with a move towards a more challenging design aesthetic (though John Galliano’s debut for Maison Margiela may be a notable exception). What we seem to be seeing instead is a move towards nostalgia with looks drawn almost directly from the 1970s. In a difficult commercial environment this makes sense – people more readily buy things they immediately appreciate. But as design, however beautiful the clothes, they lack something precisely because they are so easy on the eye.

Back in the throes of the financial crisis it was common to hear economic commentators urging regulators not to waste a good crisis. Perhaps this should be as true for fashion.

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