AUTEURS: JUN TAKAHASHI
One of the most influential Japanese designers of the 21st century, Jun Takahashi and his label Undercover reinvented the Japanese street-style for a contemporary audience. While his other compatriots experimented with silhouettes to subvert the fashion world, Jun turned to counterculture and punk to create innovative new looks.
Undercover originated in the Tokyo Harajuku scene during the late 90s. Jun founded the Undercover label while studying at the Bunka School of Fashion in Tokyo. The original line debuted in 1993 and consisted of children, men, and women's clothes. Undercover was sold alongside Nigo's A Bathing Ape at a shared Harajuku boutique called "Nowhere".
The Nowhere boutique was jointly operated by Jun and Nigo, the two split the boutique in half with literal barbwire, undermining the traditional boutique setting. Both labels saw a rapid increase in clientele, resulting in a limited quantity release model. Lines would wait out the door for their small capsule releases. This model would later become the industry standard for exclusive streetwear releases.
The brand began as a DIY project comprising of customized vintage garments and printed t-shirts. Many of the first collections were available at local Harajuku boutiques. Jun continued designing garments in this fashion for a few years before finally making the switch to catwalk shows in Tokyo.
While on a shopping trip in Harajuku, Jun came across a t-shirt by Belgian designer Martin Margiela that intrigued him enough to begin taking his craft to the next level. In 1994, he showcased his first collection at Tokyo Fashion Week. The Fall Winter 1994 collection set the foundation for a lot of the ideas Jun would go on to explore. The collection incorporated Tartan and Mohair fabrics as an homage to the punk culture of Jun's youth. The collection also showcased Jun's propensity to play on different proportions and reinterpretations of traditional silhouettes. Tartan dresses and elongated pieces had become a new staple for the designer.
In terms of presentation Jun's Spring Summer 1996 collection "Under The Cover" was one of the most innovative of the decade. Instead of the traditional catwalk, the collection was showcased through a series of visuals and props. Jun worked alongside LA designer Screaming Mad George. The two would create a series of looks inspired by industrial bands like Ministry and White Zombie as well as horror films like Scream and Friday the 13th.
The collection also featured a documentary-style video of Jun visiting George at his studio in LA. The video was released via VHS tape alongside t-shirts, fake blood props, and visual books adding to the many horror motifs. The collection itself featured unique silhouettes and grotesque subjects, beastly masks, prop gloves in the shape of claws. Digital skull motifs and camos were printed on work shirts and jackets. The bold graphics were paired with baggy trousers and jeans to create a casual street-style look that would help define the brand for the next decade.
Jun's Autumn Winter 1998 collection "Exchange" remains one of his most representative of the 90s aesthetic. Each part of the garment featured zippers where seams would be. This unique construction allowed every piece of the garment to be interchangeable with other items within the collection. Jackets and coat details like collars, sleeves, ribbing, and hems could be swapped to create an entirely new garment. Among these offerings were crewneck sweaters with early punk acts like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Joy Division, and even fashion influences like Yves Saint Laurent.
The early years of Undercover were one of Jun's one-off series. The one-offs featured the iconic "Undakovr" tag and were made out of reconstructed garments or modified vintage pieces. These usually featured a deconstruction of motifs and themes present within the collection they are a part of. For Spring Summer 1999's "Relief" collection the designer repurposed an old military shirt and printed a fragmented "Groupie" motif over it. For his iconic Scab collection, Jun re-worked the classic Visvim Christo with jewels, crust punk patches, and the "Giz" motif throughout. These inventive pieces harkened back to Undercover's infant days when Jun was solely repurposing old garments and not working with factories and manufacturers.
Before his stunning debut at Paris fashion week Jun presented a series of inventive collections in Tokyo. Autumn Winter 2002's Witches Cell Division was among these collections. An unlikely blend of transformers, robots, and witch influences. The collection featured transmutable fabrics and construction techniques, with many pieces serving multiple functions, jackets that could turn into dresses, and shirts. Horror motifs like crosses, witches, and star prints were commonplace throughout the collection for a fun-loving blend with the robot and transformer influences.
After rapid success in the Tokyo scene, Jun began a correspondence with Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo, pleased with his success, urged him to show his collections in Paris to help the brand garner a wider reputation abroad. Kawakubo would champion his work to fashion journalists and those within the industry.
As a result, Jun presented his first womenswear collection in Paris for the Spring Summer 2003 fashion week. The "Scab" collection, is one of the most celebrated debut presentations of Paris Fashion Week. "Scab" was a play on mutated fabrics, crust-punk aesthetics, and tribal garments. The show featured some of the most intricately sewn pieces of any Undercover collection. Many of the pieces seemed to be made almost entirely out of patches. The shape of the patches was reminiscent of literal scabs and mending on worn-in garments. As with any Undercover runway, the music played a pivotal role in the presentation. The catwalk began with the eerie crooning of Elvis' "Blue Moon" followed by Link Ray's classic "Rumble".
Jun concluded the momentous runway with his models striding in colorful flowing headdresses. Full of confidence, vibrancy, and life, the outcome was a twist to behold, resulting in a standing ovation for the designer. This display of pure unbridled expression cemented him in the upper echelons of the Avant-Garde fashion scene, up there with his Japanese compatriots, Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo.
The follow-up collection "Paperdoll" showed Jun Takahashi's fascination with dress-up paper dolls. Since the previous season was a bit heavy in the subject matter, the designer wanted to do something more lighthearted. The models wore elaborate up-do hairstyles and intricate oversized tweed coats, mohair sweaters, veils, and cargo pants to create a look that felt like a grotesque kitschy suburban socialite mixed with the edge of militaria.
The menswear collection was an exercise in much darker themes. The emphasis on militaria was more prevalent in the menswear collection, with Jun re-contextualizing classic cuts like the N-1 Deck jacket and cargo-style pants. A few of the styles were printed with camouflage motifs of Osama Bin-Laden and George Bush, showcasing the duality of two nefarious political forces. The Paperdoll collection served as Jun's commentary on the geopolitical conflicts at the time. In contrast to the women's offerings, the men's garments featured more collegiate influences. Jackets featured entire panels made of vintage sweaters printed with school graphics and re-worked jeans, truckers, blazers, and coats made of three or more different materials.
Jun's Spring Summer 2006 collection "T" was one of his most ambitious undertakings yet. Channeling his love for punk and krautrock, the designer teamed up with Hysteric Glamours Nobuhiko Kitamura to create five fictitious bands "Chuuut!“, "The SSSSS“, "Klaus“, "The Crouh“ and "Theo Burp“. He imbued each group with their unique, history, aesthetic, and artwork. He even included fake tickets and backstage passes for the bands, along with vinyl records that would play nothing when placed on a gramophone.
The runway show for T was like a congregation of a Krautrock worshipping tribe. A series of enormous candles ceremoniously surrounded head-dressed models who declared their allegiance to "Klaus." After a few moments of chanting, the models stepped out from the installation and stepped onto the catwalk, showcasing flowing pieces made entirely of re-assembled t-shirts. A-line skirts, dresses, and blazers are draped on haphazardly with "Chuuut" and "The Amazing Tale of Zamiang", printed on them. These graphics served as the records from the progressive Krautrock bands Jun envisioned.
Throughout the year's Jun has collaborated with virtually every noteworthy streetwear label out of Japan. Out of the many collaborations under his belt are, A Bathing Ape, WTAPS, Neighborhood, Visvim, Fragment Design, and more. Towards the 2010s the designer saw more higher-profile collaborators working with the likes of Nike for a new sportswear offshoot and fast-fashion giant Uniqlo. These collaborations helped to sustain the brand throughout the economic recession while growing the Undercover universe to expand into athletic wear, children's clothes, and more.
in 2010 Jun was offered a position to design a new running clothing line for Nike. Jun regularly runs 10-15 kilometers around Yoyogi Park by his home in Tokyo. His appreciation for the running lifestyle resulted in Nike Gyakusou, named after his affinity for running counter-clockwise around the park. Merging Nike's innovative technical fabrics and his fondness for subtle details and design language, Gyakouso is crafted to be the most functional running gear on the market, made by runners for runners.
In 2015 Jun's Undercover collaborated with streetwear giant Supreme. Both labels had been the two pillars of streetwear. Jun's influence on the label as a whole is not to be understated. Part of Supreme's success can be attributed to their limited release model, a move partly inspired by Undercover releases. The two brands exist as almost two sides of the same coin within the fashion sphere. The two have amassed a similar cult following with local and international enthusiasts of the brand constantly looking forward to each release.
The collaboration with Supreme brought back old motifs from the brand's early days. "Anarchy Is The Answer" graphics were splattered over outerwear and t-shirts along with bondage trousers that called back to the brand's early punk fascinations. Witch graphics and cutely grotesque bears aside, the collaboration and those that followed were the zeniths of streetwear releases. The collaboration also played a large role in re-introducing Undercover to a western audience.
One of Jun's longstanding dreams was to create garments for children. This goal finally came to fruition when he was asked to collaborate on a small capsule collection for Japanese fast-fashion giant Uniqlo. The UU collection featured new takes on some of Jun's most iconic graphics and motifs. A particular emphasis was placed on the children's garments, which were co-designed with Jun's partner Rico.
Following the successful collaboration with Uniqlo and Nike, Jun released one of his boldest work yet. Fall-Winter 2012 and Spring Summer 2013 showcased a newfound appreciation for color. There is an undeniable David Byrne inspiration throughout the entire collection. With models wearing slim silhouettes and graphics featuring album art and lyrics from the Talking Heads. Middle finger motifs emphasized the tongue-in-cheek subversiveness of the brand. Jun's fascination with plaids and tech fabrics were present in the outerwear and full-body looks. The collection is an embodiment of the designer's more simplistic approach to design as opposed to the more intricate collections of the past.
Jun Takahashi is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. At times it seems that the designer's only goal is to serve as a medium for jumping into the punk music culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Spring 2015 collection, "Adventure". Here, Jun's hero worship is at its most potent, using the New York Proto-Punk outfit "Television" as his muse. The collection featured lean silhouettes with the album art of the band's first two albums expanded and printed on coats, parkas, bombers, and t-shirts. Television guitarist and singer, Tom Verlaine's poetry and lyrics are printed on numerous pieces within the collection, showcasing the sincerity of Jun's appreciation and punk ambassador status.
The designer’s hero-worship isn't exclusive to Punk artists. For his Autumn 2018 joint presentation at Pitti Uomo, the designer once again channeled his love for cinema, this time focusing on Stanley Kubricks, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The result was a complete stylistic departure from the designer's work so far.
The presentation began with Joy Division's Atmosphere playing ominously in the background. Juxtaposing the rest of the collection, the first model stepped out in a monochromatic outfit with what appeared to be a grey skirt. The rest was a mixture of bold streetwear graphics, technical fabrics, plaids, vibrant knits, and suiting that seemed to be enveloped by the more eccentric outerwear pieces. Space Odyssey references to AI and the Apollo missions were seen on graphics like "Computer Malfunction" and "Human Error", printed over jackets, coats, and other outerwear pieces. The collection concluded with a select group of models stepping out in colorful astronaut uniforms (all of which could be purchased).
Rather than basking in the limelight, Jun continues to work in many different mediums and outlets. Frequently performing DJ sets, curating sets for Virgil Abloh's club nights, relentless exercise, and running a dizzying number of offshoot labels and collaborations; his work ethic is unparalleled in today's ever-shifting fashion calendar. The label’s mantra “We Make Noise Not Clothes”, is a call of defiance as Jun seeks to create a world devoid of the glamor of fashion, a world where the counterculture is at the forefront of his art.
Jun's Undercover remains one of the godfathers of Japanese street style and punk-wear aesthetics. Not limited to the label of streetwear, the brand has left an indelible mark on fashion as a whole. Through his label, Jun has influenced generation after generation of fashion subcultures, creating an inclusive environment and vibrant addition to the punk and fashion scene in Japan and abroad. His work continues to be praised and collected by fashion enthusiasts interested in Japanese design and archival garments.