Material Translations

Material Translations: Japanese Fashion from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Ando Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago
November 3, 2012– April 7, 2013

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fashion Resource Center the FRC and the Department of Asian Art at the Art Institute have embarked on their first collaboration – a sensitive exhibition of Japanese fashion from the FRC archive spanning the past three decades. This exhibition shares with the Institute’s summer exhibition, Fashioning the Object, (Selvedge, issue 48, 2012) an interest in how fashion is displayed.

This time fashion makes its appearance in Gallery 109, the museum’s Ando Gallery, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando as his first U.S. commission in 1989. This contemplative space, tucked away in the Asian galleries, leads the viewer into the dark oak flooring and grid of sixteen foot square columns organized in four rows, bound on two walls with low lit L-shaped display cabinets behind glass. To get a close glimpse of the fashion, viewers must navigate a route through Ando’s pillars, forcing us to reconsider the edges of ourselves, and the interiors we occupy. This demand establishes a useful frame of mind to consider the Japanese fashion on display – works that for some may be quite familiar, but are always deserving of further attention.

Twelve mannequins behind glass wear now iconic names from the pick of Japanese fashion design: Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and, the relative newcomer of the selection, Jun Takashi. Distorted silhouettes, unexpected material combinations that often expose construction techniques and asymmetry are apparent throughout. For example, Rei Kawakubo’s 1983 sack dress is on display, which we are briefly told, “characterizes the aesthetic of poverty”. (New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham in the 2010 documentary about his life, reflects more bluntly that Kawakubo’s gesture takes considerable inspiration from the garb of the homeless – a source with the potential to be understand far more contentiously than an “aesthetic of poverty”.)

Also from 1983 is a Kawakubo creation that works much like a puzzle piece, offering up multiple orientations that can be oriented up or down left or right to find the comfortable fit. Fourteen years later, Kawakubo’s approach continued to question the status quo. Her 1997 Lumps and Bumps collection, for example, includes an elastic and nylon dress that shines an irreverent light on what the garment is intended to conceal and reveal by offering up protuberances in unexpected locations. The exhibition wall panel reminds us that dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company wore similar garments to the consternation of some during performances of Scenario at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the same year.

Miyake takes a similar disregard for the conventional proportions and priorities when dressing the body, using pleats that treat the body surface as a series of planes. This approach is taken to extremes in his now familiar Pleats Please collection, which dressed the female form in origami inspired shapes of crisp pleating. Alongside presenting a unexpected visual hierarchy for the female form (breasts and hips take are no more of a visual priority here than elbows or knees) Pleats Please surfaces catered to the time poor business traveller by providing designs that refused unsightly creasing caused by travel or packing. This makes them particularly deceptive designs when seen on the hanger where they lie flat and belie the unexpected volume that appears when worn.

One of the most recent examples on display is Jun Takashi’s pants and jacket from 2005 set alongside Rei Kawakubo’s hat from the same year. Both – through material choice and construction technique, continue the aesthetic tradition established by experimental Japanese fashion design by refusing to conform to expectations. Here hymo, a material more usually sandwiched in a garment interlining is used for Kawakubo’s hat fabric, while Takashi intentionally misaligns hems and employs padding to distort the silhouette and challenge the values of garment construction.

One unexpected treat to this exhibition is the site-specific video projection, Installation no. 16, created by Czech-born, Chicago-based artist Jan Tichy. This intervention introduces yet another subtle request for contemplation by way of a bright white light that moves in various configurations across Ando’s grid of wood columns. At times a lunar eclipse is suggested, elsewhere the light is reminiscent of car headlights bouncing on an interior wall or the feeling of sitting within a human sized camera obscura. For a viewer like myself not particularly familiar with the vast architecture that makes up the Art Institute, this intervention offered a compelling prompt to rethink the now iconic fashion on display.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 50: 89)