SMASH WHAT IS LEFT TO BE SMASHED: Jun Takahashi’s Undercover

KINDLY REMOVE YOUR MASK I

Tokyo, Japan – A Saturday evening this past September, on a back street of Aoyama, Tokyo’s major shopping district, the Undercover flagship boutique was abuzz with activity. Jun Takahashi, the label’s designer, was debuting “UNDEROFFWHITECOVERS,” a collaboration with Off-White, Virgil Abloh’s trendy juggernaut. It was a curious pairing: the very much of-the-moment Abloh, and Takahashi, who has been a step ahead of his time since Undercover’s inception in 1990. Abloh is a good student of fashion history, and his collaboration with Takahashi shrewd: Undercover may not be new to the scene, but it has managed to remain at the vanguard, undisturbed, prefiguring so much in fashion today.

Undercover emerged out of the now legendary 1990s Harajuku scene. Takahashi, along with A Bathing Ape founder Nigo and Japanese streetwear guru Hiroshi Fujiwara, is one of its heroes. Takahashi met Nigo in the late 1980s while studying design at Bunka Fashion College, and in 1993 they opened a store in Harajuku called Nowhere. Takahashi was already prominent in the Tokyo youth culture scene – he played in the punk band Tokyo Sex Pistols – and the silkscreened t-shirts he was making using cut up collages quickly became popular. Nowhere was put together with little business know-how, and Nigo and Takahashi were not prepared for its success: their rate of production couldn’t always match the demand, and sometimes they struggled to keep the shelves stocked. Out of necessity, they resorted to highly limited, sporadic releases, which inadvertently created a frenzy among Takahashi fans hungry for the next product. The store’s popularity increased rapidly, and Takahashi had pioneered the “drop” model that became de rigueur for brands such as Supreme.

While Nigo and Fujiwara committed to streetwear, Takahashi wanted to do more than put graphics on t-shirts – he wanted to be a fashion designer. Womenswear, he felt, would allow him more freedom to experiment. Takahashi held his first runway show in Tokyo in 1994 and quickly became a sensation there. In 1997 he received the New Face fashion prize sponsored by Mainichi Shimbun, the national daily newspaper, who would award him the Grand Prize four years later. For his fall 1998 collection, “Exchange,” Takahashi created a series of garments with interchangeable parts. You could buy two products, for example a coat and a denim jacket, and swap sleeves or collars between them – once again fulfilling two purposes at once, adapting the appeal of personalization and flexibility into a commercial strategy. Another Takahashi signature is, without question, his agility.

Undercover occupies that rare and covetable position of being equally admired by fashion critics and streetwear die-hards, the industry’s intellectuals and its cool kids. It has remained consistently fused with youth culture, and in 29 years has never lost its reputation for authenticity or its street cred. Behind the brand lies a singular, crucial mission: as the name “Undercover” suggests, Takahashi seeks to peel back the façade of the mundane to reveal the layers of the abnormal hidden beneath it. The label’s slogan, however, is “We Make Noise, Not Clothes” – Undercover is about revealing, not concealing, and just because it’s not concerned with making “it” bags doesn’t mean it’s trying to be quiet.

In his pursuit of the obscure, Takahashi creates garments that mash the charming with the macabre. There is darkness in his work, a destructive impulse consonant with his punk days. Not to say that Takahashi is a brooding character; he just likes things with substance, and happiness is banal. Sadness has depth. “Most people like things that are simply cute, but that idea is pretty shallow,” Takahashi told me when we met at his Tokyo studio a couple days after the Off-White launch. “Human beings have so many different aspects, and I try to look into those.” Takahashi is an auteur: each collection is designed by him from start to finish, emerging from whatever is preoccupying him at its time of creation, and sharing with all his work a common denominator of rebelliousness. This spirit may not be as aggressive today as it was when he was younger, though; it has a quieter assurance now. Takahashi’s is the defiance of a man who has nothing to prove anymore, but still has a lot to say – particularly about the dark stuff underlying human experience, and the darkness’ cultural output. Aptly, the music of Joy Division and Einstürzende Neubauten, and the films of Jan Švankmajer and Stanley Kubrick, are enduring sources of inspiration for Takahashi.

Takahashi saw a Comme des Garçons show in Tokyo while he was a student, and it opened his eyes to just how iconoclastic fashion could be. It wasn’t long before Comme des Garçons noticed Undercover, too: its founder, Rei Kawakubo, already a legend in Japan, bought an MA-1 jacket from Takahashi’s first show. After he sent her a pair of Undercover sneakers she liked, they struck up a friendship, corresponding by letter for two years before they met in person. Eventually Kawakubo impressed on Takahashi that showing in Tokyo would only take him so far. In 2002, he staged his first womenswear presentation in Paris. Kawakubo’s support also helped to drum up interest from journalists and buyers. The night before the show, Kawakubo invited Takahashi and his team to dinner at Davé, a Chinese restaurant in Paris popular with the fashion crowd. “To the beginning of Jun’s fight in Paris!” she toasted. Takahashi fought and won. His shows became one of the most anticipated tickets for the fashion cognoscenti.

A PREROGATIVE OF YOUTH II

Undercover’s office is still located in the back streets of Harajuku, housed in a repurposed shipping container that appears to float above the ground. The black metal handle on the front door has crossbones and a lightning bolt etched above the words “Undercover Laboratories” – a testing ground for Takahashi’s ideas, where fashion is a medium for bigger experiments. Harajuku has changed a lot since Takahashi’s student days. Like other former underground arts districts in major world capitals, it has been neutered by commerce, tourism, and real estate hype. Most of his contemporaries moved their offices out of the area long ago, but Takahashi held out. Without Harajuku, and without Tokyo, there is no Undercover.

In our past conversations Takahashi has expressed frustration with the city’s latest generation, with their lack of drive and dwindling rebellious spirit. But now he’s more upbeat. When we spoke, Takahashi was two days away from his 50th birthday, which he would celebrate by DJing at a new club in Shibuya. “I used to go out a lot, and I still do,” he said. “I get the same sense from the club scene and the music of the younger generation as I did when I was young, and I feel energized by it.” Young people seem to feel the same way – especially when, often to their surprise, they find that Takahashi is quite approachable. “I’m almost like a father to this generation,” he explained. “But the kids are very interested in what I do, because in a way I’ve been leading the Harajuku scene for so long – and because I show in Paris. And I don’t feel distant from them. We have the same spirit of mixing things up and turning them into something new and unexpected.”

Takahashi noted that over the years the Harajuku scene has moved indoors, from the street to the club: “When I go to karaoke in Tokyo, sometimes I end up in the room with people in their 20s and their 60s. We have these cultural ‘keepers’ of each generation and it’s through them that we interact and keep that energy going. I see the same kind of energy that was there in the mid-1970s and 1980s.” When I remarked that, unlike me, he seems very optimistic about today’s youth culture, he exclaimed, “You have to believe!”

“I always know what I want or don’t want to do, but I’ve never done it for money or fame. My intentions are always pure.”

Takahashi’s office takes up the entire upper floor of the Undercover headquarters. Next to its door hangs a neon sign: an encircled letter “A” for anarchy. The shelves are lined with books, records, and figurines from A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Two enormous vintage Altec Lansing speakers stand opposite Takahashi’s desk, next to which sits one of his large Grace dolls, which the designer used to make out of disemboweled teddy bears. On the other side of the desk stands a complete DJ setup; above it, another neon sign. This one reads “Noise.”

Seated at a round table in the middle of his office, in one of four mid-century brown leather chairs, Takahashi looks totally comfortable in his own skin. It wasn’t always this way. In the past, the pressure of running a company while putting out one lauded collection after another took a toll on the designer, who has always seemed skeptical of the wild applause at the end of his catwalk shows, forever his own harshest critic.

Takahashi has always done what he wants, but being comfortable with the results is a recent development, and a luxury of sorts. After the Off-White project was announced on Undercover’s Instagram, Takahashi took heat from his fans for aligning himself with Abloh. “We got a lot of criticism, which I was expecting. But Virgil relates to young people, so I find meaning in a collaboration like that,” he explained. “I know we defied expectations and made some people uncomfortable. But we’ve always defied expectations.”

 

Takahashi, like many designers, collaborates for two reasons: out of mutual creative respect, and/or because another brand has know-how or resources Undercover might lack. When, in 2010, Nike approached him to create a new line of running gear – a first for Nike at the time – Takahashi, a committed runner, jumped at the chance. Gyakusou (literally, “running in reverse”), as the collaboration is called, is ongoing – a longevity atypical of co-branded projects, although that’s changing too. Undercover’s recent work with Valentino is also unusual for the industry, in which it’s common for mass-market brands to collaborate with designers, but virtually unheard of for two high fashion brands to team up. The partnership grew out of Takahashi’s friendship with Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, who on one of his visits to Tokyo asked the Japanese designer to make some graphics for an upcoming menswear collection. Takahashi agreed, and the same graphics appeared on Undercover garments that season. Piccioli put them on tailored wool coats, Takahashi put them on puffer jackets, and the pair held back-to-back Autumn/ Winter 2019 menswear shows in Paris to introduce the collaboration. “It was gratifying for me to see my graphics at Valentino, because it’s a traditional luxury house that is obsessed with craftsmanship on a level that we couldn’t replicate at Undercover,” Takahashi recalled. “It was a big moment for me to work with such an important brand. At the same time, it gave me a chance to subvert clothing that is quite bourgeois. It worked so well, because they concentrate on making everything perfect, and I don’t. And that made for a good contrast.”

Being independent allows Takahashi to reject conventional corporate wisdom and take chances. Two years ago, Sadie Sink, the actress who plays Mad Max on Stranger Things, opened the runway show for his women’s collection “We Are Infinite.” It was well received and emotionally charged: backstage, the critic Tim Blanks told Takahashi that he almost cried at the finale. Yet several months later Takahashi announced that he was suspending his women’s shows for the foreseeable future, and that he would be putting menswear on the podium instead – a daring move on the runway given womenswear’s enduring primacy over menswear, though if Takahashi is changing directions, others may follow soon.

WHAT I DO
I DO
BECAUSE I LIKE TO DO
III

Undercover’s first Paris menswear presentation – the brand had already shown twice in Florence at Pitti Uomo – was for Spring/Summer 2019 and based on the 1979 gang-themed cult film The Warriors. For the cinematic narrative of “The New Warriors,” as the collection was called, Takahashi created eight new gangs, then gave them names (such as Shadow Hoppers and Bloody Geekers), mythologies, and of course uniforms to match. For many in the fashion crowd, it remains the most exciting show in recent memory.

For a long time, music was front and center in Takahashi’s collections, which took inspiration from Patti Smith, Nirvana, David Bowie, and Bauhaus (the band). Often, his clothes featured lyrics and graphics from his favorite songs or albums – once Takahashi devoted an entire men’s collection to the Television album Marquee Moon. For people who grew up on the same music, Undercover provides a way to both grow up and stay young, to express a cultural affinity beyond the band t-shirt. Your Unknown Pleasures graphic lives on fine wool pants now, rendered in jacquard.

Some of Takahashi’s music references are made up; eventually he had invented enough band names and narratives to merit a fictional record label, Undercover Records, which looks after groups such as Punk Floyd and The Organs, complete with tour merch. Sometimes the divide between Takahashi’s universe and our own is less clear: in our world, “Psychocandy” refers to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album, but in Undercover’s, it’s a brand of confections, the name printed on boxes of actual candy.

Takahashi’s turn toward film is relatively recent. A Clockwork Orange informed his men’s Autumn/Winter 2019 collection, and Suspiria – both the 1977 original and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake – informed the women’s. “Using films as inspiration was not really a conscious choice,” Takahashi said. “It does not mean that I’ve exhausted the musical references in my work, it’s just where my mind was at that point.” A year prior, Takahashi’s Autumn/ Winter 2018 menswear had inhabited another Kubrick universe – that of 2001: A Space Odyssey – and his Spring/Summer 2018 womenswear was a riff on The Shining. Titled “Janus,” the collection was modeled by pairs of twins, and every single piece on the runway was reversible. The impulse to dig “below,” to turn inside out, to flip – to hold your eyes open – is not only symbolic for Takahashi, it’s a design exercise in reversal. I wondered out loud if we could look forward to a Full Metal Jacket collection anytime soon. “I like the movie, but Eyes Wide Shut would be better,” was Takahashi’s reply. “That’s a very Undercover film, about what really goes on behind society’s veil.”

Today, more than 20 years after Takahashi did it, the fusion of streetwear and designer fashion is old news, both as an aesthetic change in norms and as a commercial strategy. Takahashi estimates that between 1994 and 2014 he designed roughly 1,500 t-shirts, and Undercover remains a streetwear staple, but the designer sees a difference between his legacy and streetwear’s more recent high fashion ascent. It’s one thing to make one-of-a-kind t-shirts and destroyed jeans almost entirely by hand – as Takahashi did for his seminal Spring/Summer 2003 collection, “Scab” – and another to indiscriminately slap box logos on hoodies. Accordingly, Undercover’s most recent men’s show, “I Hold a Beast, an Angel, and a Madman in Me,” was entirely devoid of streetwear, in a fashion season that was awash with it. Instead, Takahashi treated his audience to a showcase of quality tailoring, and the few denim pieces in the collection featured graphics by Cindy Sherman – in jacquard, not printed. “It’s not that I am going to stop making streetwear,” Takahashi explained. “But I’m getting a bit tired of it. Streetwear for me has always been inspired by culture, and now I see that in many cases only the surface of the streetwear culture is presented. It doesn’t seem real.”

Authenticity – and how to retain it – in the current climate is a topic in the boardrooms and ateliers of every label. Plenty of brands fake it, mass marketing an ostensibly non-commodifiable purity to jaded late-capitalist consumers. Takahashi has street cred from his Harajuku days, but he works with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. “I always know what I want or don’t want to do, but I’ve never done it for money or fame. My intentions are always pure,” Takahashi told me. “As of late, I’ve been thinking that Undercover is already at a level of fame I could never have imagined. Fame was not my intention, I just wanted the ability to show the world what I feel and what I think through my design.” As such, Takahashi speaks to his audience, to that tribe of like-minded individuals that share his cultural values and interests – to people who “get it.” But what about those who don’t, who wear Undercover because they saw it on Instagram or a celebrity? “After you put the clothes out there, they are out of your control,” Takahashi told me. “I can only control the worldview that I present, and if I can leave an impression on you, make you feel or think – whether good or bad – then I did my job.”

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