For the past several months, two exhibitions at the Pinacothèque de Paris, a six-year-old private museum on Place de la Madeleine, have juxtaposed the work of Vincent Van Gogh with that of Hiroshige, the 19th-century artist from Japan. As the shows are meant to illustrate, the Dutch master was strongly influenced by the composition, balance and serenity that Hiroshige achieved in his prints. Fast forward to 2013 and a similar kind of Japonisme is sweeping fashion right now, the media being printed dresses and wide-sleeved robes, not landscape art. From Thakoon's pretty sakura-blossom prints to the more conceptual approach taken by Lanvin's Alber Elbaz, who incorporated kimono shapes and obi-style belts as part of a larger statement on structure, many designers, it seems, are turning (to the) Japanese.
Although cherry blossoms are, of course, obvious motifs for spring lines, "it's a compositional influence more than anything else," Jo-Ann Furniss, the British writer and editor, says from London of the trend. Augured by Dries Van Noten's fall 2012 collection, in which samurai motifs and kimono patterns figured heavily, the Japanese ethos that permeated collections this season by designers as diverse as Gareth Pugh, Damir Doma, Hermès and Prada constitutes a new, especially assured manipulation of what was once considered exotic into modern wearability. In many ways, it's a paean to (and evolution of) the work of Japanese fashion legend Rei Kawakubo.
Witness, for instance, the looks proffered by Prada, where folded duchesse satin and fur appeared as if in the mid-stages of an origami creation. Paired with leather tabi (toe) socks and platform sandals, they also give a campy nod to nineties nightclub style.
Consider, too, Christophe Lemaire, who continues to practice a Japanese-like restraint with both his namesake line and his women's wear for Hermès. Although the silk prints that appeared in the latter collection included florals that weren't explicitly Eastern, the cut and draping of his trousers and leather jacket sleeves had all the volume of kimonos.
"Flat patterning" is how Sharon Graubard, the senior vice president and fashion director of Stylesight, the fashion-trend forecast and analysis firm, refers to the folding effect that seems so ubiquitous this spring. To her, the line can be traced directly to Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and her late-20th-century contemporaries: "The Japanese designers totally revolutionized the way we look at fashion and I think we dip into that quite regularly. It's more conceptual and that's where we're at right now – pure design and pure shape."
Just as Van Gogh echoed the feeling of Hiroshige as much as the form, however, so have some contemporary designers evoked such quintessential Japanese emblems as the geisha, that sexy and mysterious figure of eternal fascination in the West. (For a current pop-cultural reference, tune in to see how Jessa, the character played by Jemima Kirke on the hit TV show Girls, treats a floral robe like some sort of seductress costume.)
Sarah Hay, the Paris-based fashion editor of i-D magazine, characterizes this aspect of the trend as a desire to both express and exercise "soft female power." At the same time, the Japanese motifs are in keeping, she says, with a renewed interest in chintz-type patterns. "There's a young generation of designers who don't remember chintz and who are retaking that idea and doing it in their own way."
Patterns – be they 19th-century or more recent – aside, many consumers, Graubard suggests, might not necessarily make a direct link between some of spring's origami folds and Japan. What will be most appreciated, she says, is how forgiving these shapes and folds are.
A lot of fashion aficionados will, however, respond to the Japonisme, especially when it has been interpreted, as Furniss says, so "smartly."
The rising sun rises again.