Curator Valerie Steele and a Peek Inside FIT’s “Japan Now” Exhibit

FIT museum curator Dr.Valerie Steele talks about extending the "Japan Fashion Now" exhibit and the challenges designers face in an economy that's been struggling for two decades.

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A visit to FIT's "Japan Fashion Now" exhibit feels appropriate this week as Japan reels from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated its coastline and economy. We spoke with museum curator Dr. Valerie Steele, who says the exhibit "was so popular with young people" that FIT decided to keep its doors open months longer than planned. Pictured, a 1980s avant-garde look by Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garçons.
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Dr. Steele began working on the show two and a half years ago, when an Australian exhibit on street and subculture style inspired her to showcase not only "the big names" in '80s-era Japanese fashion—specifically Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto—but contemporary Japanese designers as well. Here, a modern skirted look by Yohji Yamamoto.
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Since its cerebral avant-garde beginnings in the 1980s (to which an entire room is dedicated at FIT), Japanese fashion has been hugely influenced by all things cute, specifically neo-Victorian "kawaii" or Lolita looks.
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When asked how she felt the Japanese fashion community was recovering from the disaster, Steele pointed out that "the Japanese economy has been struggling intensely for almost twenty years. The country's economy tanked in 1990 and has been hobbling along ever since. She says, "There is just tremendous creativity [in Japan], but for a long time it has been difficult for young designers to translate their talent into a living wage." Steele expects this condition to worsen in the wake of the current disaster. Above, contemporary looks by Issey Miyake.
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"I purposely arranged the exhibit so that, when you're in the first room with the high-fashion '80s looks, you can peek through the glass doors and think, 'Oh wow, Rei Kawakubo is using pink!'" Indeed, the transition out of the austere '80s and into flashy contemporary Japanese fashion is astonishing, with its explosive use of color and mixed-media.
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"Generally speaking, we [in the United States] could see after 9/11 that there was an immediate drop in retail sales because people were very much in an uncertain mood, and I think that for a lot of Japanese that's going to be a similar mood," explains Dr.Steee. "You don't know if something else terrible is going to happen, and so you don't really feel like shopping." Which makes exhibits like "Japan Fashion Now" even more important as talented young designers struggle to find their footing with a global audience and marketplace. Above, a gothic lolita ensemble by experimental designer h.NAOTO.
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