Wonderful Madness, Future Beauty at the Barbican Review

Perhaps the most anticipated winter fashion exhibition, Future Beauty at the Barbican lives up to the expected hype. The first exhibition in Europe to survey Japanese fashion from the early 1980’s, the exhibition showcases the renowned creativity and avant-garde designs of Yamamoto, Miyake and Kawakubo, whose collections irrevocably changed the fashion landscape, challenging accepted notions of beauty. Deliberately dishevelled, with pared down palettes that reiterated the appeal of understated fashion, it’s difficult to assess the impact their collections had in an era dominated by bright and gaudy creations. 

The exhibition follows on from the Barbican’s successful collaboration with Viktor and Rolf in 2008, and is curated by respected fashion historian Akiko Fukai (Director of the Kyoto Costume Institute), designed by Sou Fujimoto. The exhibition presents over 100 garments that span three decades, many of which have never been seen before in the UK, a fitting tribute to mark the 30 years that have passed since Yamamoto and Kawakubo first came to international acclaim.

Focusing on the three key pioneers, the exhibition delves in to the revolution they ignited, examining how their revaluation of tailoring and silhouette resulted in couture that fused art and fashion in a new way. Presenting concepts in a very ‘Japanese’ way, the exhibition is arranged thematically, with sections including ‘In Praise of Shadows’, and ‘Flatness’. Supporting films and imagery heightens the visionary aesthetic - Naoya Hatekeyama’s extraordinary photographs of Rei Kawakubo’s flat garments reveal an unexpected simplicity, stark graphic statements that redefined notions of dressing, Issey Miyake’s A-POC – is stretched from floor to ceiling, the seemingly never-ending vibrant red fabric resulting in a vibrant focal point.

Japanese principles, including the concept of ‘ma’ (the void between objects) and ‘Wabi-Sabi’ (finding beauty in imperfection) are explained, having informed and inspired a new relationship between flatness and form. Other designers – including Matohu - utilised traditional dying and printing techniques of seventeenth-century Japan, juxtaposing convention with contemporary to result in a new take on beauty.

The exhibition is also keen to promote a new wave of radical Japanese designers, who continue to take cues from their visionary leaders, reiterating and evolving innovative principles. Upstairs rooms are dedicated to monographic presentations of individual designers – including Tao Kurihara self-imposed limitations, Mintdesigns signature prints and Chitose Abe. The ‘Masters’ do not escape attention either – as Miyake’s new 132 5 project is presented for the first time. Flat folded polygons (constructed from recycled PET) transform unexpectedly into clothing when placed on the body – proving that the house of Miyake is still exploring the possibilities of creativity.

Leave feeling more than inspired, and not just to don every black garment in your wardrobe.

Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion is at the Barbican until 6 February 2011. Check the
website for a full programme of events.

Vicki Loomes
Photography: Lyndon Douglas