24 August 2011

wabi-sabi, japonisme and other things

I promised you guys a post on wabi-sabi, so I’m gonna give you a post on wabi-sabi. Please, please keep in mind this is just what I know from random free time researching, and if you have anything to contribute on the subject I would love for you to say something in the comments! Or if you have any questions or criticisms. Learning curve, I don't go to fashion school, though I do sneak in to lectures sometimes in disguise. Shhhh.

My vibe right now has been really, really, parred down simplicity: all I want is Jill Sander, Yohji, Rei, Margiela. By simplistic, I am really stretching that word out, I know – what I really mean is self restraint. Less shouting, more whispering. Does this make sense? By simplistic I don’t mean boring, or plain. I mean aggressive restraint. Deconstruction. Paradox. I want to wear all white, or black and white, but I don’t want to wear loud patterns. They have to be quiet. They have to be very concise. Shadows and sparseness. Everything needs to mean something. In my search for this particular aesthetic, I kept on coming across the word ‘wabi-sabi’, and it (unsurprisingly) led me to primarily Japanese designers… but also tea ceremonies, haiku, and Swedish architecture. Basically, I am turning into a a Terence Koh clone!!! I'm going to have a white phase and everything. Just kidding. Okay. Seriousness.

Defining the concept ‘wabi-sabi’ is not something I am equipped to do, so I will instead give you the definition that Lenoard Koren suggests, and direct you to this article. If you aren’t up for reading it, his definition is that wabi sabi is ‘the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty’. Catherine Maxwell’s probably more helpful definition is that it is an idea of wabu (to languish) and wabishii (lonely, comfortless), and sabishii, which is kind of like rust but also means desolation.  This sounds way more angsty than I want it to be, so let’s elaborate. Wabi essentially means reclusive, as in that is your philosophy, and sabi refers to material objects.  
The aesthetics of wabi-sabi began  in the Kamakura Period, which is probably why it’s closely related to Buddhism, mostly Zen. You can definitely see the influence of Zen in wabi-sabi designers, not only in how they design, but what those designs represent and also how they operate their business. I see it so so clearly in the work and store design of Comme des Garcons. Hard to find pop-up shops? Check. Movable walls, signifying impermanence? Check. Stark, industrial design influences that make things seem empty? Double check. Reluctance to be interviewed, like, ever? Gee, I wonder……..yep, check.

This is the CDG store in NY. Everyone there is SO nice and don't mind when I visit just to cry over the clothes. 
I think the reason I am drawn to wabi-sabi is that it is very lived in and very real. I love clothes that are very shiny and sequined and what have you, but I have never felt comfortable in truly ‘glamorous’ designers. Bless Valentino, I love staring at you but I would feel weird as hell wearing you. Wabi-sabi mimicks nature, but exaggerates its tendencies to wear down. It’s an experiment in destruction, while simultaneously creating. The wabi-sabi aesthetic in terms of design can be described as making something new out of something broken or something unexpected, and not quite making it “right” or “expected”. It’s not supposed to be polished or perfect; it’s supposed to be real. And real things have scars, and flaws, and imperfections and mistakes and quirks, and that is that makes it great.
In many aspects, wabi-sabi is anti-fashion. It's not glamorous, luxurious, probably not impressive or attractive to most people...it's not supposed to be, and it doesn't care what you think. Perfect example: When Yohji and Rei first came on the scene, WDD totally hated what they showed and considered them to be slaps in the faces of high fashion. My favorite snippet: “Japan’s answer to the atom bomb.” Damn. 

I don’t want to focus just on Japanese designers like Yamamoto and Miyake though, because I don’t think they are end-all of the aesthetic.  I am actually directly contradicting one of my favorite articles to read when I say this, too. (The article I am referring to is “Fashion, Trends, Japonisme and Postmodernism: Or ‘What is so Japanese about Comme des Garcons?” by Lise Skov.) I think the concept of wabi-sabi can be seen in lots of other designers, like Margiela, Helmut Lang, Shelley Fox, Alexander McQueen, Haider Ackermann, Robert Cary-Williams, and many more. I think they all approach fashion from a similar point of view, and all have a question in mind when they design. They're always exploring. They are making clothes for strong people who are unafraid. They often evoke this kind of unearthly solitude that is both magnetic and scary. They are all kind of punk.

Source. Shelley Fox S/S 1999.

I think Shelley Fox's 1999 collection is incredibly interesting and it's unfortunate I can't find lots of pictures and interviews about it -- the techniques she used are beautiful (and so very wabi-sabi). I think if you like Rodarte you'll like this collection because both designers make fragile, fierce and beautiful things and their creatures come from a point of destruction. Bandages, ectoplasts, and burning were key to Shelley, and the Mulleavy sisters have made intricate dresses that could be the cousins of Shelley's work if you compare them side by side.

I think Haider Ackermann has some wabi characteristics too. I especially like this show, but I wouldn't say it's the BEST example of wabi-sabi from him --I'd pick specific looks from several seasons, but not all. I dig his work because it's got a quiet quality and even though he uses really luxe fabrics they aren't untouchable, and you can play with each piece and make it into something else. That's very sabi. Clothes that make you feel like a princess aren't wabi-sabi, for example. Dolce & Gabanna is not wabi sabi at all. Definitely not Valentino. But Margiela can be, and you could put up a good argument that Rad Hourani has some wabi in him.

The important thing to remember about wabi sabi is that it evolves from something new, it comes from destruction and be a kind of rebirth, but one that happens all the time. It's an aesthetic, not a clothing trend like "tribal" or whatever, it's larger than clothes and is more of a mindset on how to live your life. To put it in more "official" words, Richard R. Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, summarizes by saying "It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

So I know I didn't go in depth into every possible designer, but I think this post is already long enough and I think it gives an ok introduction to what I think wabi-sabi means in fashion. I haven't gotten quite into the gritty details of japonisme (and the poor aesthetic that wabi-sabi can be accused of being), but I'll save that for another time I think. Hope I didn't bore you! x.