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