FASHION FLASHBACK: JAPANESE DESIGNERS

I am sure by now everyone is aware that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s next costume exhibition will feature Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, only the second living designer to be so honored, the first was Yves Saint Laurent.  CDG is a most interesting choice not only because the creative genius behind the label is extremely reclusive but the designs have always been controversial, in many cases, very extreme sometimes unwearable (until you look at the individual pieces!) There has been and will be numerous articles written about the upcoming exhibition, which opens on May 4th and runs through September 4th, with the Party of the Year on Monday, May 1st. In the meantime, you can see some of Kawakubo’s genius displayed in the Merce Cunningham exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, but you must hurry it is closing on Sunday, April 30th.

imageA shot from the Merce Cunningham exhibition featuring some pieces from Comme des Garçons designs for one of the Cunningham magical dance pieces.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the designer, the Fall 2017 collection nor the exhibition obviously I haven’t seen it. What I wanted to talk about today are the Japanese designers I have worked with over the years.

First up, Hanae Mori.

imageRichard Avedon photograph

I worked with her in the 1970’s at a show to benefit the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society, always the first social event of the fall season and always a black tie evening event.  We, Saks Fifth Avenue, Chicago, had produced this event for many years (actually it was the first major show I worked on when I started in the fashion office and we showed the Sophie of Saks Collection for many years until she no longer designed). Mrs. Mori was the first designer after Sophie that we featured.  I remember she and her husband, Ken,  were staying with hosts in the Northern suburbs and I went to their home to meet the Moris.  They couldn’t have been more charming and gracious.  Mrs. Mori spoke very little English, her husband translated for her.  The collection we featured was bold in color and pattern, most certainly inspired by the Japanese culture, the kimono, and flowers, all done in silk.  All her fabrics were woven, printed and dyed especially for her and the Japanese symbols of feminity…butterflies and flowers…were used extensively in her prints which you can see in the two photos illustrated below.  It was truly magnificent and very well received by the audience.  She was the first Japanese woman to show on the runways in Paris and New York, in 1977 she took her couture collection to Paris and was the first Japanese woman to be elected to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

imageLooks that would have been in the Show.

imageBarbie in one our her especially made designer gowns, this evening costume from Hanae Mori.

imageKenzo in the 1970’s. Photo credit unknown.

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imageYou can see the joyous color combinations and mix of print.  Very innovative for the times.  Look at today’s fashion and THE look is a mix of pattern and colors…everything old is back again!

Kenzo was a huge designer in the early 1970’s and we were very excited that he was coming to Chicago to present his collection.  At the time I helped style the interiors and windows as well as doing all the fashion shows and special events.  I loved dressing the mannequins and we had an amazing team headed by Joe and Alma Kreis.  Henry Callahan, the Saks Corporate head of Visual, was the BIG name in the world of display, (aka visual merchandising), he did the White House Christmas decorations for years and years and there was no one more admired (and feared) or talented in the industry.  Needless to say, when he came to Chicago we were all on our best behavior.  For some unknown reason, he had taken me under his wing when we opened the Saks Fifth Avenue store in the Old Orchard Shopping Mall and we would always go to lunch when I was in New York. To make this long story even longer, Mr. Callahan and some of his New York assistants came to Chicago to oversee the installation of the windows for the Kenzo visit.  We had many windows fronting Michigan Avenue (Saks was located at 669 North Michigan Avenue at that time) and we were featuring a very long (it went from one window to another) dragon to form the background for the extremely colorful prints that were a Kenzo trademark.  We must have worked on the windows for a week until everyone was satisfied that they would be showstoppers….which they were!  Again, Kenzo proved to be a gracious, fun-loving, hip designer of the swinging times.  The event was a huge success and garnered Saks a new contemporary client along with the established society women of the time.

imageThe playfulness of Kenzo at the beginning of his career.

imageA recent photo of the elegant Kenzo in front of his current love, painting, isn’t it glorious!

imageOne of my favorite books in my extensive fashion library.  How clever that you can choose one of the four prints.  Mine is the bold turquoise.

We were very fortunate, in Chicago, to have our own Japanese designers become superstars.  Noriko Nishi, was born in Japan and moved to Chicago when she married Dan Chuzo Nishi.  She had attended design school in Japan and continued her education at the Ray Vogue School of Design in Chicago (a story unto itself!!!) and made clothes for herself (a size 0) and her friends.  Unfortunately, her husband was killed in a car accident in 1970 leaving Noriko, alone with her son, Michael,  to start a career as a designer.  I first met her just before Saks started carrying her exclusively (in 1972).  She did her first shows in her apartment and did all her own floral arrangements which were pieces of art unto themselves and the invitations were all handmade origami, all of which were quite charming and extremely intricate. She was extremely talented and very shy.  I think the industry was overwhelming to her and she needed support and guidance to help her understand she was something special. As her career progressed and grew, I produced her shows at the store as well as various other Chicago locations and included her colorful designs with other designers in many other shows, I always loved to showcase our exclusive designer collections.  At the beginning, her garments were all silk matte jersey and her signature was trapunto detailing.  A bit later she added gauzy cotton, wool challis and silk crepe de chine.  All were very simple in look but very intricate in concept and the customers scooped them up. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of her or her garments, pity, they were amazing!!1

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I worked with Hino and Malee when they were with Noriko and then when they went out on their own.  Their esthetic was very Asian with clean lines, beautiful natural fabrics, and natural colors.  Extremely wearable and, to a merchant, very salable.

imageHino and Malee in their heyday.  They were devoted to each other and their designs were extraordinary.  Not at all contrived just plain simple and elegant.

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A dress from Hino and Malee photographed by the genius Victor Skrebneski!

What is this all about, it is about elegance, simplicity of line, joyful pattern, color and color combinations, (which the Asian eye sees differently that the Caucasian eye). It is about wearing clothes that are all about the person wearing the garment and becoming one with it, not the garment wearing the wearer…this has always been my personal code that I share with the Japanese designers, I have been fortunate to work with, a philosophy we all attest to.

One thought on “FASHION FLASHBACK: JAPANESE DESIGNERS

  1. Petra Slinkard May 5, 2017 / 2:51 pm

    CHM has an example of the first Hanae Mori you show (dress). Also, love the information on Hino and Malee. Thank you!

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