Gianfranco Ferré: Japan, symbols and colors of a culture

Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré

Roland Barthes explains his fascination with the Land of the Rising Sun in the following passage from his book “The Empire of Signs”: “Though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself, I can isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (terms employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system. And it is precisely this system that I will call Japan”.

The national flag, Hinomaru, derives from an ancient image linked to Japanese cosmology and mythology, the latter of which has Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, for protagonist. Another legend about the origin of Hinomaru references the Buddhist priest Nichiren: during the 13th century, the cleric gave the shōgun, the emperor, a banner with an image of the sun on it to carry into battle, as an assurance of victory.

For Gianfranco Ferré too, Japan provides a kaleidoscope of features, aesthetic sensations and sensibilities, a system of signs rooted in tradition which reveal a different wisdom that seduces and stimulates him. Japan possesses a “rhythm of the soul” that’s marked by a current of exuberance and at the same time of self-restraint. This contrast, which finds expression in a heterogeneous aesthetic animated by dissonances, surely fascinated Ferré, who drew from it a reason for reflection re the affinities between it and his own creative thinking.

Symbol of good luck and happiness, red is the ultimate color. The wagasa - traditional Japanese umbrella made from bamboo, cord and washi paper (a type common throughout the archipelago) - had up to the 16th century the status of luxury object, thought to ward off evil spirits. Now it is considered an objet d’art, one that plays a role both in tea ceremonies and, in particular, in Kabuki theater.

Looking to Japan, Gianfranco Ferré plays a game of alternates and opposites, comparing and contrasting two different shades of red: a brilliant lacquer one…

…and a dense, muted one reminiscent of cadmium.

The energy of lacquer red, a hue used in the lexicon of Japanese architecture to represent the various divinities present in Shintoist and Buddhist temples, makes a strong statement in the geometric composition of basic shapes, in stark contrast to white and black.

Red still again, only now superflat, solid and dense, as in the lead color of the postmodern art movement pioneered by the artist, sculptor and painter Takashi Murakami.

Beguiled by the Japanese sense of asymmetry - an astonishing insight into spatial relations - Ferré exalts the geometry of cuts that abandon the superfluous and imbue the interaction between body and dress with a spontaneous dimension of movement. As always, making use of the color red.

Print by Utagawa Toyokuni (Edo, 1769-1825) depicting the Kabuki actor Iwai Hanshiro.

Red is the color of the tunnels of the traditional gates that lead into the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyōto, known as the “Temple of a Thousand Torii”.

Ferré references both the signature color and the exquisite verticality of the famous Torii gates in the composition of this simple dress, softly cinched in the waist by an obi belt.

Prussian blue, the color created chemically in Berlin in 1704 and imported to Japan around the year 1830, made the style of Hokusai and Utamaro revolutionary…

…and guided Ferré in the designing of his Fall/Winter 1981-82 Women’s collection, where he expressed in depth and in full the construction of primary shapes that exalt the monochromatic tableau of color.

“Designing this collection, I wondered what features I had made my own as, almost unconsciously, I proceeded on the journey toward Eastern cultures which I had embarked upon… The answer: all that’s inherently pure. Thus red and blue caressed my memory of colors and shapes…“

In the beauty of the denial of excess, in this case meaning the “beauty of what’s missing” - an aesthetic ideal popular in Japan during the Middle Ages -, among the many elements that stand out is one which Ferré reintroduces as a recurring complement and ornament: the kanzashi, the small lacquered wood rod that serves as a decorative finishing touch both in geisha hairstyles and in samurai belts.

Sketches of designs from the Gianfranco Ferré Fall/Winter 1981-82 collection: the kanzashi serves in cinching the dress at the waist.

The white chrysanthemum, Japan’s national flower, reasserts purity as a symbol of vitality, peace and joy, immaculacy and innocence. Every year the Emperor celebrates the beauty of this flower by opening his Palace gardens to the public at blossom time.

Among Japan’s recondite aesthetic expressions, a profound sense of grace is the most ineffable. Ferré captured this grace in the easy draping of white satin, which he then heightened through the expressly essential line of the dress.

In Gianfranco Ferré’s designs, yet even before that in his style vision, the Land of the Rising Sun’s flower-symbol of purity and nobility takes print form, becomes a motif that while deviating from the original reference never loses sight of it. He plays with it graphically, interprets it through techniques that conceal it in part and at times exalt its infinite grace.

As often occurs when Ferré looks to faroff cultures and worlds, he comes up with totally new takes on the relative reference symbol, making no concession whatsoever to ethnic elements and/or moods.

The levity of the white shirt with kimono sleeves asserts Ferré's predilection for the purity of this neutral shade, highlighted by black and, in an equipoise of counterpoints, by the passionate symbolism of the chrysanthemum, now in the color red.

Sometimes the white shirt is animated by a swaying motion of the sleeves. This comes from a foulard type of construction, with open panels undulating delicately around wrists, so simulating the fullness of kimono sleeves.

The intense pleasure of perfection and aesthetic pursuit determines the mysterious vertigo of Gianfranco Ferré’s ideal of beauty, which he extols in his nod to iki - an ideogram of extremely complex meaning which expresses an ability to combine spontaneity and artifice, attaining a supreme degree of refinement on both ethical and aesthetic levels -, the desires and wishes - complete with inherent traces - hidden in the cross references between East and West.

In the Edo period, or Tokugawa (1603-1868), brown was considered the color of iki, ultimate concept in aesthetics of an ideal elegance. Thanks to its intense hue with a low level of saturation, this chromatic identity expresses both a form of seduction involving a capacity for sacrifice and a sensuality involving an aptitude for studied detachment.

Shodo - literally, “the way of writing” - is the art of traditional Japanese calligraphy, which involves the use and application of three basic elements: line, shape, space. At the same time, it’s a moral pathway, life lesson, deeply spiritual expressive form that dates back thousands of years.

Samurais - literally, “to be at someone’s service” - were feudal Japan’s military men. Originating as the private armed guard of the great feudal families, samurais were warriors and as such belonged to one of the two Nipponese aristocratic castes. To protect their legs while riding on horseback, in addition to their kimono, they wore a hakama tied at the waist. This garment, which came down more or less to ankles, existed in two different versions: one a sort of pantskirt, the other in a pleated skirt style.

In his collections Gianfranco Ferré exalts the prerogatives of brown, the color of shodo - Japanese elegant calligraphy - for example, through dévoré embroidery motifs on a shirt. He matches it with his own take on the hakama, shown here in the form of a skirt with seven pleats. Seven is the number of essential virtues in the samurai code of conduct.

“It’s absolutely true that in my work I have ‘collected’ other great experiences, other powerful emotions inspired by the protagonists of art from all eras and from every latitude of the globe: Utamaro, Hokusai and ceramic masters…”

The delicate severity of Utamaro’s faces imprints the design, generating a pure, alluring challenge very much about asymmetry, transparency and luster, sheen, an almost imperceptible movement of the fabric. The choice of Utamaro as the designer’s source of inspiration assumes greater significance if we observe how he executes the creation process: namely, implementing and inflecting it through the use of different bases and materials, as in the topstitched knit fabric that serves both as the backdrop for the print and as a counterpoint to the black silk - also topstitched - forming other parts of the garment.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, xylograph by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830 circa.

Ferré transforms “the enormous threatening wave” into a phantasmagorical interplay of signs that energize the fanciful print marking the fabric of this ample tunic, which is simply cut and then secured to one side with a double leather bow.

Ancient Japanese Satsuma teacups: the name refers to the feud where this porcelain style originated. Under the domination of the Shimazunti clan, the Satsuma empire began in the mid 16th century and preserved the extremely high esteem it enjoyed intact up until the second part of the 19th century.

Ferré shows his love of the ancient Japanese tradition of Satsuma porcelain by reproducing the moriage technique in print form on lacquer black and lacquer red. In a composition with gold inlay work, this technique - which involves building up areas of enamel to produce a three-dimensional effect - finds new definition also in woven fabric form - there in the obi belt hugging hips.

A fresh take on the Satsuma technique in garment form, captured here by photographer Gian Paolo Barbieri for one of his advertising shots.

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