Uncovering Undercover




There’s a lot of unspoken love on my part when it comes to Jun Takahashi’s label Undercover.  Maybe it’s that Takahashi has been so consistent in his output of subversive surprise, genre-mashing collections and fantasy spinning in the twenty five years since he started his label whilst he was still at school, that it almost feels like you’re stating the obvious or saying something ridiculously banal when you sing his praises.   Maybe his label feels like a constant because I’m in Japan so often that you sort of take his output like cute hamburger printed purses, his kidswear collaborations with Uniqlo or his Gyakusou line with Nike, all for granted.

The ’Labyrinth of Undercover’ retrospective at the Tokyo City Opera Gallery whilst I was in Japan, best sums up why calling Takahashi ’genius’ doesn’t feel like hyperbole.  ‘Labyrinth’ is a precise and succinct way of describing the complexity of Takahashi’s creative process as is the label’s name ‘Undercover’.  You might be led down many false paths and dead ends.  But it’s an intriguing warren that you want to delve deeper into.  And you certainly need to go underneath the surface to see what’s really going on.

Exhibiting all his collections from his first A/W 1994/5 presented in Tokyo to the ones that I’ve personally witnessed in Paris at present, Takahashi’s world is exposed through an opening hall of show video montages (interesting to note that show running times have reduced from half an hour lengthly affairs to a brisker paced quarter of an hour), key looks from collections shown on individually styled mannequins and most interesting of all, a display of reference books and sketches that reveal a design mind that isn’t borne out of technical precision and traditional dress making, but of ideas, cultures and a childlike imagination, with the most notable creation from this imagination being his famous S/S 09 Grace dolls belonging to a secret organisation called Gila, made out of ripped up teddy bears.

Often labelled as an arbiter of Japanese ‘avant-punk’ or ‘elegant punk’ as a recent interview on Business of Fashion put it, it’s easy to draw parallels between Takahashi and Undercover with his heroine Vivienne Westwood (him and fellow Japanese design heavyweight Hiroshi Fujiwara even published a book on their private collection of Let it Rock/Sex/Seditionaries era pieces).  Takahashi and Tomoaki ’Nigo’ Nagao’s store NOWHERE in the hidden depths of Harajuku, which sprung up in 1993, is the stuff of Japanese streetwear legend, inciting similar sorts of misty-eyed nostalgia that, former frequenters of Sex/Seditionaries on Kings Road does.  Even Undercover’s motto, “We Make Noise, Not Clothes” speaks of a similar anarchic spirit to what Westwood and Malcolm McLaren promoted.

And yet, what Takahashi has created at Undercover over the past twenty five years, is no reiteration or pastiche of British sub-culture – there’s plenty of that in evidence today in Tokyo when you see ‘punk’ spoon-fed out in well merchandised retail environments.  Instead Takahashi has created a rebellion of his own, injected with his own language, from the get go.  Dripping paint, clever tromp l’oeil and deconstructed pattern cutting were his methods of disrupting the high fashion language.  So was the presence of familiar garments like bombers, bikers and varsity jackets, that still to this day echo in outerwear trends – except Takahashi was doing a ‘twisted’ take way back in the nineties.  Add to that his natural penchant for the cute or ‘kawaii’ and the downright fantastical and it becomes an alluring mix.  Collections like the bunny-eared A/W 13-4 ‘Anatomicouture’, the Russian regal A/W14-5 ‘Cold Blood’ or the much lauded Hieronymus Bosch-inspired S/S 15 ‘Pretty Bird Hate’ collection display a wild and untamed romance that is an evolution from his earlier grunge-tinged work.









































The part of the exhibition which exposes Takahashi’s sketchbooks and drawings reveals a mind that is rabidly drawing from a diverse array of references all at once.  Patti Smith’s presence as a personal friend and muse is one particular constant.  Everything else from human anatomy drawings to Rosemary’s Baby is up for inspiration fodder.  His drawings are also similarly fascinating, being neither technically precise or hurried and painterly in the way that say, Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches are – they remind me of drawings from my early teenage years when I would draw out dream outfits.  Hence why the resulting outfits are often like fantasy apparitions and yet, rooted in some sort of a reality.  Both the sketches and the reference books add a depth to a designer that in my mind, still isn’t as celebrated as he should be.  But I guess like all punk spirited people, being feted by the mainstream isn’t necessarily the end goal.  They’d rather make a load of noise instead and invite the right people to hear it.

















‘Labyrinth of Undercover’ at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery in Tokyo, Japan until the 23rd December

Christmas Cheek

>> For the first time in (ever), I’ll be spending Christmas not with my family, not in London and not surrounded by animal fat and roast potatoes but in a land far away with my partner and most likely eating an inferior substitute to a Christmas dinner.  That’s why I’m in two minds as to whether to embrace all the emotional guff that Christmas comes laden with.  When you’re not going to spend the day in your own home, you’re less likely to want to go out – ear muffs on and wrapped up in a scarf – and traipse around town, gathering up all the frippery that will apparently complete a table setting, a tree or a gift wrapping scheme (yes, I love a scheme…).  This isn’t a ‘Bah humbug…’, so much as a ‘Meh, hmmm… I’ve got other things on my mind’ because Christmas isn’t the be-al-and-end-all time to express feelings of compassion, generosity and togetherness.

Christmas campaigns and their saccharine sentimentality in particular are leaving me less misty-eyed and more just vaguely amused at the idea of say, an imaginary man on the moon.  Coach, who have already racked up 2 million views with their Christmas online viral, have taken a different turn that is a tad on the divisive side.  With their #GiveCoachOrElse (tongue firmly in cheek) tag line, a feisty character pays Santa a visit, soccering him a punch before raiding a closet full of Coach Swaggers and changing her Nice/Naughty status.  Without condoning violence on the elderly, the subtext is thus – who needs a gift-giving mythical character these days when women are powerfully earning their own ability to fuel their own gifting desires on a regular basis?  And on that note, it’s bah tradition for me.  This year, my Christmas won’t be bound or guilt tripped by rules or force-fed feelings.  I’ll make it my own.

Prints in Motion

The Fashion in Motion series at the Victoria & Albert Museum has been picking up pace in the latter part of this year with not one but two shows in consecutive months.  It seems like designers in London are in the mood to look back on their accumulation of collections and accolades that they have collectively achieved, what with the glut of ten year anniversaries coming up (Ashish, Christopher Kane, Erdem to name but a few)  Peter Pilotto and his partner Christopher de Vos have notched in the eighth year of their joint label – not quite ten – but still a substantial number of collections to look back on, considering their progression from showing off-schedule at LFW to a brand with substantial investment behind it and presence in every major retailer in the world.

Backstage it was interesting to look at the leaps that the duo have taken from their early speckled galaxy printed silks that represented the beginning of a digital print wave that then hit fashion at large, to their current autumn winter collections, where board game patterns are created by panelling, texture and innovative knitwear.  Fashion in Motion represents an opportunity not just to show in the beautiful Raphael Gallery and to offer a wider audience a chance to see catwalk shows in movement, but also for the designers to reflect on their journey as designers.  You can’t get a nicer way to pat yourself on the back than a show in this esteemed venue where Alexander McQueen and Christian Lacroix have also participated in shows.

For de Vos and Pilotto, they were surprised by the continuity from collection to collection. The breadth of inspirations might span anything from the colours of nature – butterfly wings, mineral deposits and waves of the ocean to observations taken from globe trotting such as the lights of Tokyo and Chinese opera masks. How the pair abstract these references is what gives their patterns a point of difference that marks them out as distinctly Peter Pilotto. Their journey of pattern making has also managed to undergo changes in methodology that sees them wavering from digital print to complex embroidery, panelling of textures and innovative textiles such as their supremely intricate smacking in their latest spring summer 2016 collection.

This Fashion in Motion show demonstrated that even as the duo volte from theme to theme or technique to technique, they manage to retain their original voice. They also got to remix some of their key looks by inviting make up rebel, Isamaya Frrench to come and work her instinctively playful magic, inspired by prints like the tropical florals of S/S 12. Or she brought her own spin as in the case of the kabuki esque striped painted face that was also one of the stand out looks. The resulting show was one that highlighted one of the riotous success stories of pattern and colour at London Fashion Week.
























A Collection of Us

Playing on our collective love of nostalgia, the word “archive” seems to have popped up quite a bit lately in a bid to perhaps look back in order to go forward.  Topshop launched their Archive Collection back in July and Jigsaw’s current autumn winter campaign pits nineties Jigsaw pieces with current ones, to emphasise the longevity of their wares.  For United Colors of Benetton, looking back at their archive is the first step in their strategy to get the brand back on track as they seek to define and pronounce their core values so that it once again has visibility in an increasingly crowded sphere.




0E5A8311Wearing United Colors of Benetton ‘Collection of Us’ 1960s sweater with Peter Pilotto ribbed knit coat, M.Y.O.B. knit trousers and Raf Simons x adidas boots

And so it is that Benetton once again asserts its ties with social campaigning.  As part of their Collection of Us campaign, that sees five women of varying ages sharing their personal stories, Benetton will be donating EUR2 million to its Women Empowerment Program to support United Nationa’s development goals for 2030.  In the first part of this campaign, the women wear pieces from a reissued archive knitwear collection, featuring designs that span from the beginnings of the Italian company in 1965 to the noughties.  It’s a celebration of both the exuberant physical colours that defined the aesthetics of the brand in its history and also of course of its ongoing commitment to issues of equality, unity and compassion.  From graphic inlaid knits inspired by the architect Tobia Scarpa to trompe l’oeil tie designs to eighties new wave triangles to rainbow stripes of the euphoric acid-fuelled nineties, it’s a collection that goes hand in hand with Benetton’s recent reveal of its headquarters in Treviso, where its history is exposed through a museum-esque display of archive pieces on mannequins and vitrines of designer sketches, ad campaigns and swatches.













Archive-Cases_22Images of Benetton’s archive in Treviso, Italy from Wallpaper and Creative Review

One simple Google trawl yields not just those controversial Oliviero Toscani campaigns that feature zero product, but also the happy-go-lucky, colour-saturated images that also define Benetton’s visual identity.  As Benetton begin their rebranding journey, it will be interesting to see how their primary-hued, rainbow-fuelled past contributes to its future.