“My entire body of work should and can best be perceived by observing all of the garments that are presented each season,” the Japanese designer Junya Watanabe says. One of contemporary fashion’s most inventive minds, Watanabe is also one of the shyest. Pas mal: in the era of the fashion designer as tabloid megastar, such a rigorous focus on the clothes alone is admirable. Not that Watanabe inclines to the polemic; he is simply polite and reserved to the point of cryptic silence.
A graduate of Bunka Fashion College, Watanabe was in his early 20s when he entered the Comme des Garçons family. It was 1984, and he has never left. Initially working alongside his mentor Rei Kawakubo on the Comme des Garçons Tricot line, his big opportunity came in 1992 when, in an unprecedented move, Kawakubo gave him carte blanche within the Comme infrastructure, and launched the Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons collection. The following year Watanabe began showing in Paris; he added menswear in 2001. An instant darling of the fashion press, he has been awarded Tokyo’s prestigious Mainichi Newspaper Award twice, in 1993 and 1999. Japan remains his home and work base.
Watanabe approaches menswear with the calm concentration of a genetic manipulator. Hybridisation is his primary design tool. He observes and interprets Western style codes with the free eye and uncontrived sensibility of a fascinated outsider. Pillars of men’s wardrobes, such as five-pockets jeans, dungarees and duffel coats, are literally deconstructed and their debris reassembled, in a sort of semiotic frenzy, into new, mutant species. In his stubborn dedication to rewriting the basics, Watanabe often collabo- rates with other, classic brands—Levi’s for jeans, for instance, or Tricker’s for brogues. Americana and Britannica are constant sources of inspiration: he has famously created collections around themes such as hunting and fishing, Riviera chic, jazz and, most recently, gardening. Nothing is as expected, however: proportions go astray; surprise details create a new balance. Watanabe’s iconography is both classic and totally off-kilter. He pays homage to tradition only to turn it on its head.
Watanabe is both a realist and a dreamer. However layered and inventive, his creations are as beautiful to look at as they are easy and functional to wear. They are presented with poetic shows that make you weak at the knees. This season he used a luxuriant garden as backdrop; previously he has placed benches on the catwalk and played snippets of casual conversation over the sound system. Yet all of this is deployed solely in the pure-minded service of the clothes. “My ideas and feelings are strongly distilled into the collections and the garments I create” Watanabe concludes. “I believe that providing further detail and explanation in words would not lead to more profound insight, but rather, obscure the focus that should be placed on the garments themselves.”