Designer Profile: Junya Watanabe, The man, the mythology.

One of the most enigmatic characters in fashion, the Japanese creator Junya Watanabe doesn’t think of himself as one of the great designers of nowadays fashion, nor is he very aware of what his peers are currently working on. He’s process of creation may seem abstract and non-traditional, but the fact remains that, despite his unconventional approach and his reluctance to publicity, his singular imagination turned his namesake label into a global fashion influence.


By Diana Colcer

Junya Watanabe in his Tokyo office. Photo credit: Jamie Hawkesworth.

As we all know, the word “craftsmanship” refers to the person behind the craft. By contrast, the Japanese word “monozukuri” is formed from the words “mono” (thing) and ­“zukuri” (to make, to manufacture, to grow) to convey into a meaning which quite philosophically states that individual behind the craft is subjugated to the act of making. It is a term which Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, one of fashion’s foremost thinkers nowadays, has used a lot lately, when describing his innovative, sometimes even radial designs. And it seems a pretty appropriate term for a creator who often extracts himself out of the context that promotes his creations — much like his early years mentor, Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo, he’s rarely granting any interviews, doesn’t like to get personal or to appear in front of the public, doesn’t even discuss his work all that often, as if, once they’re unleashed into the world, his stunning creations don’t even belong to him anymore, but to the eyes and hearts of the seers.

Looks from Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2019 runway fashion show. Available to shop at Entrance. Photo credit: Imaxtree.

Well, let’s get the facts, then. At one glance, the basic information about Junya Watanabe is easy access. Born in 1961, in Fukushima, central Japan, the notoriously individualistic Watanabe studied at world renowned Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo — the alma mater of designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Kenzo Takada — graduated in 1984 and began his career as an apprentice pattern-maker at Comme de Garçons. His mother had owned a small made-to-order shop, which “may have been an influence” in his decision to start creating clothes, as he states in an interview for T Magazine. His avant-garde aesthetics quickly distinguished him among all others and he became the unofficial protégé of iconic Rei Kawakubo, who, back in 1992, offered him the opportunity to launch his namesake label under the Comme des Garçons umbrella. This is how he gained international critical acclaim for his conceptual disruptive designs, pattern manipulation, experiments with cutting-edge fabrics, inventive tailoring and draping and the amazing use of synthetic materials. However, his relationship with his equally enigmatic mentor doesn’t seem to have been all that fulfilling — though he’s famous for his cryptic statements or the complete lake there of, he has managed to reveal some startling facts about Kawakubo. “Sometimes, i would like a little more feedback. Criticism would by better than silence”, he told US Vogue in 2006. It would appear that in more than three decades they had known one another, his mentor never praised him properly or offered him direction. “My idea of something being beautiful or aesthetically pleasing is completely different from what Rei Kawakubo’s vision of beauty is”, he told the New York Times style magazine in 2016. “I didn’t end up working right alongside Kawakubo because perhaps she felt that I had a different vision of my own. Maybe that’s why we parted, in terms of creating something that was different.”

Junya Watanabe in his Tokyo office. Photo credit: Jamie Hawkesworth.

However private and reluctant to share personal beliefs and convictions, the fact remains that his singular imagination turned his label into a global fashion influence, shifting people’s ways of thinking or relating to fashion and “dumb” clothes — as he refers to the trench clothes, biker jacket and white shirt he’s always reinventing. In a industry where it is common practice to let yourself be inspired by the cultures of the world, historical periods and music genres, Watanabe’s designs have a rare ability to seem quite unique, like stuff we’ve never seen before. To name just a few ways he turned the ordinary into the extraordinary, in 1999 he rain showered his collection mid runway to show that the fabrics reversed to become waterproof; in 2001 he practically elevated denim cu couture paving the way to many designers to come; in 2006 he gave new dimensions to the trench, an item considered dates and classic. It’s hard to imagine any designer nowadays trying to reinvent those items without having in mind what Junya Watanabe did first.

Looks from Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 runway fashion show. Photo credit: Imaxtree.

Long before Vêtements built an entire empire around collaborations, Junya Watanabe worked with some of the most recognizable names in fashion — Converse, Puma, Levi’s, Tricker’s, Pointer, The North Face, Brooks Brothers, Lacoste and many others — usually trying to make the most of the different technologies the other brands have to offer. As for his own collections, he often uses just one fabric for one collection, in an approach that’s almost scientific, like the dissection or the cataloguing of the various forms that material could take. Some of the resulted designs are invariably mad, in the sense of highly abstract, but he moves forward with mathematical precision and, oddly enough mentions Pierre Cardin and Issey Miyake as early influences — i’m guessing, thinking about Cardin’s similar obsession for geometric forms or Miyake’s refusal to step into the footsteps of his predecessors and create clothes that were simply form fitting. Oftentimes, in reviews and interviews, people refer to Junya Watanabe’s designs as Japanese — but what do they really mean? Do they feel a real connection or, quite contrary, they’re pinpointing a difference? What people mean of when they say “Japanese” or “with a Japanese style or taste”, might simply refer to that mysterious cultural and philosophical distance between the West and the Far East, that unique, enigmatic “otherness” that seems to float, like an ever-present aura, over all the designs that come from the Far East. But the fact is that, apart from that obvious distinction, there is a real otherness to Watanabe’s designs. And it is an otherness which refers to a utter, unmistakable removal from the norm, while maintaining the general functionality of the garments.

Interesting backs: Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 runway fashion shows. Photo credit: Imaxtree.

Watanabe described his process in a rare insightful feature published by T Magazine in 2016. “It all begins inside my head,” he says. “I start to look for strings of ideas that interest me. From then, I put my ideas to words. I work alongside my pattern makers, trying to put my words into creating and actually seeing it come to life. Photographs, artist’s work, anything that may seem relatable to what I am speaking about,” he says. “After looking at visual elements, they start to craft. After creating pieces and little constructed elements, then I start to think about the relationship of these pieces with the body and how it could be formed onto the body … all these ideas, little by little, they form garments, clothing. Then I create the collection.” It is probably not the traditional way designers typically work, as his approach may seem more abstract, but he says he doesn’t consider himself one of the big designers nor is he familiar with their current work. Instead, based in Tokyo and keeping himself mostly isolated from the major capitals of fashion, he acts as his own universe of reference. “I don’t know how others see fashion, but to me fashion is creating something, creating something new through clothes. However, to this day, I feel that I haven’t quite been able to portray the new. That’s something constant that I’m trying to work towards.”