When Japanese Fashion Took Paris

Nearly three decades after the fashion capital welcomed an influx of Japanese designers, a new show at the Denver Art Museum examines their impact.

A "Bump" ensemble from Comme des Garçons's spring/summer 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body." (Photo: Courtesy Denver Art Museum: Neusteter Textile Collection)

In 1854, American Commodore Matthew C. Perry, following an unprompted demonstration of his fleet’s firepower, persuaded Japan to open its ports to transoceanic trade. Having been isolated for centuries, its people held dear a distinct cultural history—this is why modern Japanese tradition continued developing, untethered to outside attitudes and norms, well into the 20th century. In particular, though, its fashion, perhaps by nature of the global industry’s obsession with newness, has been a persistent source of inspiration for contemporary Western style. The beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced to the 1980s, when designers including Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons first showed in Paris. That moment is revisited in an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), “Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-90s,” opening this month with more than 70 looks from the period on view. DAM curator Florence Müller, who organized the show, describes how the impact on Paris fashion could not be overstated. “Suddenly, on the catwalk, girls without any makeup … with hairstyles totally askance, walking with flat shoes, walking in a very natural manner without trying to seduce the public. It’s really a revolution in terms of how a woman should look.” Kawakubo’s 1997 Bump dress, for prim Parisians, subverted every prior notion of what a dress should accomplish, as the wearer’s form was distorted by rounded shapes jutting out at odd angles. Müller herself wore a Bump dress, and says she found it quite liberating. But will Denver, where many might not see the value in exaggerated, seemingly impractical clothing, find the show off-putting? “You don’t need to own a Monet to like a Monet exhibition.”

Yohji Yamamoto surrounded by his models backstage at his spring 1986 fashion show. (Photo: Jean-Luce Huré)
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