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Future Beauty

Comme des Garçons, Spring/Summer 1997, Rei Kawakubo

Comme des Garçons, Spring/Summer 1997, Rei Kawakubo

A new exhibition—Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion—opens at the Seattle Art Museum tomorrow. Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, offers the following description:

The tremendous innovation of Japanese fashion designers who have revolutionized the way we think of fashion today will be shown for the first time in Seattle at SAM. The leading Japanese designers who initially gained recognition in the West were Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake in the 1970s, but it is in the 1980s that Japanese designers emerged with an entirely new aesthetic. In the summer of 1983, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto launched a stark new aesthetic at the Paris runway shows. Based on monochrome black and white, they presented asymmetric and at times artfully perforated designs, which loosely skimmed the female silhouette. Recognized as a radical counterproposal to Western notions of the fitted gown, their designs gained instant notoriety.

This was the beginning of what is now three decades of innovative design that has in turn influenced and reshaped our Western aesthetics of dress. Curated by Akiko Fukai, director of the Kyoto Costume Institute, the exhibition showcases the early emphasis on light and shadow, and the increasingly diverse ultramodern designs that range from the deconstruction and reinvention of Western couture models to wildly revolutionary designs that draw from contemporary street fashion.

Nearly 100 gowns will be featured, ranging from the classic and elegant to outrageous, by celebrated designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and others, videos of runway shows, artist photographs, magazines and ephemera designed by renowned international artists like Gilbert and George and Cindy Sherman. This exhibition promises to be a fascinating experience and rare opportunity to view these unique creations firsthand.

We attended a preview and opening celebration last night, arriving with minimal expectations but finding ourselves delighted.

The evening began with a reception outside the auditorium. We drank, had hors d’oeuvres, mingled, then went into the auditorium at 7:00 and took our seats. Fifteen minutes later, the formal program began with remarks by the SAM board president. Then Kim Rorschach, the SAM director, said a small amount about the show, thanked various exhibition sponsors, and introduced Tomoko Dodo, Japan’s acting consul general here in Seattle. Consul General Dodo’s remarks amounted to a benediction of sorts, as she spoke about the joining of east and west.

Next up was Catharina Manchanda, who despite serving as local curator for the exhibition, deferred to Akiko Fukai, the primary curator (and director of the Kyoto Costume Institute, as noted above). Manchanda listed for us some of Fukai’s publications and work around the world, from which it became evident that Ms Fukai is greatly distinguished indeed.

Doing a search just now, I see that the NYT had a piece about Fukai two Februarys ago. The piece mentions this very show in its first manifestation, at the Barbican Centre in London in 2010. We learn about both Fukai and the Institute:

From the exterior, no one would expect that the nondescript industrial building, owned by the Japanese lingerie giant Wacoal, contains one of the world’s most prestigious clothing collections.

Or that the building, a stark contrast to the city’s Buddhist temples, gorgeous gardens and mild-mannered monks, serves as headquarters for Akiko Fukai, Japan’s leading fashion historian.

But then, the chief curator and director of the Kyoto Costume Institute has spent much of her career staging exhibitions overseas — from Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre in Paris to the Barbican in London, which played host to her landmark “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion.”

That 2010 show, scheduled to open in Tokyo this summer, is a high point in Mrs. Fukai’s storied career, which spans a seven-page résumé.

“I have watched the steps of 30 years of Japanese fashion as a contemporary,” said Mrs. Fukai, 68. “I have been walking along with it. I think to realize the exhibition of this theme is my role, as the testimony of the time.”

From a colleague’s eyes, the description is only slightly different. “She has brought the Japanese public a knowledge of Western fashion and the Europeans, an inside view of Japanese fashion. These are her most important contributions as a fashion curator,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.


The “Future Beauty” exhibit has been one of Mrs. Fukai’s main focuses since she retired as a professor four years ago from the Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, where she served as the dean of the graduate school of art management and a professor of art history and modality.

Between traveling the world for symposiums and lecture engagements like the one on Diana Vreeland scheduled in March in Venice, she has been searching for new contemporary Japanese designers to grow the “Future Beauty” display for its opening July 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. It is to move to Seattle in 2013.

Suitably prepped, I was eager to hear from Ms Fukai. Unfortunately, something got lost in her oral delivery, between her accent and the placement of the microphone. I wish a written version had been available.

The program over, it was time to go up to the main lobby for food and entertainment or two floors higher for the exhibition itself. We made a brief stop for food, provided by Taste, the restaurant that sits within the museum building. Noodles, flatbread, mini-burgers. Then on to the show.

I assume that with the official opening tomorrow, SAM will offer more information and images at their website. At the moment there’s just the basic information page. The exhibition is divided into four spaces. I wish I could list their names. The first has to do with black, and with the choice of Japanese designers to use black. Then there’s a space with clothing and photos, a wonderful mix. Each dress is flattened in a photographic image that looks so textured it takes a while to realize it is just a photo, not the fabric itself put in a frame. This illusion is all the more pronounced because the first framed piece is in fact a dress, emerging out of a flat piece of fabric.

A third room has some dresses that fold out from flattened objects by design, like origami, such as folded squares that, when lifted up, pull into three-dimensional clothing. Most striking were the books of clothing. One opens the two book covers like the outside of a fan, pulls them back to back, and a skirt or top emerges. A mannequin wears two such pieces, top and bottom, with the book covers hanging behind her.

The fourth room has a “cool” theme, with street fashion meeting high fashion. Hello Kitty and her ilk.

A second suite of rooms follows, each devoted to an individual designer: Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and so on. At the reception earlier, we had seen an older woman in a dramatic outfit, richly colored and unusually shaped. In contrast to the kimonos worn by a few young women, this item didn’t appear to be specifically Japanese. We didn’t know what it was. We knew, though, once we we arrived at the Rei Kawakubo room, for there it was. And there she was, standing just in front of her mannequin twin while people took photos.

On finishing our walk-through, we returned to the lobby, sampled some more food, then headed down to the car and drove home. Good fun. And, we will return for a closer look.

I wish I could show more images from the exhibition. What I can offer instead is a youtube video made when the initial version of the exhibition appeared at the Barbican. I leave you with it.

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