Why Jun Takahashi Has More in Common with Wes Anderson Than with His Streetwear Peers
Over the past twenty-five years, Jun Takahashi’s brand Undercover has risen to the highest peaks of both streetwear and high fashion through a mix of conceptual and subculture-inspired collections that build off the legacies of designers like Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela and Vivienne Westwood, while also presenting their own unique punk-inspired aesthetics. However, for many of his fans, Takahashi is perceived as a streetwear designer first and foremost; despite coverage from high-brow outlets such as The New York Times, whose T Magazine declared Takahashi “the Sorcerer of Fashion” roughly a year ago, streetwear often contextualizes the way in which Undercover is perceived: from recurring collaborations with the likes of Supreme and Nike, to one-offs with brands including Neighborhood and Original Fake, to North American stockists such as Bodega and Saint Alfred that merchandize Undercover t-shirts and outerwear across from the latest drops from Nike and Adidas, to regular media coverage from hype-driven outlets like Hypebeast and Highsnobiety. Yet, no matter how intertwined Takahashi’s story has become with the past three decades of streetwear, his collections often share more in common with the projects of concept-driven artists like film director Wes Anderson than with streetwear brands.
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Takahashi got his start in 1993 through the Nowhere store, a collaborative venture with friend and fellow designer Nigo (of Human Made and formerly of A Bathing Ape) in Tokyo’s now world famous Harajuku neighborhood, and built his company during the mid-’90s when cult streetwear brands such as Shinsuke Takizawa’s Neighborhood, Hardy Blechman’s Maharishi and James Jebbia’s Supreme were also gaining traction in major cities across the world. And, while Nigo, Takizawa, Blechman and Jebbia have all been hugely successful, Takahashi stands alone; not only was he the only designer of the group to center his brand on womenswear before menswear, but he is also the only one to consistently gravitate toward all-encompassing thematically driven collections versus garment, graphic or print-driven designs. While Undercover’s peers all have their own driving concepts—Neighborhood’s military and Americana influences, Maharishi’s many incarnations of camouflage and Supreme’s Barbara Kruger-esque box logo—Takahashi is the one designer of the bunch who creates collections so conceptual and immersive that they move beyond clothing or, at times, even categorization.
The same could be said of director Wes Anderson in relation to film; like Takahashi, Anderson was born in 1969 and began to establish himself in the mid-’90s. His full-length directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, released in 1996, follows three friends in Texas as they haphazardly attempt to commit a string of robberies; the film is based on a short Anderson produced two years earlier while still a student at the University of Texas in Austin that starred brothers Owen and Luke Wilson. Although Bottle Rocket does not present the vibrant, often monochromatic sets of Anderson’s later films, it does feature his signature witty, off-kilter dialogue, as well as some of the actors (the Wilson brothers) who consistently contribute to his projects. Similarly, Anderson’s second film, Rushmore—a cult classic that stars three key members of the director’s filmic family, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson—only hints at the meticulous approach to costumes and sets that make his films so singular.
Like Anderson’s first film, Takahashi’s early collections only showed glimpses of the fully immersive approach to fashion that has come to define him. The designer’s debut runway show, for AW94, featured shrunken stadium jackets and B-3 flight bombers, as well as punk staples, such as mohair and tartan checks, that are key to Takahashi’s ongoing obsession with reimagining punk fashion. His second collection, for SS95, featured three-dimensional cutting, raw seams, patchwork garments and unexpected fabrics—all staples of numerous Undercover collections.
However, while both Takahashi and Anderson’s early work promised their now distinctive aesthetic approaches to their respective art forms, neither would truly hit their stride until their third and fourth projects. Takahashi’s third collection, AW95’s “Speed” (also known as “The Last Show”), was not only his first to have a title, but also his first to demonstrate a cohesive theme; in memory of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain—who killed himself the previous year—the collection used impulsivity and speed as emotional refrains while reconstructing workwear with rubber and leather to reimagine punk aesthetics; Takahashi’s use of nontraditional textiles was even apparent in the styling of his models, whose hair looked painted on, even rubberized.
Yet, it was the designer’s next collection, SS96’s “Under the Cover,” that shows his gift for constructing fully immersive worlds. Takahashi played off the alternative “The Last Show” title of his previous collection by shifting from the runway to a presentation format for his newest one, which was inspired by bands such as Ministry and White Zombie; he then collaborated with musician and special effects artist Screaming Mad George, known for his work on films such as Big Trouble in Little China and Predator, to create gothic, sci-fi characters fully-costumed in Undercover clothing. In addition, Takahashi released 1500 limited edition “blister packs” that contained a T-shirt, stage blood and a VHS tape featuring a short film of his trip to Screaming Mad George’s studio. While many of the garments are striking (and a little disturbing) with their deformed, pixelated skulls, what is most impressive about the collection is the way it incorporates so many art forms and objects to present a world that feels unique to, if not beyond, fashion. Yes, the collection was meant to be sold and worn, but that almost seems beside the point when merely viewing images from the presentation is an experience on its own.
Anderson also took a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to his third and fourth projects, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. While The Royal Tenenbaums—a dramatic comedy about three geniuses reconnecting with their dysfunctional, ailing father after twenty-two years—contains witty, deadpan dialogue like Anderson’s earlier films, it also presents beautiful, eclectic, at times hilarious, clothing that both separates Anderson’s characters from one another and his film from the rest of the pack. Whether it’s Chas Tenenbaum (played by Ben Stiller) and his two sons dressed in matching bright red Adidas tracksuits, Margot Tenenbaum (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), with her mink coat, dark eye makeup and shoulder length straight hair with a single hair clip or Richie Tenenbaum with his headband and striped tennis shirt under a camel sport coat, the style of Anderson’s characters not only reflects their experiences and personalities, but has also influenced fashion beyond the screen. In fact, The Royal Tenenbaums has been so significant to designers since its release that WWD, among other outlets, did a breakdown on the film’s influence on AW15 runway collections, from Gucci’s Margot-inspired mink coats to Lacoste’s Richie Tenenbaum-inspired red headbands and tracksuits paired with topcoats.
Despite the impact of The Royal Tenenbaums, it is Anderson’s next project, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, that marks the director’s conscious entrance into the world of fashion. The film, which follows oceanographer Steve Zissou and his crew—Team Zissou—as they track the mysterious jaguar shark that killed his partner during the filming of a documentary, may not be Anderson’s best, it not only matches the aesthetic triumph of The Royal Tenenbaums, but also takes it a step further; team Zissou’s coordinated pale blue nautical uniforms and red beanies are instantly recognizable and their custom pairs of the Adidas Rom runner caused enough long-term buzz to convince the brand to release them to the public thirteen years later. But, it isn’t only The Life Aquatic’s costume design that sets it apart; the film also features a cross-section of the Team Zissou ship that was crucial to the stunning still photograph-like cinematography that is reminiscent of photographer Gregory Crewdson, who stages elaborate cinematic scenes in suburbia to create familiar, yet ethereal photographs.
Takahashi’s approach to design also shares something with Crewdson, in particular, his SS09 “Grace” and SS11 “Underman” collections, for which he skipped runway shows for elaborate, multidisciplinary presentations that included collaborations with photographer Katsuhide Morimoto. Both collections saw Takahashi invent mythical, visual narratives. For “Grace,” he used white teddy bears and vintage bicycle headlights to create one-eyed furry creatures of the same name; in Takahashi’s fairy tale, these Graces keep distance from human society, but maintain contact with a secretive organization called Gila: “I have been making puppets for many years and wanted to make something bigger to incorporate my other ideas. These dolls became part of a new way of presenting my designs,” Takahashi told South China Morning Post in 2009. “In the photos, I wanted to show a fantasy world where the essence of daily life is explored artistically. Grace is a species of fluffy, strange-looking creatures that have to be kept away from humans [who wear his designs in the photos]. I want to explore themes like coexistence, interpersonal relationships and distance. It took us about a year to finish the photo shoot. I wanted the photos to have an authentic feel so everything is real, including the sets, accessories and dolls,” the designer continued. Takahashi originally expressed the “Grace” story through the aforementioned photos, such as “The ritual of Gila,” which feels reminiscent of ’80s American sci-fi films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Flight of the Navigator, as well as Crewdson’s work; the designer would later add to the “Grace” universe through a 2009 photographic sequel, entitled “Red Signal,” for Madame Figaro Japan and a 2011 illustrated book with Anafelle Liu, Grace: The Beginning of the End.
Similarly, Takahashi’s Underman collection explored a mix of the designer’s personal interests, American popular art and human relationships through elaborate images and other media, including collaborative action figures with renowned Japanese toy maker Medicom. Of the collection, Takahashi told Filep Motwary in 2011: “It’s an ‘homage’ to the low-tech, underground special-effect superhero television shows that I was influenced by as a child in the ’70s. They are hugely different from American superheroes such as Superman and Spiderman. Unlike the good versus evil-type theme of American superheroes, I added a spirit that good and evil all become one in the end. It’s an even more peaceful ending isn’t it? I wanted to express that idea. It’s not really related to fashion, I suppose.” It is this distinction from pure fashion, which Takahashi acknowledges, that makes “Underman” so special. Instead of the media that surrounds the collection feeling like a ploy to sell clothes, the clothes feel like just one aspect of the many that make up the “Underman” universe. This is especially unsurprising, considering that Takahashi initially thought of turning the collection into a film: “I’m very interested in films. In fact, I considered making a film about Underman, but I decided not to. Instead, we are planning to shoot a short documentary film on the journey to the fashion show in Paris that we will be participating in for the first time in three years,” he explained to Motwary in the aforementioned interview. And, in fact, the backdrop Takahashi had constructed for the presentation of “Underman” is more than a little reminiscent of Anderson’s—in particular, the miniature sets of 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—which share a dedication to minute detail that make them so lifelike despite their diminutive size.
Anderson, in his own right, has also demonstrated the ability to elevate products into the realm of art. Consider the 2013 short, Castello Cavalcanti, that the director produced in collaboration with Prada. The film follows an American race car driver (played by Jason Schwartzman) who crashes his car into a statue of Jesus Christ outside of a café in Italy in 1955. While the clothing in the film is subtly beautiful, in particular, Schwartzman’s yellow leather racing suit, it in no way screams Prada; in fact, many viewers who watch the video on YouTube instead of the Prada website may not even be aware that Anderson collaborated with the brand.
Interestingly, it appears Takahashi and Anderson are moving even further into each other’s worlds. Takahashi has recently looked toward famed director Stanley Kubrick for inspiration; The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey influenced his SS18 women’s and AW18 men’s collections, respectively. Kubrick, of course, is one of a handful of directors whose visual style has most influenced Anderson: “But I think I’m always pretty influenced by Kubrick,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. In fact, the directors’ styles share so much in common that outlets like No Film School have published shot for shot comparisons from their films.
Anderson has also looked in Takahashi’s direction recently, just in a more general way; the director’s newest project, Isle of Dogs, is set in Megasaki City, which can be presumed to be a futuristic fictionalized version of Undercover’s hometown of Tokyo, and makes numerous references to Japanese film and culture. While given stellar reviews, the film has also received significant criticism for cultural appropriation from outlets like Rolling Stone and Vulture, among many others. Anderson is no stranger to this type of criticism—his 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited received blowback upon its release for essentially using the entire country of India as a backdrop for the escapades of its white protagonists (also one of the major critiques of Isle of Dogs). As it turns out, appropriation is something Anderson and Takahashi also share in common. The designer has cited vague “ethnic” and “tribal” influences since his second show (which saw some of its Japanese models sport cornrows) and he even sent models down the runway in burkas for his SS03 “Scab” collection.
While at times troubling, Takahashi and Anderson’s relationship with appropriation is predictable considering how wholly they immerse themselves in their creative projects. Despite all of the clear and not-so-clear influences on their work, neither Takahashi nor Anderson has spent much time discussing their artistic lineage. Takahashi has occasionally mentioned the impact of Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela on his early approach to design, and Anderson has cited directors Roman Polanski, John Huston and Martin Scorsese, along with Kubrick, while simultaneously downplaying any conscious awareness of their influence: “But usually by the time I’m making a movie, I don’t really know where I’m stealing from. So by the time I make the movie, I think, ‘oh, this is my thing,’” he explained to The Hollywood Reporter in the aforementioned interview. It is this kind of tunnel vision that may be what the designer and the director share most in common and what also separates them from their peers. Takahashi and Anderson are dedicated to their individual artistic vision first and foremost; everything else is secondary.