Undercover Man

Japanese fashion designer Jun Takahashi wants to make noise, not just clothes.

FLORENCE - There is something oddly beautiful about a mutilated teddy bear, at least when the gutting is done by Jun Takahashi, a young Japanese fashion designer whose label, Undercover, has achieved a cult international following. On a balmy Florentine evening in June, Takahashi stood on a platform on top of a hill overlooking the entire city, ripping into the white plush toy with large tailoring scissors. His two assistants fussed around a half-made man-size doll, while a DJ, accompanied by a musician playing a synthesizer paired with a strobe light, spun hard-core industrial music. An audience of about 100 sat on the grass, mesmerized, their heads bopping to the music, the women no longer caring about their evening gowns and thousand-dollar five-inch heels that had already been damaged climbing up the steep ill.

Live doll-making was part of a show Takahashi put on during Pitti Uomo, the largest international menswear fashion trade fair, which takes place in Florence. Every six months, hundreds of exhibitors, buyers and fashion journalists mingle at the expo set in Fortezza da Basso, an old bastion in the historic city center. For all its beauty, Florence can sometimes feel as though it's crumbling under the weight of its own Renaissance history. Pitti Uomo brings an air of the contemporary to it. Each time, a special guest designer is invited to present his collection. This serves partly as entertainment, partly as a boost to a fair mostly catering to the sportswear market. But an invitation from Pitti is also a barometer of designer's popularity.

Using these fabrics for fall and winter allowed Takahashi to create extremely lightweight garments that withstand harsh weather conditions. In his idiosyncratic fashion, Takahashi paired these high-tech materials with beautiful knitwear and flawless tailoring. The results are quite stunning - uniquely crafted garments on the outside and complete body protection on the inside. A particular standout article displayed in his Paris showroom was a dark gray wool women's blazer lined in c_change fabric (complete with a neat thermometer that monitors the wearer's temperature hidden on the inside of the jacket). The techno-fabric tantalizingly peaked through at the garment joints, piquing one's curiosity about what's inside. This was not your Mom's ski jacket.

High-tech fabrics

The Spring/Summer 2010 men's collection, presented in Florence, continued the form and function theme. The collection, called "Less but Better" was based on the work of Dieter Rams, an iconic German consumer products designer. The title was a rough translation of Rams' design philosophy, "Weniger, aber besser," relating to a kind of minimalism of design where all superfluous details are eliminated in order to bring out the object's usability.

Takahashi was born in 1969 in the small town of Kiryu, in the Gunma Prefecture, into a middle-class family. When he was 18, he enrolled in Tokyo's Bunka Academy to study fashion. He was highly influenced by punk rock by then and formed his own tribute band called the Tokyo Sex Pistols. It was through punk that he first came to fashion. "I was influenced by Vivienne Westwood's early designs," says Takahashi, sitting in a dining room at his hotel in Florence. "She showed that punk fashion can be aggressive, but at the same time elegant and sexy; that it's not just about sticking safety pins into leather jackets and putting holes in your T-shirts."

Takahashi is notoriously reticent, and even though we are sitting next to each other, he wears dark glasses. He speaks through an interpreter, who is also his public relations manager, although he understands English perfectly. But despite his imperviousness, one can almost sense the myriad of thoughts bubbling in his mind. At Bunka, Takahashi met Nigo, another infamous fashion program graduate who went on to found a cult streetwear label called "A Bathing Ape." In 1993 they decided to open a store in Harajuku, a happening underground culture neighborhood in Tokyo. The store was called Nowhere, and it was the first outlet where Takahashi sold Undercover goods, mostly T-shirts.

Edge and elegance

Harajuku has long been an epicenter of Japanese fashion, especially street fashion. If a designer made it in Harajuku, he made it in Japan. All one needed was to catch that elusive sense of street cool. Takahashi was successful at it, partly through his band and partly because he had good friends in the Harajuku scene. One of them was Hitomi Okawa, the owner of Milk, an iconic Harajuku boutique. She introduced Takahashi to people in the magazine world, and took him to the Comme des Garcons store. Seeing the complex tailored garments made by Rei Kawakubo, already an established designer showing in Paris, made quite an impression on Takahashi. He decided he wanted to make something more interesting than just graphic T-shirts.

The 1990s were a quiet time in terms of new Japanese talent getting global recognition. Although Harajuku was going through a creative explosion, it was still mostly a streetwear market that rarely mixed with designer fashion, and Tokyo designers did not seem eager to export their creative vision overseas. Going from Tokyo to Paris was a challenge Takahashi imposed on himself. "I thought I reached my limit in Tokyo and I wanted to see what people outside of Japan would think," he says.

When asked what sets him apart from his Western counterparts, Takahashi says the only difference he sees is that he is able to mix a variety of styles, both from Western and Eastern fashion, the way he and other Harajuku designers have always done. He is not weighed down by sartorial tradition, unlike some of his European counterparts.

Also, Takahashi's audience in Japan is different to that in the West. "In Japan, my work has been known for a long time," he says, "but in Europe and the U.S. it is still relatively fresh." His customers in Japan are street kids who love his idiosyncratic T-shirts. In the West, his clothes sell as high fashion items in niche boutiques. Of course, in Japan, Takahashi's clothes are also more affordable. European and U.S. customers pay about a 40 percent premium over the Japanese markets, mostly due to transportation and customs duty costs.

Takahashi's first conceptual hit in Paris occurred in 2003, when he sent sets of twin models down the runway. One twin wore regularly cut clothes, and the other one wore the same clothes, but in distorted, elongated cuts. The show had a strong visceral impact, suggesting that in each of us there lurks something twisted. The two sides of human nature has always preoccupied Takahashi and is often evident in his work. "I like to present the light and the dark sides of life," says Takahashi, "because I think the world is like that. It is not only beautiful, but ugly as well."

To push this point further, Takahashi tackled accepted notions of beauty in his next collection, titled "But Beautiful." Not that Takahashi is in the business of making ugly things - his clothes are quite beautiful in themselves. But he wanted to show he is not interested in mere prettiness; that there is always something macabre lurking in the background of beauty. "But Beautiful" became a theme. And, of course, the name of the brand, Undercover, is there to show that Takahashi is not interested in the superficial and the straightforward.

Takahashi's work is reminiscent of Kafka's writing in a sense; it takes the macabre aspect of the surreal and unceremoniously introduces it into real life. Kafka casually turns a man into a giant insect; Takahashi sends a gray felt wool bag in the shape of a human brain down the runway. Kafka sends Josef K. on a year-long futile battle for his life, only to be executed "like a dog," while Takahashi wraps his models' faces in fabric or puts sinister-looking masks on them so as to completely efface the human element.

That is not to say that Takahashi is another brooding, suicidal artist who spends his free time dwelling on life's calamities. As one becomes more familiar with Takahashi's work, the presence of the macabre becomes less off-putting, and maybe even endearing, like his dolls, which Takahashi calls "Graces." The dolls, like the one he made during Pitti Uomo, are menacing and cute at the same time. They grew out of his love of working with his hands. "If I could make everything by hand, I would," Takahashi says about producing clothing.

He has always made different types of dolls, combining existing toys, remixing and morphing them in his own way. Takahashi made the first Grace doll while working on an issue of a Belgian fashion magazine called A. The magazine devoted each issue entirely to one designer, thus allowing him to depict his world. The dolls seemed like a perfect embodiment of Takahashi's "But Beautiful" philosophy: Made of reconstructed plush toys, they had bicycle lights instead of eyes, but also wore cute white dresses and pearls. Takahashi continued making the dolls, which became a sort of a signature for him.

'Just hard work'

For the Spring/Summer 2009 women's collection, he eschewed the catwalk, and instead presented clothes on mannequins in a Paris showroom. The Grace dolls were part of the presentation, which also featured gorgeous photographs of the dolls in various settings. The photographs were eventually assembled into a book called "GRACE." Even though the photographs looked completely surreal and sci-fi, Takahashi's photographer, Katsuhide Morimoto, is proud to point out that there were absolutely no computer-generated images used in any of the photos. Instead, many images, taken at different times of the day, were superimposed in order to achieve an otherworldly effect.

"I wanted to express the Undercover world," Takahashi says, "and a book was a perfect format to do it in a coherent way, because it allowed me to tell a story." GRACE is the second book that Undercover produced. The first book, "The Shepherd," includes intimate, mostly black and white, images that document Takahashi's Paris tenure from 2002 to 2006. "I wanted the book to show a lot of what goes on backstage, what surrounds the fashion show. People think of the shows as these glamorous events and of backstage as the ultimate playground, but I wanted them to see that what goes on there is really just hard work."

Some pictures depicted the painstaking work that goes into making garments that sometimes may not look like high fashion at all. It shows how often one can be misguided by the surface of things, even when the brand in question is called Undercover. Showing away from the catwalk is another proof that Takahashi likes to do things in his own unconventional way. For the Fall/Winter 2009 women's collection he decided not to go to Paris at all. Instead, the Undercover team took the clothes and two models to the woods outside Tokyo. They used Mylar silver film for the catwalk, and photographed the models throughout the day. The results were visually stunning, with various degrees of daylight reflecting off the metallic catwalk, contrasting beautifully with the trees. "We all had to wake up early and leave at six o'clock in the morning, and were shooting in the woods until ten in the evening," recalls Takahashi, "but it was worth it."

Slowing down

So what is his next convention-defying project? "I want to change the fashion cycle," Takahashi says. "It moves too fast. The stores demand the clothes too soon, and it puts a lot of pressure on a designer's creativity. I want to concentrate on making the clothes, not on thinking about a delivery schedule. The Spring/Summer collections come into stores in January. By the time people get to wear the clothes, the novelty of them may wear off. I don't know how to change this cycle yet, but it's something I've been thinking about."

Another reason for slowing down is Takahashi's desire to spend more time with his family. He has a 7-year old daughter and a 2-year old son. Although Takahashi tends to be guarded in real life, he maintains a blog where he faithfully documents his life and work. The blog came about as an extension of a diary he used to publish in a Japanese fashion magazine. When the Japanese Web magazine, Honeyee, approached him about writing a blog, he agreed.

How does he reconcile his privacy with the online presence? "I get to control what I put on the blog, so I never feel uncomfortable," says Takahashi. "I don't put pictures of my family online." Instead, there are plenty of pictures of his work, of the events he goes to, and of his friends and co-workers. Even though today Undercover is a successful fashion business with an international following and a some 30 people on the team, Takahashi's crew in Florence looked like a bunch of teenage skater friends brought together by the same interests and tastes in music.

Takahashi incorporates elements of Smith's aura in his clothes. Each pair of Undercover pants and jeans has a small lightning bolt stitched below the left knee, a faithful reproduction of her tattoo. For the Spring/Summer 2009 men's collection, Takahashi stitched out the words from "Neo Boy" onto pants legs and around the front pockets of his jeans. Takahashi is also a big fan of the English post-punk band Joy Division. He incorporated the famous Peter Saville image from their "Unknown Pleasures" album into his Fall/Winter 20009 collection. The graphic, reminiscent of a repeated seismographic pattern, can be found on a backpack, an anorak, and as intarsia on a scarf.

The approach to designing menswear and womenswear differs for Takahashi. "Designing for women is more complicated - here I tend to be more imaginative," says he. "For men, I simply design things that I would like to wear myself at the moment." Looking back at the pictures of Takahashi taken at different stages of his life, one can easily trace this design philosophy. In 2002, Takahashi still wore his punk gear - heavy leather jackets, patchwork jeans, and boots. Today, he wears simple tops or T-shirts with obscure references, relaxed-cut cropped pants and sneakers.