Under the Covers
Twenty-five years ago, Japanese authorities considered street fashion a bona-fide social problem. The Takenoko-zoku rock & roll dancers congregating in Harajuku pranced and shimmied under constant police surveillance, and the slightest step out of line - casual lighting a small firecracker, or god forbid, a cigarette - often led to a brutal response from nearby local law enforcement officers. The concerted efforts of PTA moms and graying social critics, however, could not break the momentum of the Harajuku street fashion explosion.
Now that Japan happily and proudly exports designer clothing to the rest of the world, it is only fair that the heir apparent to the Japanese fashion dynasty has a foot in the teenage delinquency of the past. No profile, interview or article about Jun Takahashi of Under Cover has been able to avoid the words "punk" and "rebel" in his description. Certainly, Takahashi's work takes dangerous chances, shoots middle fingers to convention, and worries the faint of heart, but it would be a crime to bury Under Cover's creepy nocturnal beauty under the rigid dogma of punk rock. Jun Takahashi is conjuring up black magic and kicking up street grime to make his assault on the world, but the results never retread the slogans and postures of past rebellions.
Born in 1969, Takahashi spent a peaceful middle-class childhood in the rural town of Kiryu, Gunma. Somewhere in his teenage years, he discovered punk and fled to Tokyo on the weekends to scourge up artifacts from cheapo rock shops. The costumes accompanying his new favorite musical genre made him transfer his passion for drawing onto the fashion canvas. "I really liked the Sex Pistols' visual presence and sound, and I looked things up and found that Vivienne Westwood had done their clothes."
A family member suggested that if he wanted to study fashion he ought attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo - Japan's most prestigious fashion design academy. Upon acceptance, he moved to the big city and busied himself with the rigorous technical training of school and the insane underground nightlife. His friends nicknamed him "Jonio" after he started romping around as the singer of the Tokyo Sex Pistols. Although etched in his legend, the band was never a serious endeavor, and when I bring it up, he mutters, "I totally want to forget about that..." His night-time partners in crime included a freshman named Tomoaki (later to become "Nigo" and give birth to A Bathing Ape) and an older friend named Hikaru (later to start brand Bounty Hunter), who introduced Takahashi to a DJ and trendsetter named Hiroshi Fujiwara.
During his time at Bunka, Takahashi decided to start his own label - Under Cover. His time at school and wandering the world's largest fashion market had given him the skills and outlook to fulfill his punk fashion fantasies, but after graduation, he started to gravitate to a more sophisticated style. "A designer friend took me to the Comme des Garçons store one day, and I was just blown away. You can make clothes like this? They didn't teach you how to make things like that at school."
At first, Under Cover just sold small hand-made pieces to select shops, but in 1993, Nigo came to Takahashi with an interesting proposal: an investor wanted to give them money to start their own store in Harajuku. In April, the two 23 year-olds opened the legendary Nowhere shop in a empty section of Ura-Harajuku - with one side selling Under Cover and the other selling Nigo's pre-Bape curated import goods. The two youngsters joined with Hiroshi Fujiwara to do a column for street fashion magazine Asayan called "Last Orgy 3," suddenly making them media icons with a Midas touch. Fans lined up to buy every product they casually advocated each month. Things got so extreme that readers' polls started listing Jun Takahashi in the #2 spot for "Coolest Male" - something that made the young designer decide to drop out of the limelight. "I really hated it. I'm not a celebrity, and it got in the way of actually making clothes."
Instead, Takahashi concentrated on the Tokyo Collection and appeasing the ravenous hunger of his growing cult fan base. (He describes the average Under Cover customer as "Kind of weird.") While most of his patrons are male, Takahashi prefers his ladies line and focuses almost exclusively on it for his formal collections: "The ideas of the men's line are limited to what I would want to wear, real clothes. With the ladies' line, I want to do something bigger than that. Ladies' is where I can express my world view."
The opening of an Under Cover Ladies shop in Aoyama in 1998 gave reason for Takahashi's brand to escape from the makeshift partnership with Nigo and A Bathing Ape at Nowhere. Simply put, the two brands "had nothing to do with each other" - almost as if StŸssy and Issey Miyake had to share the small same retail outlet.
In 2002, Under Cover graduated from the Tokyo Collection and moved onto the international stage of Paris. Takahashi's chief motivator was Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons - a longtime supporter of the brand and Takahashi's hero. They first met at the Under Cover Aoyama store launch in 1999, but they had already been trading epistles for two years. "We had communicated by letter for a while. Someone from the CdG shop said that Ms. Kawakubo wanted a pair of our shoes, so I sent her the shoes, and I got a letter back. I sent out a reply, and then I would send her things I made that I liked for her to wear and I would get letters back." There are many similarities between CdG and Under Cover, but unlike Kawakubo, Takahashi does not seem to be pushing in formal avant-garde directions. He simply uses fashion as a way to give life to his own unique internal universe, a world that breathes an atavistic fear of the dark, the dread of medieval Christianity, the ghastliness of 18th century medicine, barren Western deserts filled with animal skeletons. The brand's name was meant to connote the conspiratorial and spy-like, but in reality, the clothing's atmosphere suggests a young boy hiding his head under the covers, out of fear for what lurks in the shadows of midnight.
The Paris shows have well displayed Takahashi's tender artistry of creating the perfect nightmare. His February show - "BBV (But Beautiful V)" for Autumn-Winter 2006-2007 - featured female models mummified within beautiful rococo arrangements, faces hidden under pinned fabric masks somewhere between Elizabethian female coiffure and Medieval protective headgear. October 2005's "T." took moody inspiration from 70s Krautrock: models appeared from a range of giant candles in billowing blouses created from old t-shirts while the soundtrack played Germanic analog synth squirts. One model boasted horns - like a female satyr or sculpted Moses - while others flashed corpse-like painted white breasts. March 2005's "Arts & Crafts" transformed his girls into plastic old men with felt hair and fake eyebrows. The most shocking thing you would see at a Under Cover show, however, is Takahashi himself: he is too nervous and shy to come out for to receive his accolades. This fortunately plays well into his myth and the brand concept.
The Under Cover office in Harajuku is a bit of Rosetta Stone for understanding the central vision behind the often disparate yearly collections. The walls are cluttered with stuffed-animal trophy heads, Surrealist readymades à la Dali, Patti Smith portraits, a series of eerie fuzzy sculptures with doll hands and Cyclops flashlight faces, a collage of famous blondes, gnome puppets, a white phallus, and rocking horses with identities concealed by black bars. Naked John and Yoko peek at you from an open door. Takahashi works from his desk in the corner, no different from those of his employees. With such a modest and quiet demeanor, the first time visitor would surely be confused to which person is the King. His appearance certainly matches the Under Cover image - the jagged tattoos and long hair make him look like a Prince Charming of Darkness. But his careful speech never veers into self-aggrandizement. Talking over a table with Cluster LPs trapped under the glass, Takahashi says, "Everyone expects me to be dark and quiet, but I'm pretty normal, right? I mean, I'm dark. I like dark things, but..." He reconsiders, "Well, I'm not especially perky either."
Takahashi is now sitting down to plan out his next Paris collection for fall and continue his steady global expansion. Besides the thirty-three stores (ten directly-managed) selling Under Cover in Japan, the brand now has sixty-six stores supplying fans in twenty-three countries. Under Cover has also come together with Hysteric Glamour to create the Zamiang gallery underneath the Ladies store and make a special T-shirt for Japanese pop group Kishidan - who have revived early 80s yankii teenage delinquent fashion. Although Takahashi was never a yankii back in Gunma, he seems to fundamentally respect all forms of youth rebellion. This explains why in recent interviews he always seems a bit troubled by the sloth and hackneyed tastes of the Japanese Gen Y. The kids up in Harajuku these days just don't have the passion and fire to piss off the complacent police force and push things in new directions. "The cops aren't going to move unless something super crazy comes along. Whatever that would be, I'd even be scared of it." Unclear if this new generation of dangerous fashion rebels will appear, but I bet you Jun Takahashi will be pleased.
copyright W. David Marx, 2006