Gianfranco Ferré: Japan, the noble perfection of signs, forms and figures

Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré

This image is the first in a whole sequence aiming to show the extraordinary variety and refinement of pictorial and decorative motifs that the universe of traditional Japanese textile production is able to reference.

Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, painter considered one the last great masters of Japanese xylography in the ukiyo-e style. This is a type of art block-print on paper that begins with a process of wood engraving. In no way secondary is the artist’s attention to the representation of motifs printed on the fabrics of garments.

The charmingly fluid style of the fabric print patterns seems to go hand in hand with the easy sway of the clothes, in perfect sync with the movement of the figure wearing them.

The design - yet also the very identity, at once light and solid - of the fabrics focuses on bold and porcelain shades of blue. Mostly, it sparks images of the garments worn by the figures portrayed both by Utamaro and by Kuniyoshi.

Time and again Gianfranco Ferré makes reference to two connotations of the Japanese aesthetic identity: on the one hand, bold, multicolor floral patterns; on the other, graphic signs typical of Zen painting. In many cases he remodulates both for fashion creations that are regular, geometric of cut and shape.

Also, Ferré transforms these references into graphic florals and other intricate patterns, combining them with embroidery work that’s surely a nod to “the way of writing.”

“Beauty Looking Back”, painting by Hishikawa Moronobu dating to the late 17th century: this vivid image holds all in one many of the signs typical of Japanese aesthetics. To which, through his own style, Gianfranco Ferré gives exquisitely contemporary expression.

In this totally today outfit Gianfranco Ferré plainly puts three nods to a Japanese influence and inspiration: the open and softly swaying kimono sleeves; the wide band at waist, in this case definitely softer and looser than an actual obi-belt; and the sumptuous, splotchy floral design placed on a quietly patterned red base. The neutral tone trousers, urban style, underscore through contrast the composition’s aesthetic character.

The choice of fabrics, too, inflected in shades of gray on black, reveals a distinct Japanese reference - in modern-day version. “The obi-belt and the wide sash (tied in back) cover the navel and mark the waist, fastening the jacket in a graceful way”.

Katsushika Hokusai “Peonies and Butterflies”, (1832).

“An urge for elegance led me to design a softer, slinkier silhouette, all without forgoing the structural perfection of the garment…” to which Ferré adds the precious delicacy of placed floral designs complete with embroidery shading.

Three moga girls in Tokyo, 1928, photograph by Kageyama Koyo. Moga is the Japanese term - at times having a negative connotation - used in the 1920s to define trendy, “emancipated” girls with bobbed hair. More or less, they were the Japanese equivalent of American flappers, French garçonnes and Italian maschiette.

These references closer to present day shape the mood of the collection as to the designer’s choice of fabric patterns and prints, his inflection of the black and gray hues that dominate the relevant shadowy sensation

Eastern influences, in Roaring Twenties version, induce Ferré to explore unusual Japanese prints, inserts and motifs “as if in a computer game, for an instant superimposing in one single fleeting, elegant image different patterns, colors and techniques”.

Certainly, the free and easy swingy styles skimming the silhouette of these Ferré creations are also a tribute to the sassy moga girls who populated Shanghai during the years of the city’s greatest opening to the West.

Shōgun - literally, “commander of the army” - was the hereditary title conferred upon the military dictators who governed Japan between 1192 and 1868. The title, equivalent to the grade of general, was reserved to the highest position in the Japanese armed forces. While every shōgun had to be appointed as such by the emperor, the actual act of appointment was purely a formality. For all practical purposes, the shōgun was the reference figure of the Empire of the Rising Sun in feudal, warrior times.

As captured in this photograph, Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-1867), a kendo wrestler from the late Edo period, strikes a similarly martial pose.

“The fierce pride of feudal Japan, of a warrior world with its rituals, its codes of behavior as well as of expression, a dimension that in every way captures a sense of beauty at once fearsome and exceptionally refined” emerges clearly in the striking design of the topstitched leather jackets with an aggressive feel as to cut and shape.

Gianfranco Ferré dresses an army of warrior women, modern samurais, for a 1980s urban style. Calf-length robe coats, cinched at the waist by skinny belts made of tubular leather, reintroduce the rationality of kimono cuts. It’s a concept that the designer completes using Western materials such as loden and nappa, with finishing touches in red on the inside.

A severe, elegantly formal style which Ferré’s resolute warrior woman makes her own. It’s defined by the bold character of black leather with strong red accents.

Painting of a samurai woman by Shitomi Kangetsu (1747-1797), representative of the ukiyo-e school of painting - which portrays passing life, a fluctuating world - emblematic of the Edo period.

So here are the “genteel warriors” who find femininity in the decorative element: thanks to the obi-sash on which Ferré puts a double layer belt knotted samurai style.

The circle, ensō, symbolizes enlightenment, strength, the universe. Zen masters use it frequently to sign their works.

Precisely the ensō, here in the form of fabric serial print, is, rather, the shape that best narrates the aesthetic identity of Japanese matrix behind this ample pea coat.

From fabric to leather: thanks also to the way he plays with material, Ferré uses the ensō pattern - one of the most common elements in Japanese calligraphy - with absolute ease.

Japanese women in kimonos where the obi-belt is strikingly evident, in a photograph shot around the year 1900. The obi is the sash or belt typical of Japan. It’s worn mainly with kimonos and keikogis, equally by men and women.

The obi designed by Gianfranco Ferré for the Fall/Winter 1981-82 collection…

…and Antonio Lopez’s drawing of the same obi for the fashion magazine “Vanity” (1981).

“Japan inspired in me another eureka moment: it concerns the elaboration of complex forms starting from simple ones, somewhat in an origami mode, that is in line with a perfectly attainable architectural lightness and levity. This led to my decision to employ certain cuts and expedients which I borrowed from the kimono culture and from the recurring obi motif”.

In this topstitched double layer black taffeta bustier we find the purity of tradition and the severe rituality of the obi. Consisting of three horizontal bands and one vertical one, Ferré’s take on the obi aims to spark emotions, a sense of expectation, a dramatic effect as in a haiku, which pointedly announces no conclusion. By contrast, the jacket in a rational kimono cut makes the most of a gorgeous lining fabric: it’s an ikat warp dyed print complete with diagonal brushstrokes in red, pink, yellow and blue, according to a pictorial technique connected to Zen.

In this totally new idea of an obi - now in the form of a sequin-studded bustier - Ferré accommodates an unencumbered sense of sensuality typical of the modern age. He shifts intentionally away from the chaste composure of the reference model, all while preserving in full its potential for exalting femininity.

Precise strokes, clean elegant lines, harmonious colors: surprisingly, even in his fashion sketches for the collection an affinity with the Japanese “way of writing” comes nicely through.

By superimposing on the fabric obi-sash the knotted double layer sword-holder belt emblematic of every Japanese warrior, from shōgun to samurai, Ferré in no way diminishes the feminine effect of the outfit.

In Gianfranco Ferré’s design vision, every reference - all while linked to ancient stylistic traits - takes on a provocative sense of modernity. Such is the case of this minidress consisting of seven boxy cuts of red leather, with two straps holding the dress up in back and a wide fabric obi-band cinching the waist. The latter complete with a glossy double-knotted patent leather belt on top, classic samurai style with typical sword-holder.

Gianfranco Ferré makes his own all that is essentially pure. As in the female body, exhibited in its power and strength, in its nudity too. To this body he gives a distinct character thanks to rigid leather bustiers with double tubing details. They accent the waist, focus of the silhouette and therefore of femininity.

What makes this Lycra swimsuit amazing is its modular structure: the stiff upper part in lacquered fabric, decorated and completed by an empty gold-plated metal tube, comes off easily thanks to a zipper. The Japanese reference is there in the topstitched taffeta ribbons and the skinny leather tubing, a dual nod to the samurai hakama-belt’s support elements.

The bunko musubi knot resembles a big bow. Quite a handy way to hold books together, it comes into play also on the back of kimonos.

Reining in volumes, whether rigid or fluid, is a Ferré prerogative: with the obi he offers a fresh take on the act of securing a sense of equilibrium and energy thanks to the bunko musubi knot – literally, “tying up as if a box”. In these designs, the bias-cut fabric recreates a similar knot in back, turning it into a big bow.

The Genji monogatari - literally, “The Tale of Genji” - written in the 11th century by the lady in waiting Murasaki Shikibu who lived in the Heian period and is considered one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature and of literature of all time. The poem enthralled Gianfranco Ferré, who translated it with the simple flair of the ritual splendors of imperial court elegance.

As in a parade of imperial women, “…for evening, it seemed normal to me that the silhouette would become even softer, all the more sensual, favoring suppler, fluider fabrics like georgette and satin. But without forgoing structural perfection”. In admiring this glamorous dress - glamorous in a totally modern way - we have no trouble sensing the silent presence of the women of the Forbidden City, perceptible solely through the rustle of the clothes they have on.

The identity of this dress lies as clear as can be in some of its parts: namely, the sleeves, the chrysanthemum-ornated obi-band and the obi-ita, a small thin rigid tablet set under the obi’s second layer of fabric to maintain stability and prevent bending.

These are details that become aesthetic identification marks, almost signaling the decorative DNA of the design, the creation - which Ferré always envisions and experiences as an exquisite narrative.

The chonmage is the traditional Japanese men’s hairstyle, associated in the Edo period to samurais and in today’s world to sumo wrestlers.

Gianfranco Ferré endows the chonmage with a contemporary feminine appeal. To create the original hairstyle, the top of the man’s head got shaved; as for the long hair in back, after oiling, it got put in a ponytail and then folded over onto his head.

Face emblematic of Kabuki theater, with keshō makeup in the color white - symbol both of feminine beauty and of youth - and red. As Roland Barthes observes in this respect: “The Japanese theatrical face is neither painted nor powdered, it is written“.

As in the depersonalizing effect of the theatrical face typical of Kabuki masks, Ferré imbues the image and impact of his fashion show with a sense of power and force. He achieves this by marking the face of his models with a distinct red line on a white base - able to eliminate, as with geishas, every trace of features. Ergo all signs of fragility.

A sense of graceful Nipponese severity defines the accessories too. It’s strikingly there in the severe purity of shape of the bracelets in brass sheet metal with brown and lacquer red nappa leather covering.

In Japanese tradition there is no concept of ostentatious accessory as distinguishing element of a feminine aesthetic. All the same, Ferré mitigates his design’s sense of samurai severity thanks to the lacquer red metal wristband-bracelet with gold rim - a free and clearly evident transposition of ornamental symbolism.

The cross-reference interplay between accessory and garment comprises the basic aesthetic key to understanding this outfit: the precious severity elegance of the bracelet finds a direct point of comparison in the utter simplicity of the dress, which through the use of fabric and its adaptation to the female figure obviously acquires a certain softness of shape.

In this leather version, obijime-marugumi tubing fashions a stunningly expressive knot, which also and above all becomes the wristband-bracelet’s essential decorative element.

A wide rigid bracelet with obijime-marugumi knot enveloping it; and an obi-band with samurai style sword-holder belt accenting it. In no way mere details, these two accessories define in full the character of the look.

“Clearly, the people of Japan have class. No trace of vulgarity. They have style. Rigor and grace, in a paradoxical combination of the two”.

(Emil Cioran)

Parole, idee e pensieri di Gianfranco Ferré, proposti come citazioni, sono ricavati da sue interviste, note, lezioni e appunti, esprimendo nella forma più diretta e immediata la passione per “l’infinito viaggiare”, reale ma molto più spesso immaginario, che ha sempre animato il suo stile e le sue collezioni.

Barthes Roland, L’impero dei segni (The Empire of Signs), Einaudi, Turin, 1984.
Bing Samuel, Le Japan artistique, May 1888.
Calza Gian Carlo, Stile Giappone, Einaudi, Turin, 2002.
Calza Gian Carlo, Hokusai. Il vecchio pazzo per la pittura, Electa, Milan,1999.
Cento Haiku, curated by Irene Iarocci, Guanda Editore, Parma, 1994.
Dewey Jhon, L’arte come esperienza, La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1951.
Loti Pierre, Madame Chrysanthème, Edouard Guillaume, Paris, 1888.
Kuki Shuzo, La struttura dell’iki, curated by G. Baccini, Adelphi, Milan, 1992.
Morena Francesco, Ukiyo-e. Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Giunti Editore, Florence, 2007.
Maraini Fosco, Giappone Mandale, Electa, Milan, 2006.
Murasaki Shikibu, Storia di Genji il principe splendente (Genje monogatari), A. Motti, Einaudi, Turin, 1953.
Haga Tōru, Color and Design in Tokugawa Japan, in Japan Color, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1982.
Komiyama M., Elementi di storia dell’arte e dell’estetica giapponese, Rnpizu-do, Milan 1987.
Menegazzo Rossella, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Skira, Milan, 2011.
Musée de la Mode et du Costume, Japonisme et Mode, Edition des musées de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1996.
Shimizu Christine, Lacche giapponesi, A. Mondadori Editore, Milan, 1988.
Tanaka Ikko, Semplificazione e Design, in C.G. Calza, Segno e colore, Electa, Milan, 1996.
Tanizaki Junichiro, Libro d’ombra, curated by G. Mariotti, Bompiani, Milan, 1982.
Yamakazi Masakazu, On the Art of the Nô Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami, (traduzione di J. Thomas Rimer) Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984.
Il testamento di Ferré, n° 110 | August-September 2007 issue, by Giampaolo Atzeni, in ARTE IN.
Gianfranco Ferré, Exotic inspirations, International Herald Tribune Luxury Conference, Istambul, December 2006.

Press releases relative to the Gianfranco Ferré Women’s Ready-to-Wear collections - Fall/Winter 1981-82, Fall/Winter 1985-86, Spring/Summer 2003.

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