Jun Takahashi, 37-year-old mastermind of avant-garde fashion label Undercover, has changed a lot.
From a young punk studying fashion in Tokyo to Rei Kawakubo’s protege and international fashion darling, Takahashi has gone from a tiny boutique in Tokyo to runway shows in Paris. Theme had Takahashi sit down with his friend, artist Madsaki, to shoot the shit about Takahashi’s gestalt design shift in his Spring 2007 collection (from hooded masks and deconstructed bondage to classic, pretty dresses) and being a straight man in fashion.
Madsaki: What were you like as a kid?
Jun Takahashi: I grew up in the countryside, in the mountains. It was a town called Kiryu. Our town was known for its dyed fabric and woven textiles. There were factories that made lace, thread, and dye. Next to my unior high was a river, and people would dye kimonos on the riverbank.
There was nothing to do. I would go out and catch bugs and frogs. I took drawing lessons for six years starting in elementary school from a painter who lived nearby. He was a weird guy with a mustache, but a good teacher. He taught me some good drawing techniques, and I liked to draw, so I kept building up my drawing skills, like copying cartoon book covers. I was drawing all the time, even during class.
How did you get into fashion, growing up in a place like that?
In the house across the street, there was this kid named Kubo....
Who the hell? [Laughs.]
I could hear the banging of the weaving machines from that house. In the countryside there’s this big department store where we all bought our clothing. When you’re a kid, your parents choose your clothes for you. It was like that for me in the beginning, but I started to want to choose my own style. In elementary school, I wore a silver windbreaker. Sutjum [stadium jacket] was the fad. People were wearing sutjum with leather sleeves and white collars, but I was the only one wearing one with striped ribbing. I liked to be different from other people. When I got into junior high, I thought, “I want to make a living doing the two things I love to do: fashion and drawing. I want to make clothes.” I even wrote in a yearbook that I wanted to become a designer.
It comes from way back then? Wow, that’s fucking amazing. Most people don’t actually become what they wrote in their junior high yearbook. In elementary school, I wanted to be a train driver.
Because people usually change; you never know about the future.
Where does Jonio [Ed., Takahashi’s nickname, taken from the Sex Pistols] get his inspiration? Why did you shift towards simplicity in your Spring 2007 collection?
I’ve been [showing] in Paris for the past five years, and I thought about what was needed in order to continue to do this in Paris, as a business. I realized that we needed some elements of sexiness and femininity.
You didn’t see that before?
I was aware of it, but our Japanese customers are young, in their twenties. Abroad, our customers are a completely different age group, in their thirties, forties, fifties—people who have money, adults. If I just take what I show in Tokyo and bring it abroad, of course people are interested, but it’s a challenge to actually have them wear it. If I don’t have elements like femininity and sexiness, adults will look at it, but won’t wear it. I wasn’t doing [femininity or sexiness] before, but I decided to make that my main theme. So, my direction completely changed.
You changed your office since then. You even changed the color of your car, everything!
Sometimes you just want to change. The base is the same. I got used to it.
Damn! So, you came one day and changed everything?
I always wanted to change. I did the “feminine sexy” theme in the [Spring 2007] collection. And the clothes were classic in design. [For the Fall 2007 collection], I wanted to take that same “feminine sexy” theme and shift it towards a new direction, away from classic to urban—simple in style, but with functional design. For example, there’s a knit outer jacket for women, but with high-tech lining, because knit lets wind pass through. It’s [as protective] as a regular parka you’d wear outside, but I wanted to make it a little sexy and feminine by keeping a smooth line.
Where do ideas like that pop out from?
I guess from me wondering, “What am I gonna do next?”
Jonio, you’re a straight guy, but you do mainly women’s clothes. Why?
I don’t know why. I’m totally straight.
Why do you do feminine stuff? You used to like punk!
I used to just do T-shirts when I started at Bunka [Fashion College, Japan’s best fashion school]. [After I quit,] I started doing women’s wear. When I was in middle school, I wasn’t thinking [in terms of] guys’ or girls’ clothes. I just liked clothes; it didn’t really matter whether it was for men or women. But ladies’ fashion is more captivating because you can do a wider variety of things, with more items, details, and techniques. When we go check out girls’ clothes I’m always looking at all the details, like the backside of the fabric. I want to know how it’s made. I really like fashion. I just love it so much, sort of like a craftsman. I don’t care if people think I’m weird, I just wanna see it!
[In the beginning,] I was the only one in Harajuku making ladies’ clothes. But it was really natural for me. My first influence in fashion was Vivienne Westwood, and the Seditionaries collection [she designed] for the Sex Pistols. When I saw the Seditionaries clothes, I was surprised, like, “Wow, it’s punk but elegant!” Then, when I was at Bunka, [I went to] a Comme des Garçons show for the first time. The theme was punk. It was shocking.
What was it like?
I think the title was “Adult Punk” or “Punk-chic.” It was chic, dark, adult, and elegant. Punk made by a Japanese person. I went to a store [to look at the clothes]. Their patterns were unthinkable! They totally surpassed the basic patterns I learned in school and broke the rules to make things. The way of thinking, the clothes, the shop, everything was busted. I was so surprised, I got banged up.
And you lost your kick?
No, it was the opposite. I learned what’s possible to do with clothes. At school they taught me the basics, but most people didn’t really get it. I thought, “This is the kind of fashion I want to do,” and then I started doing women’s wear.
But if you were really hit, like, “BOOM!” wouldn’t you say, “I want to work at Comme des Garçons?”
[In my third year,] we were all sent to corporate training. I was going to school, but I had a lot of tardies, and my grades were not so good. I was doing things to go against the system when I was at Bunka. Corporate training was not on my mind at all. But for some reason I was sent to Onward Kashiyama, along with the good students. It was kind of like an internship, just office work, making copies, cutting out patterns, things like that. I went there for a week and it was impossible. I knew I could never handle it. I just couldn’t stand being used by other people. Nope, no way. So in the third year of school, I decided that I would do it on my own.
The two designers you like, Vivienne and [Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons], they’re both women. Any reason?
They were just powerful compared to others. It’s awesome that [now] I’m actually working with designers I admire. It made it worthwhile for me. I came in contact with Margiela for A Magazine. Margiela customized some of my clothing. I often exchange emails with Rei Kawakubo. It’s a real joy. It’s grand.
Who is the Undercover girl? Has that changed from before? I mean, who is the female model when you’re making clothes? Is it Riko [Takahashi’s wife]?
I think so. It’s not like I imagine her everyday when I’m drawing, but ultimately, I am most satisfied with what Riko approves. When she says, “Whaaat?!” I get very nervous. It’s the worst. I do care a little what journalists say, but in the end, it’s definitely her.
You make things besides clothing, like sculpture and furniture. Is it like filling in a hole?
I never think of it that way. I work with you because I saw your painting and thought, “I want to draw with Madsaki.” It’s not like I’m trying to fill in a hole with something [fashion can’t provide]. I have been drawing since I was little, and I continue to draw. There’s no deep meaning behind it. But, oh gosh, I really love clothes. I even take off my sunglasses to see them. You know how sometimes you get into something really deep? It’s that. I really love it. I do.
Wow. With me, I really want to go to the Tour de France, but just thinking that didn’t make it happen.