Here are the leading lights of Japanese fashion, from the old guard that broke ground to the new brands that are taking it to the future.
The label Yohji Yamamoto is fashion at its most surprising. It is not sleek. It is not shape-conscious. Many pieces don't even look like they were made for a particular gender. Yet, these are precisely the reason the brand has flourished.
First released in 1981, it represents the higher-end version of Yohji Yamamoto's original Y's brand. The menswear line followed in 1984. The collections are usually composed of textured jackets and pants in unusual shapes. Currently, boutiques are found in major hubs like Paris, London, and New York.
Its sister label, Y-3, has a more popular appeal. Created in 2003, it is a collaboration between Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas. Tank tops were made more interesting by shots of neon. Lowly sweats were given an upgrade with high-tech fabrics. But Y-3's trademark product was its sneakers. Some had metallic studs. Others simply showed Yamamoto's name.
Comme des Garcons
Comme des Garcons, which translates to "like some boys," has more than 200 boutiques worldwide. The brand is helmed by designer Rei Kawakubo, who is known for her eccentric pieces, including a jacket with an extra arm. A master of the distressed and deconstructed, Kawakubo works in her trademark palette of black, white, and gray to give the clothes a graphic quality.
In 1992, Comme des Garcons introduced the Junya Watanabe label. It was named after the designer said to be Kawakubo's protégé. Like his mentor, Watanabe made clothes that had a sense of randomness about them. For instance, button-down shirts may feature odd pleating. He favors modern, synthetic materials.
While the label continues to delight (or confound) with pieces like a half-jacket, it has also put out suits in conventional cuts. Still, in spite of efforts to appeal to a broader market, Comme des Garcons continues to make clothes that are unselfconsciously raw.
A Bathing Ape
Also known as Bape, A Bathing Ape covers everything from menswear to children's clothing with an emphasis on lifestyle and street wear. There is even a Bape Café.
With a name that references the movie Planet of the Apes, the label's pop culture ties extend to music as well. Over the years, it has collaborated with Pharell, Kanye West, and the Beastie Boys to produce limited-edition apparel. If there is anything current or popular, then it is likely that A Bathing Ape will have a cheeky homage to it. Even Hello Kitty and Spongebob Squarepants have popped up in the label's shirts and bags.
A Bathing Ape takes these aspects and marries them to its urban wear, distressed and cut loosely enough to give it street credibility. With related businesses running the gamut, A Bathing Ape represents the next step for Japanese fashion: turning a fashion label into a lifestyle brand that appeals to the younger set.
Like many of Japan's most successful labels, BEAMS was established in the late 1970s. It brought in local and imported brands and created some under its own name to include everything from home accessories to packaged food items. But fashion is BEAMS' core product. The original BEAMS label, put up by Yo Shitara, specialized in casual contemporary fashion. Pieces like military-inspired jackets and rugged, plaid button-down shirts showed a definite American influence.
Since then, it has poked its finger in every fashion pie. Known mostly as one of the most reliable brands for good quality clothing at reasonable rates, BEAMS also makes bespoke at Custom Tailor BEAMS boutiques. BEAMS Lights focuses on more basic pieces like shirts and shorts for everyday use. BEAMS stores are located in the districts of Harajuku and Shibuya, Japan.
The shops are considered microcosms of fashion, making available clothing that's on trend. In 2005, BEAMS opened its first store outside of Japan and the brand is now found in New York and Paris.
The Issey Miyake brand was first unveiled to the world in 1971 when it showed its first collection in Paris. In a relatively short period of time, the original label expanded to include menswear, perfumes, and watches. Today, there are 10 labels under Issey Miyake, Inc.
In 1989, the brand showcased a new process in pleating through the collection Pleats Please. Unlike traditional pleating, garments were first sewn before they went through the process of heating that would create the pleats.
This tradition of innovation continues through recent collections. In its Fall 2012 collection, the brand introduced steam stretch, a process that allows steam to shape garments made from silk and stretch yarn.
The menswear line of Issey Miyake began in 1976. In 1985, it showed an independent collection at Paris Fashion Week. The brand reinterprets basics in arresting ways, like trousers that pool around the ankles and button-down shirts in interesting patterns. The designs, however, remain practical and wearable.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 7 2012.