Read anything about Jun Takahashi — the owner/designer/embodiment of UNDERCOVER — a term that comes up a lot is ‘outsider’. From iterations of gothic punk, to rehashing 25 years of his ‘greatest hits’ in men’s streetwear for Spring 2016 (with a significant injection of Star Wars), to fairy tale nymphs and Victorian maidens in crowns of thorns and horned hats, UNDERCOVER has established itself as the one to watch at Paris Fashion Week.
Always inflected with a captivating duality, Jun is most at home in a swirl of chaos and beauty – there is a pair of sneakers in the current Fall 2016 Men’s collection ‘Instant Calm’, with the words ‘Chaos’ and ‘Balance’ etched on the left and right sides respectively; the sneakers, much like UNDERCOVER itself, lives in the space between those two opposing stances. While his efforts of decades past presented a more hard-edged aesthetic, stemming from a punk/rebellious worldview, his couture has matured into an elegant, wildly imaginative output; all at once sinister and playful, sensual and surreal and always with a hint of humor.
“Clothes have meaning. Otherwise, it’s just cocktail dresses and bags — and that’s not interesting,” says Jun in an interview with Business of Fashion late last year. It is a belief emblematized in the brand’s motto — ‘We Make Noise, Not Clothes’. “In my work I want to express not something merely pretty or cute, but to find something behind it. I think it’s very human.”
“I take that cute teddy bear and I give it a bit of a shock — that bit of violence. The combination is something that gives it real beauty. I am not denying beauty, but presenting it in a different light.”
UNDERCOVER began in 1990, as a humble graphic t-shirt line while Jun Takahashi was still a student at Bunka Fashion College. It was sold out of the now iconic NOWHERE store he set up with Nigo, the founder of the cult streetwear label A Bathing Ape (incidentally, NOWHERE was resurrected as a pop-up store inside London’s Dover Street Market for a couple of months in 2009).
As a student in years past (whilst sticking it to anachronistic teachers: “I was questioning about learning ‘design’ from teachers who were much older than me. So I told myself that I would learn only techniques in the school, nothing else.”), his life changed when he saw his first Comme des Garçons show. “I was so impressed. It convinced me to think of fashion design as being completely free in creative expression. With her work [Rei] Kawakubo said [that] it doesn’t matter if it’s avant-garde or street: creativity is creativity.” With an iconoclastic/irreverent streak towards conventional norms and ideas, UNDERCOVER dismantled the divide between the street and the runway long before the current epoch of luxury streetwear. UNDERCOVER is acclaimed for both its graphic t-shirts, venerated by teenagers, as its conceptual runway pieces. Its radical approach, is in part, due to Jun taking a more unprecedented step of first creating a more couture-inclined womenswear line, and then boldly going up against and alongside the fashion establishment. This was a significant departure from the accepted progression for the Japanese streetwear labels, whose brand extensions was only supposed to extend to music and sportswear.
On the distinction in UNDERCOVER’s couture: the menswear is simply the clothes he wants to wear, while the women’s as a more conceptual, abstract proposition. Jun asserts, regardless of a garment’s price or complexity, he imbibes everything he creates with equal creativity, which appears to be conjured from the boundlessly expanding, imaginative, warped UNDERCOVER universe that is his mind.
Looking at Jun’s output for UNDERCOVER over the years, and its raison d’être-based approach in doing so, it isn’t surprising at all their interests are not strictly limited to haute couture. His shows have been frequently described as “punk performance theatre”, professing he “was more interested in designing graphics than clothing”; UNDERCOVER has always expanded its thinking outside of the confines of fashion and clothes-making, and that has enabled them to take on projects in their own idiosyncratic way, inside and outside of fashion.
His accessories are often totally sculptural, totally eschewing conventional forms of what leather goods should be, his shows are extensively visually baroque illustrating a lush, universe that his clothes and characters inhabit. He has done collaborations with Japanese toy maker Medicom to make sculptural objects from the GILAPPLE lamps to the ‘Hamburger’ lamps (an apple with a classically-styled headlamp embedded in it; and a collectible lamp fashioned after a hamburger character that sports large cartoon eyes and fanged teeth, respectively), to depressed versions of iconic Sanrio characters like My Melody and Hello Kitty holding GILAPPLES.
As a painter himself, Jun finds inspiration in paintings and often enough they make their way onto the clothes itself. In ‘Instant Calm’ — the dark, grotesque, Renaissance Flemish-esque paintings of Belgian artist Michael Borremans inspired the collection — a black parka emulates the subject in Borremans’ ‘Black Mould’ (and in a meta-shift, the painting itself is emblazoned on the fabric). Notable examples: from his Women’s Ready-To-Wear Spring 2015 collection, his inspiration and sampling of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1503) was front and centre, to, in the words of Nick Knight’s SHOWStudio website: “For Spring/Summer 2016 Jun Takahashi re-appropriated Nick Knight’s image ‘Paint Explosions, 2015’, creating a limited edition leather blouson jacket”, to his massively revered/sought after crossover collection with New York’s eminent Supreme, where the painting of Nicolas de Largillière’s ‘Étude de Mains (A Study of Hands)’ (1715) is featured in an all-over print on a hooded sweatshirt/shorts set. The painting currently hangs in the Louvre.
Late last year, UNDERCOVER held a massive retrospective exhibition to celebrate its 25th anniversary at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery that ended its run just before Christmas, without plans for an international tour. While other brands and labels would take the opportunity to revel in the pomp of not just surviving, but prevailing and still uncompromisingly flying the flag for its ideals — characteristic to the brand, it was a genuine, subtle and low-key affair and not capitalised as an opportunity to extoll its brand values or expansion. In the introduction from the show’s catalogue, Jun Takahashi mused that he set his label up “with little consideration how this may shape my future”. His humility and earnestness has been at the heart of the history of UNDERCOVER — this third show in Tokyo in 1995 was named ‘The Last Show’ as he asserted when he started, his goal was to continue for least three seasons. This exhibition is titled ‘Labyrinth’ as, in the words of Jun: “it feels like I am groping in the dark and wandering in a labyrinth with no end in sight”.
Coming off a super busy period; just off showing at Paris Fashion Week, a 25-year anniversary major retrospective ‘Labyrinth’, to the upcoming monograph UNDERCOVER released on Rizzoli in the past month (with the cover art painted by the man himself) — we sit down with Jun to find out what holds the UNDERCOVERISM universe together.
When did your love of fashion start, and how did that lead to UNDERCOVER?
Since I was in elementary school, I think I was always selecting what I want to wear by myself and I wrote on my graduation essay “my dream is to become a designer”. After graduating from high school, I entered Bunka Fashion College. While in school, my friend and I designed t-shirts and started UNDERCOVER.
How did the name UNDERCOVER come about?
I wanted to make the brand image to be suspicious and secretive.
You have frequently mentioned that duality is something that holds an allure for you; “We’re human beings — perfection is not cool.” What is it about chaos, the diversity and multiplicity of opposing factors that captivates you; what does beauty mean to you?
Human beings have several faces regardless of being good or bad. When you accept all those, you can find it attractive. Diverse and multifarious chaos; that is beauty to me.
Much like the ethos of the brand “We Make Noise, Not Clothes.”, when did you realise fashion could channel charged ideas and feelings?
By the time I realised, I was already making things in a way you say (that I am charging feeling and attitude into clothes). It’s totally natural to me.
Are memories, nostalgia important to you?
Sometimes it is necessary to look back over the past. When the amount of experiences from the past increases, it helps with creation.
Could you tell us more about your artistic process?
It depends. Often I expand my ideas from what I was feeling at the time, or I get inspired from music, movies, or art. Other times, I want to do something different from the last collection. Or I want to carry on the same theme from the previous season, but expand the ideas even further. Fundamentally, I try to be honest with what I am feeling all the time.
What is your daily routine like?
My working hours are perfectly scheduled. In that way, there is no wasted time and it makes things easier for me. Also our staff can work based around that schedule too. I think scheduling is a very important thing to do.
Your collections have incorporated the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Michael Borremans before. Does art — painting in particular — hold a fascination for you?
It is extremely fascinating. I do paint myself, too. I believe painting goes well with clothing designs.
Who are some of the artists you’ve looked up to/are interested in right now?
There are so many…
Your runway shows always feels dramatic and immersive, almost like theatre and performance art — are narratives and stories something you think about in your work, when designing a collection and then presenting it?
I am not interested in shows at which models are just walking. I always consider a show as entertainment and I sincerely hope that people feel emotional through my shows.
Your collections seem to have evolved with you over the years, the outwardly punk-aggressive aesthetic scaled back to a steely, dark elegance currently. How do you see yourself now, compared to when you first started out?
You are right. If you ask me whether I have matured as a person, I don’t think much so, but I am certain what I make has evolved. The words such as ‘punk’ and ‘aggressive’ don’t appear on the surface anymore, but they are rooted in all my designs.
Could you tell us more about your need to create and your stance on money — you see it as a means to allow yourself more freedom and the opportunity to drive your vision further?
I guess I was born with this characteristic. I show my value of existence to society by creating something. I appreciate that there are many people who feel sympathy with what I make and it gives me a sense of satisfaction.
You design literally everything — from the clothes, the advertising campaigns, right down to small collaterals even, not dissimilar to what Hedi Slimane is doing at Saint Laurent. He says recently of his approach: “Every single detail seems important. It is about consistency… It is quite overwhelming to design all those elements, but if the house wants to keep a distinct voice there is no other choice.” Is it something you think about as well, keeping the vision of UNDERCOVER distinct and consistent?
I totally agree with Hedi.
What’s the end goal?
In terms of work, I don’t know yet. But at a personal level, I want my family to live peacefully.
Do you think living Tokyo influenced the way you approached your practice in general? What draws you to the city on a personal level?
A mix of various things. That is the originality of Tokyo and that is what attracts people.
You’ve talked before about the music of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Led Zeppelin and the effect it had on you. Why do you think music continues to have such an important influence on your life and your designs?
I don’t think those bands alone (Sex Pistols, The Clash, Led Zeppelin) influenced me that much. I always get influenced by many more various genres of music.
What do you feel about Punk as a cultural force today? In the past teenagers, embraced punk rock, in order to escape and respond to their surroundings. Do you feel it is relevant to keep the attitude alive now, more so than before, as we experience a flattening of perspectives with people striving for generic, sterile perfectionism in current contemporary visual culture?
I always want to keep in mind that I continue to challenge stereotypes. Nowadays especially, I do feel the tendency that everybody has to be the same and I am completely against that. Everyone should insist on their individuality and have a right to do so.
I wonder if you’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.
From the standpoint of the general public, I believe I am an outsider, but I am an outsider with common sense.
What’s next for you?
In creation, I just keep pushing myself.
This article was first published in Art Republik.