Who are the The Avant Garde Trio? 3 of the most Famous Japanese Fashion Designers!

Published November 19th, 2021

(NM Podcast Recap! S2E7)

One of the things Japan is famous for is its fashion scene. Japanese fashion designers conquer runways all over the world. In our Season 2 Episode 7 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we looked at theJapanese fashion triumvirate: Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo.

These three Japanese fashion designers are not only experts at seamlessly fusing traditional and modern, but they have unexpectedly made quite an impact on the Western fashion industry. You can’t really sum up Western fashion of the late 20th century without acknowledging the contributions by this Japanese avant garde trio.

This trio was repeatedly mentioned during my fashion school classes, highlighted for their unapologetic fusion of Japanese ideals in modern fashion. “Made in Japan” now carries a newfound prestige, and we have these fashion designers to thank for.

Here’s a recap of what we talked about Japan's avant garde power trio!

Yohji Yamamoto

The first fashion designer of the Japanese avant garde trio to reinvent Western technical and aesthetic values who we looked at is none other than Yohji Yamamoto. This pioneer of the 1980s Japanese New Wave didn’t, either. In fact, he studied law in university!

Now one of the most distinguished fashion designers of the industry, Yohji Yamamoto is known for his excessive usage of the colour black and the free-spirited concept portrayed in his crafty tailoring and androgynous silhouettes with a notion of concealing rather than revealing the body.

Yamamoto has his reasons behind the intentional usage of black, other than his perspective that black is a combination of colours. Black is modest and arrogant at the same time, black is easy and lazy but also mysterious. What’s better than black?

Yamamoto’s designs are made to be timeless, and instead of putting the garment on the body, he puts the body on the garment. A typical Japanese approach that is used religiously by Yamamoto is to start a design with fabric, rather than silhouette.

Apart from the dark, androgynous image he sets, Yohji Yamamoto is also especially famous for collaborations. Some might say he’s one of the first few designers who celebrates collab culture and gives access of high fashion to the masses. Y-3, anyone? This Adidas-Yohji Yamamoto collaboration that began in 2003 is one of the most successful collabs to this day, altering the perspective of menswear fashion and giving the male market an opportunity to play around with shape and movement just like the ladies.

Issey Miyake

Our next fashion designer is the one that has ruled the pleats trend for decades now. Issey Miyake was the first out of the three to showcase in France. Not only that, he was the first to restructure sartorial conventions, blinding in contrast to the conventional ways of Western designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel and Chistian Dior. Instead of obliging to the Western concept for women's clothing of fitted silhouette and exposure of body contours, Miyake proudly introduced loose and baggy designs, free of traditional construction.

And just like his compatriot, Miyake has roots deep in traditional Japanese design philosophy, which is evident in all of his creations, and converting them into fashion-forward, modern Western pieces. Miyake didn’t think of his lack of western heritage in the world of Western fashion as a disadvantage, but an advantage. He introduced a new definition of aesthetics, and not by creating aesthetics itself, but by crafting it into a way of life (iki kata in Japanese) — the garment flows where the body moves.

And to this day, Issey Miyake’s brand — even though the mastermind himself has retired — continues on the legacy of approaching garment construction in original ways, prioritising the user first. If you think about it, that way of doing things is more of a product designer’s approach — and it obviously works out. He did once say, “I make tools. People buy my clothes and then they become tools for their creativity.”

Oh, and remember when I mentioned at the start that Issey Miyake is the pleat master? He’s Einstein when it comes to original fabrics, and the whole pleat thing came from his most commercially successful collection to this date, 1993’s Pleats Please. Instead of going for the traditional method of permanently pressing pleats before cutting out a garment, Miyake did the opposite — he cut the garment out twice the size, put it together and then started pleating.

And that’s only one of his creations. Another one worth mentioning is A-POC, or “A Piece of Cloth”, which is a concept by Miyake and his team, involving a long tube of knitted jersey which one can cut without wasting any material. Now that’s fashion of the future.

Rei Kawakubo

The last of the three avant garde designers, but most certainly not the least, is Rei Kawakubo — also known as the founder of Comme des Garçons. She once said she never intended to start a revolution, but she did — and we all have no regrets. If I could sum up Kawakubo’s aesthetics into three words, it would be: monochromatic, asymmetrical and voluminous.

With that said, Kawakubo is similar to Issey Miyake — in a sense of focusing on perfectly imperfect cuts and asymmetrical lines in her designs — and also to Yohji Yamamoto — with the dramatic usage of black. I guess you could say that she ties the trio all together, making the Japanese avant garde aesthetics coherent, but still very much a broad category.

As Kawakubo studied art in university, her collections for Comme des Garçons weren’t based on trends, but rather artistic concepts which create designs of unorthodox silhouettes that use exaggerated amounts of fabric. These all play a part in offering women to look “like some boys''...

This is about providing comfort and mobility. But most of all, Kawakubo’s designs scream to the girls who don’t want to succumb to the wants of men, seduction, approval and all. Unlike Yamamoto and Miyake, Kawakubo’s designs play around with exposing the body without them being sexy.

And then we have Dover Street Market. Kawakubo and her CEO (who is also her husband) created the multi-brand retail store that was originally in London on...Dover Street. Now with stores all around the world, the idea of it is to bring people from everywhere into one beautiful chaotic space. They succeeded — established and up-and-coming designers are free to display and sell their works as they please. Kawakubo still remembers her Japanese roots though — Dover Street Market goes through tachiagari. While in Japanese it means “start” or “beginning”, for these multi-brand retail stores, it’s the revamping of the space and basically giving it a fresh start.

Vocab Recap

We used a few fashion-related Japanese words in the episode. Here’s a list of them:

Abanga-do (アバンガード) — avant-garde, a French term to refer to works that are unorthodox and experimental

Sekushi (セクシー) — sexy

Kuro (黒) — black

Koraborēshon (コラボレーション) — Collaboration

Puritsu (プリツ) — pleats

Iki kata (生き方) — way of life

Ifuku no kōzō (衣服の構造) — garment construction, ifuku translates to “clothes” and kōzō kinda means framework

Otokoppoi / otokomitai (男っぽい・男みたい) — to look like a boy, which is basically Kawakubo’s brand name

Feminizimu (フェミニジム) — feminism

Tachiagari (立ち上がり) — start or beginning


And that’s an intro to the ultimate Japanese fashion designer trio: the dark, androgynous and still sexy approach of Yohji Yamamoto; Issey Miyake’s revolutionary fashion concepts and construction; and Rei Kawakubo’s inspiring feminism in fashion.

I’ve only just scraped the surface of fashion in Japan, but if you want to know more about these three designers, give the full episode a listen, over at the Nihongo Master Podcast page!