Sunday, May 21, 2017

Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Design at the Denver Art Museum

If you follow my Instagram you know I recently visited Denver, Colorado, and my friend Judith.  While the main purpose of my visit was to spend time with her, I was also looking forward to taking in some of the sights and culture of the city of Denver.  On my first day there we headed to the Denver Art Museum.

The Denver Art Museum, which is one of the largest art museums between the west coast and Chicago, is located in the Civic Center of Denver.  The section in the photo above is the Hamilton Building, clad in titanium panels.  The museum is known for its collection of American Indian Art.

The controversial sculpture titled "Shoot-out" by Red Grooms resides on the roof of the museum restaurant.  It had been removed from two other locations in downtown Denver after protesters called  it demeaning and insensitive to Native Americans.

We had a health, and delicious, lunch in the Mad Greens restaurant located in the building across from the museum, and afterwards I couldn't resist having a photo taken with this unusual sculpture.  For the record, I did not push the man face first into the water - he was like that when we found him.  I did, however, rather enjoy resting my hand on his butt, and from the worn and shiny appearance of that particular area of the figure, I was certainly not the first person to do so.

The exhibit that we came to see was located in the Textile Art Gallery, where we also found these stunning Haida Button Blankets on display.

The blanket on the left, depicting two killer whales, was created in 1925 by Northwest Coast Native artist, Willie Seaweed, and was worn by the artist during a variety of dances.

On to the the main event...

even the sign for the exhibit was cool!

Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980's - 1990's features 70 pieces by Japanese designers whose creations created shockwaves when they were first shown in Paris.  The exhibit, showcasing work by Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Kansai Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons) and Yohji Yamamoto, is the inaugural exhibit organized by Florence Muller, the museum's Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and curator of fashion.

This burnout velvet dress by Rei Kawakubo from her Autumn/Winter 1996-1997 collection introduces the exhibit.   The shape, pattern and colour of the piece echoes both Renaissance-era tunics and Japanese kimonos.

On the left is iconic molded plastic bustier by Issey Miyake from 1983, and right is a rattan and bamboo bodice designed by Miyake and made by Japanese bamboo master Kosuge Shochikudo

The exhibit is organized into five thematic sections, including "How East Met West" and "Deconstruction/Reconstruction", and includes design catalogues and video footage from runway fashion shows of the various designers.   In the 1980's, the fashion capitals were Paris, New York, Milan and London, and Japan was not on the radar at all.  In order to be noticed, and to show the new face of design in Japan, the designers in this exhibit created clothing that was unlike anything that had been seen on a runway before.  It was bold, avant-garde, and to the eyes of many people, unflattering and ugly.

Clothing and video footage from Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garcons' Autumn-Winter 1982 - 1983 show had its own display area.  The show which shocked audiences with clothing that appeared to have been through a war, and was dubbed the "Hiroshima" collection by critics.

Up to that point in time, the silhouette for women promoted by Western designers was form-fitting, worn with high heels that thrust the body forward, emphasizing the breast and buttocks.  Much of what was shown by the Japanese designers was oversized, and hid, or even distorted, women's bodies.  The colours were dark, the fabrics often distressed or ripped, and the models wore flat shoes, which gave them a natural and comfortable (ie. more masculine) stride on the runway.  The exhibit includes pieces from European designers of the same time period such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Anne-Marie Beretta and Thierry Mugler whose tailored, body-conscious designs contrasted with the free-flowing, draped and over-sized pieces by the Japanese designers.

dress from Paris designer Anne-Marie Beretta from 1989

An oversized, draped tunic dress by Issey Miyake contrasts with a molded, form-fitting suit by Thierry Mugler

A quote from fashion writer Bernadine Morris from the New York Times, in October, 1983 that described her feelings on seeing these unconventional designs was reproduced on the wall:

"The clothes are loose, strong, and strange".  "They seem to come not only from another culture, but from another planet."

Asymmetrical, inside-out dress by Rei Kawakubo from her Autumn/Winter 1997-1998 collection plays with the conventional ideas of balance in a garment with uneven "breasts" and askew shoulders.

In 1997, Rei Kawakubo was invited by dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham to create the costumes and stage design for his dance "Scenario".  She originally declined the offer, but changed her mind while she was creating her  Comme des Garcons collection which featured gingham checked outfits with padding in odd places. The pieces she created for Cunningham used the same down padding to distort the dancers' bodies, altering their proportions and the sense of their own bodies.  Footage of "Scenario" played on a screen next to one of Kawakubo's "Bump" jackets and skirt.

The bright colours and graphic motifs that adorn the pieces (such as the sweater from 1980 in the photo above) by Kansai Yamamoto, who was inspired by bold, colourful Japanese woodblock prints, are very indicative of the pop culture of the 1980's.  Yamamoto is known for the eye-popping designs he created in the 1970's for David Bowie for his Ziggy Stardust tour.  

Mixed among the clothing designs are some chairs created by Japanese designers such as this velvet, flower-shaped armchair by Masanori Umeda next to Kansai Yamamoto's printed cotton "Kansai" jacket

"How High The Moon" armchair by Shiro Kuramata    

A display was devoted to Issey Miyake's "Pleats Please" line, launched in 1993.  The garments are cut and sewn together from a single piece of high quality polyester fabric nearly three times the size of the garment, and then placed between two sheets of paper and hand fed into a pleats machine.  The clothing emerges with permanent pleats, which allows it to store and travel well, require no ironing, and dry quickly.   The "Cabbage Chair" by Nendo, in between the two garments in the photo above, was commissioned by Miyake to be made from the pleated paper that is a by-product of the pleating process for his fabric.

The exhibit included a video montage of Issey Miyake Spring-Summer 1999 collection, "A-POC (acronym for "A piece of cloth") King and Queen and Le Feu"

Details from two Yohji Yamamoto designs:  The houndstooth jacket (2003-3004) on the left had removable embroidered linen cuffs, and shows an influence of Western design.  I liked the simplicity of the summer dress from around 1998 on the right, with the exposed rolled neckline.

This beautiful Issey Miyake shirt with origami folding is from 2002, and was on display in the "How East Met West" section which explored how designers mixed Japanese forms and patterns with Western shapes and textiles. 

The "How West Met East" section featured designers such as John Galliano, Dries Van Noten, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela who were inspired by the innovative Japanese designers and incorporated their aesthetic into their own designs.  The John Galliano dress in the middle from his Spring-Summer 2000 collection incorporates the asymmetry common to many of the Japanese designs.

The exhibit, which has been on display since the Fall of 2016, ends on May 28th, and I was very happy to have the opportunity to see it before it closed.  Hopefully, with Florence Muller (who curated the 2012 YSL exhibit at the Denver Art Museum) as the curator of Textile Art and Fashion at DAM, exhibits like these which feature fashion design as art will become more common, and more popular.   If you're interested in seeing more avante-garde Japanese design, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibit of Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons designs until September 4th.


  1. Excellent coverage of the exhibit, Shelley. I am a big fan of these Japanese designers and can only dream of owning a Bump dress. And the rattan and bamboo piece, such beauty. I enjoyed seeing the Haida work there as well. It's so familiar to people in BC.

    Finally, your smile. Yes, I thought at first you were merely enjoying the sunshine. Hahaha! What an excellent way to spend time with Judith.

  2. An impressive and thorough review of Shockwave! It was so much fun to see this exhibit with you! You should write for a newspaper or website! I enjoyed the exhibit for the second time through you post!

  3. This is amazing. Srsly incredible <3

  4. Thank you for this wonderful review, I almost feel that I have spent the morning in a museum. I love your jumpsuit, too, not to mention the smile ;)

  5. I do love those Japanese designs. Not all women want tits out, tiny waist, massive arse clothes like some porn star.
    You'd look wonderful in all the creations you've shown us. xxx

  6. Wow, that is so cool. I don't believe I've ever seen the Japanese designer fashions up close and in person. Such a treat.

  7. Wow, what a cool exhibit! I would love to see it! Some of those designs feel very familiar to us "kids of the 80s."

  8. I love your jumpsuit!

    What a great exhibit---Issey Miyaki and Rei Kawakubo are my two fave Japanese designers and I am a big fan of that dark, apocalyptic look. They presaged the "dark mori" style I am so fond of, by decades.

    I WANT that velvet, flower shaped armchair!

  9. Thanks for sharing such a great detailed account of the exhibit.

    Although I'm not a big fan of Japanese style I found it interesting to see how they choose to shape the fabrics more like wearable sculptures.

    That blue velvet flower chair is magnificent!


  10. I love those japanese designs, so unexpected, so edgy and so different!. Love al those asymmetric, cool shapes and genuinely good design!. Glad you enjoyed, and even more glad that you shared with us!

  11. Than you for sharing this fabulous exhibition . I am a big fan of the Japanese designers , their designs are so clever and creative. The Pleats Please display was of great interest as I am fortunate to own one piece, purchased at a recycle store last year.Glad you enjoyed your time with Judith in Denver.

  12. Thanks for sharing the exhibition - so many amazing pieces of fashion history. As a former dancer, I was most interested to see the costumes for Merce Cunningham. I loved the photo on Instagram of you in that outfit by the sculpture (nice to know now that your hand rested on his butt!). So pleased you had such a great time with Judith.xx

  13. I love your jumpsuit, too, not to mention the smile ;)


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