Japan: Its Influence and Contributions to Global Fashion

- - Fashion History

When you think of Japanese fashion, you think of the kimono. But dig deeper and you’ll find that Japan’s contribution to the world of fashion is much, much, more. In fact, Japan has greatly influenced the western world of fashion, even more than its eastern counterparts; China, India and Southeast Asia!

After World War II, Japan geared up for a revolution in terms art, architecture, fashion and technology, while preserving its historical roots and its aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi (the art of Imperfection). It was out of this very philosophy that Japan established itself as a creative power house, one that would eventually take the fashion world by storm.

Traditional Japanese Fashion

From Paul Poiret to Eileen Fisher (and hundreds of designers in between), the classic kimono silhouette, with wrapped obi sash, has appeared in numerous designer collections over the years, in one form or other.

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Traditional Japanese Kimonos (Image Credits: japan-zone.com)

Kimonos come in many different styles, each worn for a different occasion. Frequently, they are made in cotton or silk and featured in multi-colored block prints, embroidered or in woven floral patterns.

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Traditional Japanese Kimonos (Image Credits: fotoedu.indire.it)

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Japanese Obi (Image Credits: Wikipedia)

Two of the most widely recognized Japanese patterns are cherry blossoms and butterfly prints. Traditionally, Japanese fabrics also use dyeing techniques and wood block printing to create repetitive patterns.

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A fabric featuring a typical pattern of Bingata, a dyeing technique from Okinawa, Japan

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Popular traditional pattern made with wood block printing (Image Credits: Fabrictales.com)

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Fabric with traditional Japanese butterfly print (Image Credits: fabricandart.com)

Western Fashion Draws Inspiration from Japan

Japan’s rich heritage became inspiration for western designers, such as Marni, Armani and Zuhair Murad.

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Zuhair Murad Fall/Winter 2011-12 Couture (Image Credits: Weddinginspirasi.com)

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Marni Spring Summer 2014 Ready-to-Wear (Image Credits: Vogue.com)

Armani Privé Fall/Winter 2011-12 Couture (Image Credits: Vogue.com)

Armani Privé Fall/Winter 2011-12 Couture (Image Credits: Vogue.com)

Proenza Schouler FALL 2012 READY-TO-WEAR (Vogue.com)

Proenza Schouler Fall/Winter 2012 Ready to Wear (Image Credits: Vogue.com)

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Prada Spring Summer 2013 Ready to Wear (Image Credits: Vogue.com)

Japan’s Contributions to 20th Century Fashion

While Western designers were busy drawing inspiration from traditional costume of Eastern countries such as China, Japan and Indonesia (known as Chinoiserie and Orientalism), Japanese designers were inspired beyond their roots, turning their wabi sabi aesthetic into a major fashion movement that began in the 1970s and continues to the present day.

De-Construction Movement

The De-Construction Movement, which started in 1970s and gained momentum in the 80s, refers to the era of collective avant-garde artistic expression in fashion. Traditional feminine silhouettes were challenged, essentially de-constructed, to give way to a new aesthetic. A group of Japanese designers, led by Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, played with the idea of androgyny and embraced unevenness and imperfection while simultaneously creating beautiful clothing.

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Suit by Comme des Garçons from the De-Construction Era circa 1985 (Image Credits: metmuseum.org)

Rei Kawakubo, founder and designer of Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons, is regarded as one of the most important names in the fashion today. Blurring the lines between perfect and imperfect, male and female, made and unmade, these designers appealed to the modern woman who preferred comfort and over the body contoured clothes of that period.

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Comme des Garçons photo-shoot circa 1989 (Image Credits: calvertjournal.com)

Zero Waste

The Zero-Waste movement was led by Japanese designer Issey Miyake. With his A-POC collection (A Piece of Cloth) in 1999, Miyake minimized waste by making clothes out of a single piece of fabric, so that excess fabric waste wouldn’t end up in over-crowded landfills.

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A-POC by Issey Miyake (Image Credits: moma.org)

Cosplay

Combining the words “costume” and play”, this term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1984, and refers to the trend of wearing costumes of a particular character or theme, such as Japanese anime. Over the last few years, cosplay has extended itself to outside the realm of anime and manga characters and become commonplace, owing to events like FanimeCon and ComicCon with themes from Hollywood movies and American pop culture.

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Cosplay of the Yu-Gi-Oh character “Dark Magician Girl” (Wikipedia)

Japanese Collaborations & Exhibitions

In 2003, Marc Jacobs began a collaboration Japanese artist Takashi Murakami on a series of Louis Vuitton iconic handbags. In addition to his work with Vuitton, which only ended in 2015, Murakami has had numerous exhibitions of his work and has been featured in major magazines. Japanese artist Yayoi Kasama also designed a series of handbags for Vuitton in 2012 and has had her work featured in exhibitions around the world.

For their upcoming spring 2017 exhibition, The Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum of Art will honor the work of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

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A bag from Takashi Murakami’s Multicolored Monogram collection for Louis Vuitton. Photo: Louis Vuitton

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Kylie Jenner in a photo-shoot for Complex magazine created in collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami who incorporated his trademark anime-graphics (Image Credits: Complex.com)

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Yayoi Kasama handbag for Louis Vuitton 2012 (NY Magazine)

And Now?

The world is still in awe of all things Japanese, from sushi to sumo. Japan’s sartorial legacy, which in addition to Miyake, Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, also includes designers Hanae Mori, Junko Koshino, Kansai Yamamoto, Junko Shimada and Kenzo Takada. Today, a new crop of design talent beginning, with Limi Feu (daughter of Yohji Yamamoto) and Tae Ashida (daughter of legendary designer Jun Ashida) are bursting onto the fashion scene and are being noticed.

Will China, India and other non-western cultures, be able to step up to the plate and make their own unique mark on the global fashion stage, just as Japan has done?

Let us hear your thoughts!

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Shilpa Ahuja is a regular contributor to the University of Fashion. She is also a designer, entrepreneur and fashion blogger. Shilpa Ahuja has a Masters in Design Studies degree from Harvard University. She translates runway fashion into understandable style advice for her online fashion and lifestyle magazine, ShilpaAhuja.com. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women. She enjoys writing, travel and art.