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Danielle Whitfield interviews Takamasa Takahashi, NGV donor
Takamasa Takahashi first encountered the unorthodox work of Comme des Garçons in the mid 1970s. By the early 1980s, he was a convert, wearing Kawakubo’s genderless and unstructured styles on the streets of Tokyo. In 1986, Takahashi turned to collecting, and since 2005 has been an important donor of Comme des Garçons to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Fashion and Textiles collection. This interview was conducted in May 2019.
Danielle Whitfield: Can you tell us a little about your early years growing up in Japan, and whether you have always been interested in fashion?
Takamasa Takahashi: I was born in Niigata, Japan, in 1954. Niigata is a famous rice-growing region on the north-west coast, two hours from Tokyo by bullet train. My family owned a small general store there, which I used to help my mother run. My father was a master carpenter. Growing up, I have fond memories of watching him in his workshop and I think it was then that I developed an interest in craftsmanship.
Regarding fashion, I first saw a Dior dress in a French fashion magazine when I was fourteen. I admired the beauty of the dress, but actually the real hook into fashion for me was seeing the vibrant and exciting work of Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada. When I was young, I dreamed of being a designer like Kenzo. I even taught myself pattern-making in my early high school years and started making Kenzo-style clothes for myself. Later I went on to study textiles and dressmaking at a college, known as Wetterhoff, in Finland for a year in 1979.
DW: Comme des Garçons wasn’t well known in international fashion circles until after 1981, but had a loyal following in Japan during the 1970s. When did you first become aware of Comme?
TT: I first noticed Comme in the influential Japanese fashion magazine an an; it was sister magazine to French Elle. an an was a big deal for fashion lovers if you wanted to see the latest trends from Paris. It was so fresh in every aspect.
I believe an an played an important role in Comme’s success. From the mid 1970s, Comme featured regularly, but Rei Kawakubo’s way of distinguishing her company brand was different from that of other designers. Photographs of her garments were always taken by well-known photographers, such as Deborah Turbeville and Hajime Sawatari, who were successful in presenting an image of a strong, independent and reticent woman – a woman much like Kawakubo!
DW: Do you remember the first item you bought?
TT: In 1978, I bought my first Comme garment: a pair of wide, quilted cotton pants. They were indigo blue, but unfortunately, I don’t have them anymore. I started buying more regularly from 1981. Even though the garments were from ‘women’s’ collections, most were androgynous and oversized. I felt that they could express my personality. It was during this time that I became a ‘Comme tragic’; completely obsessed!
DW: When did wearing become collecting? Was this a conscious decision?
TT: Initially I bought Comme only to wear; I did not intend to become a collector. However, after seeing the Bias Cutting collection in 1986, I made a decision to begin collecting Comme. By that time the label had become more of a womenswear brand and was no longer genderless and shapeless. It became more difficult for me to choose pieces for myself to wear. So, instead, two dresses that I bought from this season became my first collection pieces.
DW: What sort of things do you look for now when collecting Comme?
TT: When considering a work for my collection, I ask myself: what design convention is Kawakubo challenging this season? Do I like it? Am I inspired by it? I always look for unimaginable surprises in a work, which is what I think epitomises Comme. The surprise could be in the pattern-making, the textile used, or something else entirely.
When I purchased Dress from the 2003 Extreme Embellishment (Adornment), spring–summer collection, I was dying to see how the knots were tied. I couldn’t resist undoing them! In the end, I wasn’t able to tie them back together because of the complexity of the pattern-making – it turns out they weren’t ordinary knots after all.
‘When considering a work for my collection, I ask myself: what design convention is Kawakubo challenging this season? Do I like it? Am I inspired by it? I always look for unimaginable surprises in a work, which is what I think epitomises Comme.’
Another example is a jacket I bought from the No Theme (Multiple Personalities, Psychological Fear) collection, spring–summer 2011. I love that this work challenges you to consider the construction of its design. By joining three different blazers together at the centre back seam, Kawakubo has cleverly created an original and unique garment.
DW: You don’t have to give away any secrets, but how do you find your pieces and how long do you spend searching?
TT: The garments are mostly from Comme shops in Tokyo, auction sites, online shops and vintage stores across Japan.
There was one particular dress from the Refresh the Spirits collection, spring–summer 1990, that I fell in love with the moment I saw it. It’s a simple black dress with a detachable mirror-like plastic plates vest. However, only recently did I find this work after nearly thirty years of searching for it! An online vintage shop listed the dress without the plastic plates but with the label, ‘COMME des Garçons Noir, AD1989’. I knew exactly the dress they were selling by reading the description and bought it straight away!
Luckily for me I have a photographic memory when it comes to Comme. Many years ago, I was able to buy a jacket from the Chic Punk collection, autumn–winter 1991–92. Sometime later, I came across the boots, then skirt, then a year later, the fishnet leggings and top. Sometimes it takes a long time to complete an outfit and all I can do is wait patiently until someone releases the items I am after. It is always serendipitous and these are the moments that excite me about collecting.
‘Having studied dressmaking myself, I am interested in providing students the opportunity to view Kawakubo’s garments up close to understand her innovative design processes.’
DW: Is there a certain Comme des Garçons collection or garment that is important to you?
TT: The Patchworks and X collection, spring–summer 1983, is my all-time favourite season. Kawakubo presented another perspective on her earlier Holes collection, autumn–winter 1982–83, by utilising patchwork and traditional Japanese dyeing and weaving techniques.
DW: Work from this collection was among the first groups of garments that you donated to the NGV, back in 2005. What prompted you to start donating?
TT: In 1995, I donated most of my early Comme and Yohji Yamamoto pieces to the National Gallery of Australia. I was thrilled with the idea that the clothes would be preserved for future generations. From 2005, I began donating to the National Gallery of Victoria, as I could see that the NGV was exhibiting fashion in interesting and dynamic ways. I was also interested in making my collection available to fashion students. Having studied dressmaking myself, I am interested in providing students the opportunity to view Kawakubo’s garments up close to understand her innovative design processes. If people are inspired by her experimentation and creativity, it will have made all my years of collecting Comme meaningful and rewarding.