Kyoto Costume Institute

The miracle of form and dimension

By Bonson Lam    - 3 min read

Cloth is a two dimensional piece of material. All clothing starts life like this, whether on a sketch pad or a cutting from a roll, and so it is a miracle of creativity to transform it to a wearable item.

At Kyoto Costume Institute they showcase a number of designers who went the other way and deconstructed fashion back to two dimensions. Whether it is clothes that fold into a flat rectangular sheet like reverse origami, or the use of manga to inspire flat two dimensional patterns, visiting their exhibits is a journey from the simple to the complex and back again, as well as from the adult to the childlike. Jun Takahashi, in his Undercover collection in 2007, designed a fluffy bright red dress that looked very feminine, but when you look closely, it is actually dozens of skull patterns stitched together.

At the same time, it is amazing how humble and unobtrusive some of the artisans are, despite designing items of showmanship. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons rarely gives an interview, never sits at the front of the catwalk, and lives what she believes to be a very ordinary life. When asked for a showing of her workshop, she merely replied that it is just like any other workshop, only more boring. Maybe she was recalling the time when her fashion debuted in Paris in the 1980s, to a press who didn’t understand how baggy black clothes can be considered fashion, and labelled her work as holocaust chic and likening it to the aftermath of a bomb explosion. Her ability to explore what is new and conventional continues despite the passing of time, with a catwalk display of two models walking into a rain shower, to showcase waterproof fashion. The two models then turn their clothes inside out, showing a totally different design on the inside.

These days, however, her fashion is given prime space in cathedral like facilities around the world, with The Future Beauty – 30 years of Japanese Fashion exhibit touring Europe and Australia, its final stop at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane.

The concept of space or ma is widely explored at the exhibition. It is space between the clothes and the person, as well as the idea of shadow and light. References to nature and space abound. Some of the items look like a tree with swaying leaves, where you get a dappled feeling of shadow and light, like the sunlight bathing through the autumn leaves. The shadows that the clothes themselves cast are as magical as the clothes themselves. On the other hand, the unadorned nature of the clothes, made purely from natural fabrics, remind me of the texture of washi paper. Beauty in many handicrafts, from pottery to textiles, is as textural as it is chromatic.

While the fashion here is mainly displayed on mannequins, some are also hung on a wall, like a painting. Many designers here are also interior designers and painters, and some have played in punk bands. So is fashion art after all?

Getting there

The institute is a three minute walk from Nishioji Station.

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Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from JapanTravel.com. Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us. 

Join the discussion

Tinka Weener 3 years ago
Thank you very much for this article. I found this very interesting and I would love to visit this now!
Bonson Lam Author 3 years ago
I hope you can visit Kyoto soon! Whilst you are there, make some time to visit some of the art galleries, and there is a strong link with fashion, art and design at Takashimaya Department Store as well. For example, if you look closely at Taro Yamamoto’s art and design, you can see a connection with Rinpa art, which reached its pinnacle under the talented guidance of Kamisaka Sekka in the 19th century. Like Yamamoto, Sekka worked closely with Takashimaya, which has been a patron of fashion and art for over a century.
https://en.japantravel.com/kyoto/kyoto-takashimaya-department-store/2695
Bonson Lam Author 4 years ago
Kyoto Fashion Institute was named no 2 behind the V & A Museum in the top 10 fashion museums of the world. Keep an eye out for their special exhibitions, some of which are on tour in other museums. I am sure the debate between form and function will continue for many years to come.
Yui Yamaguchi 4 years ago
Some clothes may not be practical to wear, but it'd be interesting to see them as art.
Diana Vardanashvili 4 years ago
I'll visit this museum!!!
Bonson Lam Author 4 years ago
Akiko Fukai, the chic curator of Kyoto Fashion Museum, would be a great person to ask about the intersection between art and fashion. Having studied art history, she is not your typical academic, but one that weaves Western and Japanese sensibilities in everyday life.