Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Undercover (2006)

Jun Takahashi is the essence of Japanese cool, from his hanging curtain of hair to his black boots with tiny silver spoons tied to the laces.

"I found them in Clignancourt," says Takahashi, referring to mustard spoons winkled out of the Paris flea market, from where many weird and wonderful objects have been brought to his Tokyo studio.
The big square space, with the designer's spindly black-and-white painted images on the walls and only a single strip of daylight from a window high above his head, is filled with oddities: a kitschy, big-breasted nude statue; a giant, vomit-green alien toy; a wooden shrine stuffed with flowers; a bust of Lenin; cases of butterflies; and walls of the stuffed animals that he makes obsessively, even the night before his latest Undercover collection was shown in Paris in March.
That show was striking, even shocking, as Takahashi covered every piece of the models' bodies from head to toe, including complex, mummified masking of the faces.
"Why did I cover everything up?" the designer asks. "There was no reason, except to efface all feeling, like a destroyed doll. It was not about bird flu or some deep meaning. It was something aesthetic - I wanted to envelope them."
Takahashi, 37, with his label Undercover, is a powerful new fashion force whose disturbing romanticism and eerie poetry have earned him plaudits and become the foundation of a growing business. In May, the latest store will open in Taiwan, following Hong Kong in January and the Tokyo shop established in Aoyama in 2002.
You recognize an Undercover store because it is just that: an enclosed space. The windows in Aoyama are blanked out with the shop's neatly folded stock. In the Hong Kong store, artificial flowers fill the window space and broken bed springs serve as a backdrop. Undercover designs can also be found in fashion stores such as L'Éclaireur in Paris or London's Dover Street Market, owned by Comme des Garçons.
What about the clothes? They are beautifully crafted and pretty in a weird way. The spring collection, shown at the crumbling Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris, had layers of tablecloth lightness, with insides spilling out as if from a doll's stomach. Another show had feathers intricately cut out in felt. For winter the wrappings included a white jacket bandaged with ties, the headpiece decorated with rings and chains where eyes and nose should be.
The mood of Undercover is expressed in two words that are part of the identifying label: "But beautiful."
"In my head, there is always something beautiful and something ugly, which are equal," Takahashi says. "Simple beauty does not interest me. But just ugly does not interest me either."
Takahashi graduated from Tokyo's Bunka college in 1991 and set up his business two years later. His first retail step in 1993 was in a shop called Nowhere, where the space was divided between him and Nigo, the designer who went on to create Tokyo's hypercool A Bathing Ape store.
In 1994 the first Undercover collection was shown in Tokyo, with a Paris debut following nearly a decade later in 2002. Takahashi says that his beginning styles were street and punk and that his current style just evolved.
"There is no reason to think about it - it comes naturally," he says. Ask Takahashi if these layers of intense decoration make him a maximalist and he says that he tries to be a minimalist.
"It is not a question of appearances - it is more about a feeling," he explains.
His notebooks for each collection are fantastical collages juxtaposing flower bouquets with an image from Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" or wallpaper designs with spotted toadstools and manga images. They suggest a creative artist at work.
And the works on the walls prove that Takahashi is just that. He shows the tiny paintbrush with which he and his fellow Japanese artist Madsaki created the surreal scenarios, like disturbing fairy tales. They were shown last year in art galleries in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
"Perhaps in five years I would like to be just a painter," Takahashi joshes.
Right now he has been elected as fashion's new king of cool. Last year, he was tapped by Canon to create an Undercover limited-edition digital camera case. He is guest editor of Antwerp's hip A magazine, published in June.
After 12 years in business, his fashion dreams are modest: to open a store in Paris - or at least to be able to afford to put his team for the Paris show in a hotel with a bath.
"And I would really like to make everything by hand," he says. He has crafted objects since he was a small child - long before he made strange soft toys for his daughter Lala or used them to decorate the stores. Some of the creations are scary: stuffed animal heads mounted on the wall like hunting trophies, their heads reduced to half-bared skeletons.
The designer describes the Undercoverlab, designed by the Klein Dytham architectural group in 2001, as "chaos." But like the apparently chaotic shows, you know that the studio reflects a creative world.
"You enter into the universe of the interior - I am surrounded by objects - and I don't go out a lot," he says.

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