EARLY THIS YEAR, on a stage in Paris, a silent figure stepped under a spotlight. She was wearing a double-layered honeycomb-net skirt made of red organza, her hair twisted into giant ram’s horns. She was part Alice in Wonderland, part monarch painted by Velázquez. To the sounds of an unearthly accompaniment sung by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, she began to move like a clockwork doll that had become possessed by some demon force within her. She bent, strained, writhed, all with a blank gaze that suggested hypnosis. Then she returned to the darkness and was joined, behind a red velvet curtain, by other intricately imagined live figurines: regal humanoid insects, birdlike soldiers, characters with hats borrowed from 15th-century Flemish nuns.
This was Jun Takahashi’s fall women’s show for his Tokyo-based label Undercover, a new utopian society unveiled in 10 separate, ornately dressed tribes: ‘‘aristocracy,’’ ‘‘young rebels,’’ ‘‘monarchy’’ and ‘‘new species’’ among them. Takahashi is not quite an enfant terrible — Undercover celebrated its 25th anniversary two years ago with a major exhibition in Japan — but this stunning spectacle seemed the start of something: a culmination of an aesthetic that has, season after season, become increasingly elaborate and unconventional, but above all, sophisticated.
Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, had admired Takahashi for years before she began to collect his work for a 2010 exhibition at FIT entitled ‘‘Japan Fashion Now.’’ Then, she says, people were familiar with — if somewhat reductive in their thinking about — the Japanese fashion revolution of the ’80s and ’90s, but they knew little about what had transpired since. Takahashi ‘‘was one of the most exciting things happening in the 21st century,’’ and this, she says, is his moment of transformation. With the medieval references in his fall show, he created, Steele believes, ‘‘a Bruegelesque fantasia’’ that felt both apocalyptic and relevant to the present moment. In taking spectacular theatrical risks, reminiscent of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, Takahashi doesn’t just look forward, but backward as well, to a seemingly lost era of fashion showmanship.
Backward and forward: It makes sense for Undercover, which has always had something of a split personality. In Japan it’s largely known for streetwear (slogan T-shirts, hoodies, parkas) rooted in the outlandish youth culture born in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood in the early ’90s, a profile that stems mostly from Takahashi’s co-ownership of a beloved store in Harajuku called Nowhere, which he opened in 1993 with a school friend, Nigo, who founded another cult label, A Bathing Ape. This early incarnation of Undercover was a precursor to Takahashi’s collaborations with Supreme, Nike and Uniqlo, and to a moody, cement-and-glass flagship store in the wealthy residential Aoyama neighborhood. Internationally, however, Takahashi is known for something quite different: as the spiritual protégé of the Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, and for the unfettered creativity of his shows.
Takahashi himself feels his strength lies somewhere between these two leanings. Though he has made handbags in the shape of brains and coats built from layers of black felt skulls, this latest show revealed a level of drama unusual even for him. ‘‘I’m not interested in fashion shows where the models just turn up. What I want to express through a show is my perspective on the world. I want to really move people,’’ he told me. ‘‘I need such periods but I also need to balance them out with clothes that are more wearable,’’ he added. ‘‘Otherwise it’s not a business.’’
TAKAHASHI’S OFFICE is above his four-story atelier, tucked into one of the bustling, warren-like Harajuku back streets. The pattern-cutters work in the basement, and at certain times of day there’s a considerable amount of scurrying up and down the black metal stairs, as cutters with pincushions fastened to their wrists and tape measures looped around their necks present their work to the master for approval.
Takahashi greets me in the large room where he works, surrounded by personal talismans. There’s a pair of huge ’60s speakers and a wall full of vinyl. There are large art books and fat sketchbooks from past collections on neatly organized shelves. A vintage krautrock cassette is on display next to a page taken from an ancient anatomy textbook, and on the wall behind his desk is a portrait he once painted of John Lydon with his face scrubbed out. ‘‘I drew his eyes at first,’’ Takahashi tells me with a glance over his shoulder, ‘‘but it looked more complete without them.’’
Slim, slight, a little phlegmatic, Takahashi, who is 47, reclines into the sling of a midcentury leather chair. Initially, it was suggested that we conduct the interview during one of his thrice-weekly 10-kilometer runs. (I declined.) From time to time, he places his fingers to his forehead and splays them, as if pulling out an idea. The phase he’s in right now, he says, is the most nerve-racking. It’s early June, he’s just produced a men’s wear collection, and he’s supposed to come up with an entire women’s collection to show in September. He’s running late, and so far he’s drawn a blank.
‘‘Are you ever worried you’ll run out of ideas?’’ I ask, and he shrugs.
‘‘I’ve been doing it for so long I know that something will come up,’’ he says.
Takahashi’s nickname is Jonio, after Johnny Rotten, whom he channeled in his youth as the lead singer in a punk tribute band, the Tokyo Sex Pistols. Along his forearms there are spiky tattoos, an ethnic motif, he explains, taken from his first show in Paris in 2002. Tattoos, with their connotation of gangster culture, are frowned upon in Japan. ‘‘They’re banned in some places,’’ he says. ‘‘You can’t go to certain public baths with tattoos, and I have to cover them up whenever I go to my children’s school.’’ (His daughter is 15 and his son is 10.) This detail is an example of the way in which he has always calmly straddled two worlds — the avant-garde and the family home, the street and the runway — that might seem at odds with one another.
Takahashi grew up in a small town in the Gunma prefecture, a rural area about two hours’ drive north of Tokyo, where his parents ran their own office-cleaning business. ‘‘There’s nothing there,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s a plain surrounded by mountains.’’ But the town itself, Kiryu, has been famous since the eighth century for its textile manufacturing: Its silks, lace, embroidery and tapestries were all exported to the West. In front of Takahashi’s house there was a factory — ‘‘I always heard the sound of weaving’’ — and beside his school was a river where fabrics were dyed.
This had no particular impact on him as a child, he reflects. What he loved most was drawing: monsters, robots, nightmares. But decades later, when designing his spring 2005 collection, he wanted a pink-and-white silk trim in the shape of teeth and had it specially made in Kiryu.
As a teenager, he watched Japanese movies (the actor Yusaku Matsuda, an action hero who became known in the West for his last role, in Ridley Scott’s ‘‘Black Rain,’’ was a particular favorite of his) and listened to British pop and punk — the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, David Bowie. He often left the quiet of Kiryu for the energy of Tokyo, to roam its record stores, and there he became interested in fashion — not the clothes themselves so much, but what they were communicating. The late ’80s, he says, ‘‘was the last period when music and fashion were still linked, I would say — mods, punks, rockers, hip-hop. Once you saw a person’s look, you could tell what kind of music they were into. They were like tribes.’’ Although he was a punk, he loved all acts of rebellion. ‘‘The people who were on the edge of the world, looking in — those were the people I felt I matched. I was twisted, you know? I’m not so much anymore.’’
When I ask if there was a particularly Japanese lens through which he saw these modish imports, he says, ‘‘I guess so,’’ but feels that how he integrated what he saw and heard was based more on his own tastes than his national character — personal prisms being more relevant than cultural ones. To some extent, these kinds of distinctions, between East and West, are undetectable — Western culture has long been embedded, interpreted and augmented in Japan. The films of Akira Kurosawa are indebted to — and go beyond — those of John Ford, and the same could be said of the novels of Haruki Murakami and Raymond Chandler. If you ask Takahashi whether the theatricality of his shows bears the influence of any particular Japanese tradition — Kabuki, to name one obvious example — his face twitches, just enough to suggest that the idea is a little lame, before he rejects it altogether. After all, if your upbringing was colored by krautrock, Kabuki doesn’t come into it.
Nevertheless: No matter how much the young orange-haired Takahashi looked like Johnny Rotten, the effect of watching him, on YouTube, sing lyrics from ‘‘Never Mind the Bollocks’’ in Japanese is bracingly surreal to an English-speaker. And while Takahashi loves Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries label from the ’70s, his own version of its spikes and slogans bears more than a touch of manga. Looking through images of dozens of sketches and pictures from almost every Undercover collection since 2004 with him, one is able to recognize that they’re not just imaginative, but also very funny. There are dresses that eat other dresses, waistbands with intestines spilling out of them and jackets that look like they’re made of cracked paint or peeling wallpaper.
‘‘That’s horrible,’’ I tell him as he points out the intestines.
Takahashi looks pleased.
ON HIS UPPER ARMS, above the jagged tattoos, Takahashi has others. On one arm, in swirling English script, is the word ‘‘chaos’’; on the other, the word ‘‘balance.’’ ‘‘That’s hard to get,’’ he says, looking down at each tattoo in turn. If some of Takahashi’s shows are reminiscent of McQueen’s, it seems important to remember that there is, by contrast, a whimsical and sometimes even seriously hopeful quality to his dark vision. In the groupings of his fall women’s show, the lace-crowned ‘‘choir,’’ white-horned ‘‘agitators’’ and green-jacketed ‘‘soldiers’’ inspired awe. Then came the so-called ‘‘new species,’’ somewhere between insects and humans, clad in black and somewhat threatening. The view became momentarily ominous. And yet the show’s subtitle was ‘‘A new race living in Utopia.’’ The impression was magical but the narrative open to interpretation: How were these mute creatures populating their world, exactly? ‘‘The story was based on the idea that everyone has a right to live equally,’’ Takahashi says. ‘‘There is an aristocracy and a monarchy, but they are not in a position of dangerous authority at all.’’
We walk downstairs to look at the fall collection up close. Pink satin sleeves suggesting huge rose petals are draped across a hanger, next to a bustle made of ostrich feathers. There are diamanté spiders, and gold bees with human faces. The monarch’s ruby dress stands at the far end of the room, grand and embellished, like the ghost of Elizabeth I. One of the most arresting pieces, though, is a simple, pretty blue chiffon blouse hanging by itself on a rack. For all the artifice and fantasy that Takahashi conjures, he makes plenty of normal clothes as well, and there’s a curious intimacy to the fact that alongside all the gestures of deliberate rebellion, he knows how to make something so breathtakingly lovely and as delicate as skin.
He shows me the original drawings for each item — detailed designs that diverge not at all from their results. Each season, he is methodical: His sketchbooks begin with shoes, because they take the longest to make. The system was borne of necessity, not creativity. ‘‘I don’t want to begin with shoes,’’ Takahashi says plaintively.
Next he pulls out a black jacket with an ’80s-style peplum, and another with two kimono folds down its back.
‘‘What kind of insect has wings like that?’’ I ask, as I stroke the strange pleated articulations across the black satin.
‘‘Maybe some cockroaches?’’ he replies.
It’s very Takahashi to identify the individual even in a fiction: Certain cockroaches may share these traits, but possibly not all.
AFTER SCHOOL in Kiryu, Takahashi went to Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Yohji Yamamoto had gone there in the late ’60s, Tsumori Chisato in the mid-’70s and Junya Watanabe in the early ’80s. ‘‘I had assumed there would be gorgeous, crazy, interesting people out there,’’ he remembers. ‘‘I thought there would be a lot of music lovers like me. But it was totally different. All the girls wore body-conscious dresses. It wasn’t my style.’’
Instead, he ventured into the city, finding his place in nightclubs and the music scene, and in the theatricality of everyday life. Before he’d even graduated, he’d launched Undercover. It was a different trajectory from the one young fashion-school graduates typically took, in which you might get a job as an apprentice to a great Japanese designer and work for him or her for years until you struck out on your own. (Watanabe took this path in working for Kawakubo. So did Chisato, with Miyake.) Takahashi also broke with tradition aesthetically. This was 1990, the height of Japanese minimalism, an era defined by monotone, cerebral fashion, avant-garde ideas and the sculptural silhouettes of Yamamoto and Miyake. Takahashi’s work was, from the start, fresh, rough, singular.
Five years later, he met a fashion show producer named Yoshio Wakatsuki. They were introduced at a nightclub by a mutual friend 10 days before Takahashi was due to show Undercover’s third collection. Wakatsuki was working for Rei Kawakubo, and had staged shows for Issey Miyake, but he understood that Takahashi was fundamentally against the system. The economic bubble had just burst in Japan. ‘‘It was like a fall from paradise,’’ Wakatsuki reflects. Into this territory walked a person he immediately recognized as a new kind of designer. ‘‘He had a way,’’ Wakatsuki says, ‘‘of reading the era.’’
Undercover’s early shows were run guerrilla-style, in warehouses and parking lots, with friends turning up to model, many of them drunk and argumentative. The press was relegated to the back row, while Takahashi’s cohort of fans sat in front, on the floor. Wakatsuki had never seen anything like it — the setup or the clothes themselves. For instance, he says, some of the shoes were covered in dripping paint. ‘‘I’d seen something like that effect before, but the designer just coming up and dripping paint right then and there? I’d never seen that. If he wanted something shorter, he’d just cut it — no hem. New knitwear would be delivered, and he’d cut into the neckline and make holes. It was so shocking to me. I really felt the power of it.’’
Takahashi, Wakatsuki says, never trusted fashion people. It may be more accurate to consider Takahashi as less a fashion designer and more an artist, with an artist’s varied outlets and preoccupations. The fact that it’s possible to buy and wear the associated merchandise seems almost like a coincidence. For his spring 2009 collection, in lieu of a show, Takahashi made a photo-book that contained a sci-fi tale about a colony of furry cyclops dolls. (The dolls, which he made by sewing clumps of vintage teddy bears around table lamps, are in his office. In their christening gowns, they look like the love children of Miss Havisham and E.T.) He has used the basement of his office, where the pattern-cutters now work, as a music venue; Patti Smith once played there to an intimate crowd. He has designed a whole collection in tribute to the Surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer; for another he dressed his models in men’s-style suits with ties, in homage to the ’60s jazz pianist Bill Evans. In 1974, Evans recorded a live album with the saxophonist Stan Getz titled ‘‘But Beautiful,’’ a phrase that Takahashi has used in the names of several shows, including his most recent, which was entitled ‘‘But Beautiful III, Utopie.’’ You might say that his entire body of work was created to preface that phrase: daring, dark, comic, wild, (insert your preferred adjective), but beautiful.
One of Takahashi’s regular collaborators is Katsuya Kamo, who oversees all the hair, makeup and creature-like headgear for his shows. When I visit Kamo, there are layouts for his forthcoming book pasted all along one wall of his workshop: the pleated helmets made from industrial carpet he created for Junya Watanabe, the white paper roses he embedded in crowns for Chanel. But his most outrageous work by far is for Undercover: masks with feathered wings, mesh face-coverings that glow in the dark, white rabbit ears, dried hydrangeas, wild thorns that look like prehistoric fangs.
When I ask to see some of the finished pieces, Kamo rummages around in boxes that seem mainly to contain raw materials. (One is labeled ‘‘insects’’; two others are labeled ‘‘plants’’ and ‘‘human hair.’’) There is a crown of thorns, plants that look like antlers and a desiccated red parrot. Most of it has been scavenged from the local park, he explains. He also strikes deals with taxidermists.
‘‘The last time I sent an assistant there, they wouldn’t give him a bag,’’ Kamo recalls, sounding baffled. ‘‘It was for a black crow, just dead. He had to bring it back trailing blood — and he was wearing white.’’ The crow’s feathers were used to make larger, human wings in an Undercover collection; they terrorized Takahashi’s staff because Kamo had left some flesh on them, and the smell became unbearable. ‘‘It was quite smelly,’’ Kamo admits. Then he adds: ‘‘But beautiful.’’
ONE AFTERNOON, Takahashi sits at a long table while various items from one of his men’s diffusion ranges, JohnUndercover, are presented to him for a styling check. There are men’s shirts, made in calico, with fabric samples alongside them. Takahashi puts on a pair of glasses, and proceeds to line up different button options next to the samples. Where a pleat is missing beneath the yoke, he draws a sketch to correct it. When the shirts are done, there are screen-printed T-shirts, then jewelry — pendant necklaces, hanging from black silk cords. Takahashi oversees everything: two women’s wear shows a year, two men’s wear collections, his Nike collection, three diffusion lines. His company is independently owned, and the responsibility clearly weighs on him.
Despite his workload, he is strict about his hours. He leaves the atelier every evening at 7 p.m. and has dinner with his children and wife, Rico, a former model. Takahashi takes weekends off, even right before a show. ‘‘It’s so ordinary!’’ he says.
But Wakatsuki thinks family life is key to Takahashi’s success. ‘‘I can give you some incredible information,’’ he tells me. ‘‘His parents go to Paris every season, and sit in the front row — they’ve never missed a show.’’ His younger brother, who has taken over the family business in Kiryu, now comes to Undercover two days a week to help manage the business, a skill Takahashi confesses he lacks. His daughter has started modeling.
Wakatsuki recalls that Takahashi has occasionally been inspired by his kids’ toys. His fall 2003 collection, ‘‘Paper Doll,’’ featured knitwear with little white tabs attached to the clothes’ edges, as if they were cut out of a book. That black coat made from layered cutouts of felt skulls from his fall 2005 collection was influenced by a child’s bulletin board with felt shapes you could stick to it. Takahashi himself thinks that he hasn’t changed fundamentally — though he adds that ‘‘every day, I strongly feel that I should have more self-awareness as a father.’’
‘‘My first impression, when I saw the Tokyo Sex Pistols, was all about punk,’’ Wakatsuki reflects of Takahashi’s rebellious early days. ‘‘But since he met his wife and had children, I’ve felt his creative power. What’s at the heart of him is still a punk attitude. Anti-establishment sentiment — that’s what he wants to show. But he’s more dreamy, more playful, softer. Love,’’ he says. ‘‘That element is becoming stronger and stronger in him.’’