Tuesday 26th December

| BY Richard Gray

Best Of 2017: The United Congregational Church Of Junya Watanabe


Junya Watanabe doesn’t really give interviews. Or at least rarely. “Send all questions to Paris first,” said the PR. “We’ll send them to Tokyo after that.” If Paris are the PR gatekeepers, Tokyo is high command. Every question you send must count because not every question gets an answer. All fashion samples are “super- limited”, as are tickets for the shows. Access to Watanabe’s design process is nigh on impossible.

Over the top? It’s not. This very tight system aligns the right people with the brand and absolutely nothing, ever, is left to chance. Thus the house maintains the godlike status Watanabe holds among his fans. And if Watanabe is God, then Dover Street Market is St Paul’s Cathedral.

It’s really warm in London on the third Saturday in June, and Dover Street Market is busy but not mad. A woman with a chain-strap bag worn high and crossed left to right is trying on a floral, vintage- looking frock that’s a bit “fabulous Little House on the Prairie”. She’s about 45 and needs a dress: there’s a big do “at Tate Modern”.

Our lady is typical of the customer who comes to Dover Street Market once, twice monthly to pay their respects and pull at the latest Junya bits and pieces. She’s here to shop, but also likes to inspect things.

I’ve seen this routine before with Junya people. Comme fans are the same: customer walks up to rail and picks up dress. Dress is held high and the line of the dress is thoroughly inspected. Customer stares at dress, seeing something only she can see and then stares a bit longer. To see this relationship between lady and dress is to understand the cult that surrounds a man whose designs have come to represent something that’s more than just shopping for frocks. Watanabe’s influence is everywhere. His clothes have a personality.

Is she a big fan? “Junya and Comme, bits of Céline.” Our lady won’t give her name but l’m allowed to say she “works in the art world”. “I feel special and it makes me brave,” she says. “That sounds silly, but she knows exactly what I mean,” and she nods to a nice woman behind the counter. The woman at the counter nods back. And you’re nodding, too, I suspect, because you also know what she means.

The lady at the counter says all kinds of people buy Junya: “Grayson Perry came in yesterday.”

What’s interesting about these Junya people is their wish to convey a sense of intelligence in their choice of clothes. It’s not about status: there are no logos nor obvious labelling. Nothing says “expensive” or “designer” or, God forbid, “flashy”. And wearing Junya is certainly – certainly – not about getting laid.

Clothing at this level is, at least, about expression. It’s about signalling a belief in culture and art and not so much, but also, in fashion. I’d bet money in the Dover Street donations box that one Junya fan has the same interests as another. It’s a sisterhood of successful women and a nod of recognition in Dover Street Market.

If his congregation is about expression, his designs are about the very new. Strange, then, that in a rare interview with us, getting to grips with what’s next is something the designer finds a struggle. “The challenge of finding new things, for me, is a very difficult task,” he says. “Whether [the new] is important or not depends on each individual’s aspiration. I am demanded to do so in making collections by the company [Comme des Garçons] as well as the customers… It’s not an easy profession, but interesting.”

This hunger is something that has propelled Watanabe through his career since he graduated from Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College in 1984. He’s been described, at various points, as “Comme’s new hope” and “Kawakubo’s promising new protégé”.

Throughout his three decades as a designer, Watanabe’s avant-garde creations have become a holy book for intricate pattern work and forward- thinking garments. Like many designers, his pursuit of the new often references the fashions of the past and he has an interest in the clothes and looks of British youth tribes of the second half of the 20th century. His particular skill of first dissecting and then reissuing is unparalleled in modern ready-to-wear.

Last autumn, in a rigorous study of men’s fashion last seen 40 years ago in the post-industrial cities of the north of England, his models wore flares and parkas, some with solar panels sewn into the back. Leads able to charge all manner of modern electronics and mobile phones could be plugged into these panels. The daring of a designer who reissued a uniform associated with drab coal-dependent cities to which he had added totems of clean and renewable energy was not lost on Watanabe’s more knowing fans.

And for his current womenswear collection, entitled Medley of Forms, he returned to one of his favourite eras: punk. These punk codes and more were passed through the pattern room and given that “Junya look”. Scraps of tartan and leopard-print fabric became many- sided shapes, which in turn became jackets built into fascinating and future- like forms. These jutted away from the body. The patterns on these fabric shapes, says Watanabe, came from a haul of secondhand clothes and sofa fabrics the designer bought on a trip to London’s Portobello Market 25 years ago, the same fabrics that also inspired his first ever collection. “I started this season [AW17] as I departed my first one.”

To illustrate the punk look, models wore fishnet tights and crayon-coloured cropped wigs with overly shaded brows or cheekbones. Watanabe calls these complex hair and make-up looks “necessary elements” that “make the collection visually convincing”. The simple objective of backstage, he adds, is that “everybody understands my idea for this season”. It’s typical downplay. Anybody lucky enough to be invited to a Junya Watanabe show will speak in the most hallowed terms about the clothes, hair and make-up they witness. Or not. Sometimes, things are just so overwhelmingly beautiful or unlike anything you’ve ever seen, it can take days to decode. Most make an appointment for a re-see at the brand’s Paris headquarters, an essential step in understanding and appreciating the precise work of the studio. Hidden in many of the jackets is a series of discreet stitches, which act like cotton scaffolding – this stitch network allows the jackets (alongside new and innovative fabrics) to hold the geodesic shapes in place. The look is softened with draped dresses and prim blouses worn with boots with enormous heels.

“I believe my work is to express whatever I feel like doing at each moment,” he says. “Whether that is trendy or not has nothing to do with my work. Trends are born after we make something.” In the end, our lady bought that floral dress and a biker jacket. “I like fashion and clothes,” she says, “but there comes a point when you want something that’s a bit more elevated. You know what I mean?” Then she nods her head in our direction.

Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…

Photograph by Junji Hata