Two traditional Japanese worldviews applied to fashion: Wabi-sabi & Ma


“I have no desire to make the perfect garment. If one seeks perfection, one should enter the world of Haute Couture. The real thrill lies rather pursuing the art of wabi-sabi, the attempt to grab the tale of a slippery living, that brings a serene melancholy.”
--Yohji Yamamoto

Wabi-sabi is a compound noun which tries to capture the essence of Japanese beauty, denoting the beauty of a vast array of traits such as imperfection, decay, simplicity, irregularity and authenticity as described by Itoh Teiji in his eponymous work ‘Wabi Sabi Suki’. ‘Wabi’ stands for a “refined and elegant simplicity achieved by bringing out the natural colours, forms and textures inherent” in natural materials such as wood, stone and clay, “as well as in artifacts created from them”. As such, wabi comprises both the notion of natural beauty, unsullied by human interference, and artificial beauty arising from human craftsmanship accentuating the inherent characteristics of nature. ‘Sabi’ denotes “beauty that treasures the passage of time, echoing the original meaning of the word: rust or patina”. It describes the charm brought on by the inevitable decay of everything; it describes the evolution of the beauteousness of materials, both organic and non-organic, as a result of the passing of time, marching ever on towards entropy.

The idea and spirit of wabi-sabi - albeit never explicitly described - had existed for decades, if not centuries before, considering the vast ties with the Zen Buddhist concept of impermanence and perpetual flow. However, the embodiment of the term and its most illustrious figure in Japan is often considered to be Sen no Rikyu, who lived from 1522 to 1591. As a young man he studied the art of tea in his native town of Sakai and through his then-tea master he came under the guidance of renowned chanoyu teacher Takeno Joo. Legend has it Takeno Joo subjected Sen no Rikyu to a trial which consisted of tending the master’s garden. Rikyu dutifully removed any litter, raked the ground to perfection and cared for the plants, but before presenting his work to his master, he shook a blossoming cherry tree to randomly scatter the petals on the ground. That insight into how natural, chaotic beauty and manmade, perfectionist beauty perfectly harmonize, cemented his place as the grandmaster of wabi-sabi.

On the global scene wabi-sabi translated to a new fashion trend, one typified by elements including, but not limited to: frayed and irregularly stitched hems, torn garments, functionless buttons, asymmetry and contrasting colours. Those deconstructivist elements are omnipresent in the early works of the two famous and decorated designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, who were inspired by the story of Sen no Rikyu. In her 1981 showing in Paris, Kawakubo challenged the western ideals of beauty by presenting the uniqueness of wabi-sabi, exhibiting sloppily dressed models begrimed with drab warpaint bombastically striding onto the catwalk accompanied by the unrelenting beat of drums.

Due to the novelty of her work, in her early years Kawakubo was a highly controversial figure, but later became to be considered as one of the most influential designers in the history of fashion, inspiring countless other designers to incorporate wabi-sabi elements into their own creations. One such designer is Martin Margiela, who, like Kawakubo, considers deconstructivism and imperfection to be the pathways to true authenticity. Margiela often goes even further above and beyond in his quest for that true authenticity, exemplified by his collection fashioned from secondhand clothing and scraps, a provocative challenging of the common understandings of fashion.

Figure 1&2: Collection of 'Comme Des Garçons' by Rei Kawakubo

MA (間)

I like to leave a notion of blank space- what we call ‘ma’ in Japanese. I think it is the space that gives my clothes the Zen feeling.
--Yohji Yamamoto

Traditionally, Western fashion assumes the human body to be the only logical starting point with the challenge consisting of trying to create a veritable second skin, accentuating the body’s shape, around a three-dimensional body with two-dimensional fabric. The modern Japanese interpretation of fashion goes radically against this idea and uses a new, liberating third dimension, almost camouflaging the body behind jutting out shapes, intentionally avoiding conventional notions of gender and fashion connected to it. This relatively new perception of fashion is called 'ma', roughly translated to 'space' and 'gap'. The already stated practice of covering the body with irregular shapes of fabric harkens back to the kimono, which is traditionally created by fitting a big, leftover scrap of cloth over one’s shoulders and then tailoring the loose flaps, edges and hems to make a robe like garment. Despite Kawakubo and Yamamoto’s reluctance to describe their homeland as their main source of inspiration and their outright refusal to imitate traditional Japanese clothing items, they both see the philosophy behind the kimono as the foundation of their work and the essence of 'ma'.

Another Japanese designer heavily inspired by the kimono is Issey Miyake, known for his collection “A Piece of Cloth” where he soberly covers the body with a single, very large strip of fabric and uses the leftover, loose parts to fashion extravagant decorative sleeves or headscarves, sometimes spanning several metres. Additionally, he tends to use very modern, often synthetic and Japanese-made, materials such as polyester and innovative construction techniques, allowing him to make some of the most fantastical clothing items of the 1980’s.

Kawakubo and Yamamoto have presented their own takes on the idea of the kimono in the mid-1990’s. In his kimono collection of 1995, Yamamoto brings tribute to both the traditional Japanese garment and European fashion of the 1950’s and 60’s. He based her work on the general shape of the kimono, but used lightweight materials, floral patterns and garish colours and shapes, evoking the style of the European renaissance and baroque movements.

Even outside of Japan, the versatile beauty of the kimono to this day remains an important source of inspiration. The designer duo A.F. Vandevorst embraces the Japanese fashion icon by replacing the Western custom décolletage, instead favouring a bare neck which fills this suggestive role in Japanese fashion. A unique role is reserved for Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, better known by only their first names, Viktor & Rolf. Their names are intrinsically linked with sculpture-like designs with a complex fitting of the fabric, hiding and embracing the body, best shown in their 2013 fall-winter collection called 'Zen Garden', where they captured the essence of 'ma' perfectly.