New Horizons

By: Eleonor Pomeroy

The world of 2016 is bearing witness to a steady process of international integration, with borders being crossed in all aspects of society, not least when it comes to fashion. In the wake of this progress, dichotomies such as traditional versus contemporary or fashionable, and non-western versus western can no longer be considered legitimate. This is the sentiment held by the members of the Fashion Research Network who attend the annual International Non-Western Fashion Conferences, and who represent the new generation of fashion scholars who are acknowledging the existence of different (non Euro-American) fashion systems.

One of those who contributed to the 2013 conference was Dr.Yuniya Kawamura, a Czechoslovakian research professor of Fashion Sociology in New York. She wrote that in her opinion at the time, fashion could be theoretically analysed from many different angles and perspectives. However regardless of how fashion was examined, it was often taken for granted that we were talking about Western fashion and not non-Western fashion or ethnic dress.

As this year’s conference approaches (in Antwerp, Belgium, on 24th-26th November), and 2016 draws to a close having played host to hundreds of excellent shows from emerging designers worldwide, we might take a moment to reflect upon the progress made by two foreign fashion scenes. Two scenes that are taking large steps in integration into the global consciousness.

After over 90 years, Bunka Gakuen remains one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions for the study of fashion; proudly counting internationally famous Japanese designers like Kenzo Takada, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto amongst its alumni. The global fashion community has agreed that Japanese designers have long since eschewed the traditionalist labels that once threatened to dominate their fashion scene, allowing Japan to currently be considered one of the most sartorially progressive countries in the world.

Japanese menswear brands are reaching heights of cult-status popularity in both the West and the East and are celebrated as much for their fabrics, as they are for the high level of detail applied to their garment construction. Names that regularly appear in this context include Visvim, Mountaineering, Vanquish, and Engineered Garments.

Tokyo Fashion Week, held earlier this year, went a long way towards validating Japanese designers on an international stage and, as Vogue put it in their critique of the shows, held quiet innovation and craftsmanship at the heart of the collections; simple but with artistry at the core. But the arguably didactic practices at Bunka Gakuen contribute to the struggle that many young designers encounter when building a career outside of Japan.

These new designers must not only simultaneously navigate Western status quos and internationalisation, but their own sense of cultural distinction as well. For example, the concept of success as a measure of status within Western markets noticeably jars with the emphasis that Japanese design schools put upon cultural identity. Not only that, but when foreign designers reach a certain level of popularity in ‘the West’, it can lead to a kind of migratory brain drain, with designers leaving their home countries to pursue careers abroad.

This traditional migration path was typified by the absence of LVMH Prize semi-finalists Mikio Sakabe and Facetasm in Tokyo this Spring, following the move to Paris recently made by both brands. As unfortunate as it is, it is hardly unsurprising with Japan offering some breath-taking design concepts and designers such as Motohiro Tanji, Plastic Tokyo, and WrittenAfterwards; all of which stand at the forefront of the effort to propel Japanese fashion onto an international stage.

Japan certainly doesn’t stand alone in this undertaking; many non-Western fashion scenes are finding themselves developing global followings in the wake of socio-economic, political and religious changes that have brought them to the attention of the rest of the world. Lagos recently hosted the third Africa Fashion Week Nigeria, backed by an organisation that provides a platform to promote and empower Nigerian designers through international publicity.

Nigeria is home to some exceptional design talent such as Asake Oge, Elawe Couture, House of Borah, House of Salem, Rikaoto (Mariam Elisha) and Yomi Casual, all of whom showcased their work in Lagos this July. The success and international interest sparked by Fashion Week Nigeria has subsequently inspired The African Development Bank to launch Fashionomics.

The hope of Fashionomics is to allow for focus on developing the African fashion industry resulting in a boost in domestic investment for the burgeoning sector. The unprecedented amount of coverage that Nigeria’s nascent fashion scene is currently receiving is translating into a unique opportunity for its designers; some of whom have received endorsement from celebrities like Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.

But in contrast to Japan, designers within Nigeria can struggle to keep up with the international fashion industry, in large part due to a lack of formal training and the difficulties faced by Nigeria’s textiles market. Once the third largest in Africa, it is now practically obsolete and thoroughly dependent on cheap imports from China. Despite this, and with the right support from the government to correct the industry’s structural weaknesses, there is no reason to expect the trajectory of Nigeria’s fashion industry anywhere but up.

As trends continue to emerge in cities like Deli, Milan, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, and Casablanca, from designers of Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, Moroccan and Sub-Sahara African descent, it becomes increasingly obvious with every passing fashion week that the sartorial hegemony of the West is finally bowing to foreign influences. It seems that finally that emerging non-Western designers are beginning to take agency and show the rest of the world what they have to offer.

Photo credit:Kelechizuvaa at Wikimedia Commons

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