In a rare interview, Junya Watanabe illuminates the ideas behind his radical clothing, writes Alexander Fury
The fashion designer Junya Watanabe uses the word monozukuri a lot when discussing his work.
“I think it’s very specific to Japanese culture,” says Watanabe’s American-born assistant and long-time interpreter, Ikuko Ichihashi. “You could translate it to craftsmanship, but it’s more than that.
“It has more depth. It’s more about the design aspect, the aesthetics.
“How do you create something?”
The word “craftsmanship” references the person behind the craft.
By contrast, “monozukuri” is formed from the words “mono” (thing) and “zukuri” (to make, to manufacture, to grow).
The individual behind the craft is subjugated to the act of making.
For Watanabe, who de–-emphasizes himself often, the use of the word is pointed.
He doesn’t appear for the customary bow at the end of his runway shows, presented four times a year in Paris.
He rarely grants interviews, refuses to discuss his personal life and is reticent even to talk about his work.
Many of his own employees have never been to his studio.
“He doesn’t have a problem with talking about his clothes and creation,” Ichihashi tells me, before our interview begins.
“But he’s a little hesitant about talking about personal interests and just personal...”
She trails off a little. Personal anything, then.
I glean from outside sources: Watanabe was born in Fukushima in 1961, he is divorced, he studied at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo before joining Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons in 1984 as a pattern cutter.
His own line was formed in 1992 under the umbrella of Comme des Garçons.
His debut show was held at the concourse of Tokyo’s Ryogoku Station the same year, and in 1993 he presented his first women’s wear show in Paris.
When asked about what influenced him to become a designer, Watanabe says, “There’s nothing in particular that made me want to start fashion and create clothes.
“But if I were to mention something, it would be the fact that my mother used to have a little made-–to-–order shop. That may have been an influence.”
A question about Watanabe’s father is politely rebuffed.
Despite his insistence on privacy, his name is on the label, and it’s his singular imagination that has made that label so remarkably influential in global fashion.
Watanabe has created garments that have shifted the way people think about clothing, not just fashion.
His work is about experimentation, endlessly reworking garments into fresh constructions.
In an industry where referencing — of other cultures, of other historical styles — runs rife, Watanabe’s pieces have the rare, almost unique attribute of seeming like stuff we’ve never seen before.
It’s all the more striking because Watanabe works with what he calls “dumb” clothes: trench coats, biker jackets, the white shirt.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
There was the 1999 Watanabe show where fabrics reversed to become waterproof, as demonstrated by an isolated rain shower mid–runway.
A 2001 show that elevated denim to couture level and prompted a barrage of high–fashion homages (read: copies).
A 2006 collection whose endless reiterations of the trench gave new dimensions to a garment considered staid and classic.
A memorable sequence of women’s wear collections, from a half-decade ago, explored elements of nearly any basic wardrobe: army fatigues; puffer coats; sailor stripes.
They were remarkable for gleaning such richness and breadth from simple staples.
Today, they have become flash points for other designers.
It’s difficult to imagine a designer sitting down to create one of those garments without looking at what Watanabe did first.
Watanabe is 55; his company is 24.
The day we met, he wore a black Lacoste polo shirt, shorts and horn–-rimmed glasses that gave a decided intellectual slant to his appearance.
“Intellectual” is an adjective often used to describe Watanabe’s clothes, usually by journalists. What they mean is that his clothes are complex, complicated to make, sometimes complicated to wear, intriguing and experimental.
He often uses one fabric for a collection, his approach almost scientific in the dissection and cataloging of the material’s various forms.
His fall collection explored geometric structures rendered in polyurethane bonded with nylon tricot, a material more commonly used for industrial purposes, like car interiors.
The folded, pinched and corrugated fabric spiraled around the models’ bodies, abstracting them, an exercise in shape and construction that just happened to become clothing.
Some of it was mad, in the sense of the highly abstract: A dull red geodesic cape peppered with holes like Gruyère cheese could only be dubbed a “garment” because it was fabric that, in that moment, sat on a body.
It bore no fastenings, no extraneous details like sleeves or a collar.
The mathematical precision of its structure held the same fascination as a complex equation chalked on a board: the observation of another’s processes, all that sculpted, folded fabric, that painstaking technique.
Oddly enough, Watanabe counts Pierre Cardin as an early influence, but there’s a similarity in their uncompromising shapes and obsession with geometric forms. There’s something of Issey Miyake, too:
Leafing through a magazine and coming across his work made Watanabe follow fashion in the first place.
“I was drawn to the fact that designers before Miyake, like Dior and big names, would create clothes that were form–fitting,” he says.
“Issey totally changed the idea, completely different, and that impact was profound on me.
“Of making me want to create something, the idea of clothing much different from previous designers.”
Another epithet frequently used when referring to Watanabe’s designs is “Japanese”.
“Oftentimes, interviewers or people in the fashion world like to refer to garments I make as Japanese or having a Japanese style or taste,” Watanabe says.
“I want to ask you, why is that?
“To categorise, or do they really, truly feel a connection?”
Watanabe likes to ask questions more than answer them. Curiosity is part of what makes him a great designer. The idea of “Japanese” alludes, perhaps, to “otherness,” to an enduring occidental fascination with the obliqueness of the Far East, of words that look like pictures and ancient ceremonies with complex rules.
There is an otherness to Watanabe’s clothes, a removal from the norm.
The designer he’s most frequently compared to is Rei Kawakubo.
It’s understandable, if not necessarily correct.
His company is owned by Comme des Garçons Co Ltd.
He worked alongside her for eight years.
But while Comme des Garçons’ runway collections frequently approach clothing as a contextual conceit — Kawakubo’s latest pieces don’t resemble garments so much as site-specific soft sculpture — Watanabe’s collections are more pragmatic. Kawakubo has focused on pulling fashion apart, literally.
Her first Paris collection in 1981 challenged and inverted fashion’s established norms, centring on holey sweaters and knits scarred with enormous, random perforations that she anarchically described as “lace”.
Watanabe is also anarchic and challenging, but he works within fashion’s rule book.
Kawakubo is the mistress of the four-sleeved jacket. Watanabe’s have two, and they both work.
“My idea of something being beautiful or aesthetically pleasing is completely different from what Rei Kawakubo’s vision of beauty is,” Watanabe allows.
“To this day, seeing Rei Kawakubo’s work, I feel the same. I understand certain points and I can relate to certain areas ... That doesn’t mean that I completely agree.
“As a person-to-person relationship, I feel that I have a different idea, and I’ll always have a different vision of what is beautiful.
“Another reason, perhaps, I didn’t end up working right alongside Kawakubo is perhaps she felt that I had a different vision of my own.
“Maybe that’s why we parted, in terms of creating something that was different.”
When we meet, it is in the Comme des Garçons building in Tokyo’s Aoyama, a district whose fashionable identity was essentially invented when Comme des Garçons opened its first store here in 1975.
Now, there’s a Miu Miu, a Moncler, a Herzog & de Meuron Prada building with faceted windows bulging like bug eyes. Comme des Garçons’ own headquarters are rather more sedate.
Inside the nondescript red-brick office building, black and white offices are stacked like humbugs.
Black floor, white walls, black window frames.
Black chairs, white chairs and black tables.
On the second floor of their office building, Watanabe’s team of 30 works to pull the upcoming collection together.
The studio looks similar to those of many fashion designers:
Gargantuan tables that could seat 20 are layered with tissuey mille-feuilles of paper patterns, the building blocks of collections, people hunched over and slicing out cloth pieces.
His design staff, generally dressed in Watanabe, Comme des Garçons or a mixture of both, quietly buzz about the otherwise silent space.
In another room, the production staff are seated at ranks of computer terminals.
(The company deals with the manufacture and distribution of Watanabe’s clothes worldwide.)
Watanabe himself has a small office in back: a rare space held off-limits.
I wasn’t allowed to glimpse Watanabe’s upcoming spring collection, which the team was working on when I visited.
The dressmaking dummies were covered with black nylon tarps, shrouding shapes and materials. The team evidently had been warned of my arrival.
But when I ask about his process of creation, Watanabe leaves the room, returning a few moments later with a paper prototype of folded, ferocious spikes, and a series of photographs of similar spikes and bumps, like stalactites or microscopic images of bacteria. “It all begins inside my head,” he says.
“I start to look for strings of ideas that interest me.
“From then, I put my ideas to words. I work alongside my pattern makers, trying to put my words into creating and actually seeing it come to life.
“Photographs, artist’s work, anything that may seem relatable to what I am speaking about,” he says. “After looking at visual elements, they start to craft.”
He grabs the paper model, toying with it like a cootie catcher.
“This is one example of paper craft.
“It doesn’t always turn out to be like this, but sometimes it’s easier to take the form of paper craft. After creating pieces and little constructed elements, then I start to think about the relationship of these pieces with the body and how it could be formed onto the body... all these ideas, little by little, they form garments, clothing. Then I create the collection.”
It’s not the way designers conventionally work, typically pulling from fashion’s past, toying with these examples in cloth, finding ways to make them work on the proportions of today. Watanabe’s approach, like his clothing, is more abstract.
“He doesn’t consider himself to be a major designer,” Ichihashi tells me.
Possibly that has less to do with stature, and more with the fashion industry as a whole. Physically, Watanabe is markedly disconnected.
His base is in Tokyo, which, while not exactly the boondocks, is removed from the four-city fashion circus where most designers live and work.
He says he no longer looks at the work of his peers.
“I don’t really know what they’re doing,” he admits. Instead, he acts as his own frame of reference.
Ultimately, Watanabe wants to create something different.
He doesn’t reference “fashion” or sometimes even clothing.
Recent collections have moved away from specific garments, into abstraction around the body.
“I don’t know how others see ‘fashion’?” Watanabe says. (The quotations are his.)
“But to me fashion is creating something, creating something new through clothes.
“That’s what really drew me, in the beginning.”
I ask him if he’s achieved his goal.
“To this day, I feel that I haven’t quite been able to portray the new. That’s something constant that I’m trying to work towards.”
And yet, oddly, his clothes often chime with the mood of the times, a collective unconscious.
Watanabe’s ’90s “techno couture” reflected a general thrust toward space-age futurism incited by the millennium; his fall 2015 collection, a symphony of accordion pleats, was the most extreme and accomplished example of the technique in a season awash with fabric folding.
That Watanabe, an intentional outsider, can pinpoint exactly the axis around which the rest of the insular fashion world is turning gives his collections a prophetic quality.
The word monozukuri, incidentally, is a relatively new invention, barely 20 years old.
Professor Takahiro Fujimoto, of the Manufacturing Management Research Center at the University of Tokyo, categorises monozukuri as the “art, science and craft of making things.”
Junya Watanabe’s craft is both a science and an art.
It’s what makes his clothing great.
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