Japan’s famous fashion school
Renowned for turning out some of the most imaginative designers in the Japanese fashion canon – graduates include couture luminaries Kenzo Takada, Yohji Yamamoto and Hiroko Koshino – Bunka Fashion College ranked eighth on the list of global fashion schools compiled by Business of Fashion in 2016. Its president for nearly 40 years, Sanae Kosugi, spoke to K magazine just before she retired from the post.
Japan’s most prestigious fashion institution sits along a busy thoroughfare in Tokyo, on the edge of the city’s skyscraper district in Shinjuku ward. Inside the school’s 20-storey glass and concrete building, a small exhibition of student work occupies one corner. It’s an arresting display of colour and contour that contrasts with the structure’s stark interior.
Alongside classic A-line coats are layered garments of supple leather held together with invisible seams; hooded jumpers edged with rows of ruffled fringe; and tent-like jackets imprinted with pixelated digital imagery and binary code superimposed on camouflage.
In the three decades following the first influx of progressive Japanese designers on the catwalks of Paris Fashion Week, the school has continued to foster new generations of talented students. These number Jun Takahashi, who created the punk-inflected label Undercover; Nigo, the pop-culture mastermind behind the brand A Bathing Ape; and Limi Yamamoto, daughter of Yohji, whose Limi Feu line of women’s wear redefines notions of femininity.
“People always ask me how Japanese designers come up with such original ideas,” says Sanae Kosugi, the former president of Bunka Gakuen (meaning academy or school) and dean of Bunka Fashion Graduate University. The answer, she posits, can be found in Japanese aesthetics – the wabi-sabi appreciation of imperfection and asymmetry inspired by nature that informs traditional arts and crafts such as calligraphy, tea ceremony and ceramics. “When autumn leaves fall onto the surface of a pond, we leave them there because they’re beautiful,” she tells K.
Figuring it out
Dressed in a red patterned blazer designed by Yohji Yamamoto – her classmate at Bunka – and a black Junya Watanabe skirt adorned with straps and buttons, she has the compact physique of a former gymnast and lively, expressive eyes.
Kosugi developed an interest in clothing at an early age and started crafting patterns from old newspapers when she was in grade school. “I had my first customer by the time I was in junior high,” she laughs, recalling a blouse that she made for her school’s custodian. Despite a schedule that includes delivering lectures and workshops around the country and overseas, she still finds time to sew and has published several books of patterns.
At Bunka, dressmaking is part of the curriculum for all students, and instruction begins with a comprehensive study of the human form. “Everyone has to learn how to make clothes, whether they specialise in design, marketing, or textiles,” she explains. “Fashion is something that moves people and enriches lives, but without an understanding of the body and ergonomics, it’s impossible to create.”
The school’s original textbooks contain detailed illustrations of the human skeleton and major muscle groups. At the start of each year, the college takes measurements of the students and uses the data to create mannequins based on the average proportions of the class. As a result, the models are more representative of real figures than the standard Wolf or Dritz dummies used at other fashion institutes.
The school has been using the same measurement technology to develop models of men, women and children which are used in joint research projects and collaborations with apparel companies. In response to Japan’s ageing society, the Bunka Research Lab for Style and Function has been compiling measurements of elderly bodies and is also pursuing research on clothing for people with disabilities.
Fashion is something that moves people and enriches lives, but without an understanding of the body and ergonomics, it’s impossible to create.
The idea of creating fashion that can be enjoyed by all people – not just the young and able-bodied – corresponds to Bunka’s five core values: craft, sustainability, contribution to society, collaboration and self-expression.
Co-founded in 1923 by tailor Isaburo Namiki and Masajiro Endo, who helped popularise the sewing machine in Japan, Bunka started out as a school for women who wanted to make clothes for their families. After World War II, the demand for ready-to-wear apparel gave rise to a thriving fashion industry, and the school evolved to keep pace with the country’s changing society, broadening its curriculum to include commercial production and distribution. “Our aim is to educate students so that they can work in any field of the industry,” Kosugi says.
Although Bunka opened enrolment for male students in the 1950s, men comprise only 20 per cent of the student body – a reflection of the large number of women in Japan’s apparel industry. It’s one of the few fields in Japan where women are not pressured to quit when they become mothers.
“Maybe because there have always been so many women in the business, there is a system for those who want to go back to work,” Kosugi says, pointing to her own experience. After graduating from Bunka, she had two children and worked part-time as a freelance pattern maker for eight years before she joined the school as a full-time lecturer.
An impressive 80 per cent of Bunka students start working immediately after graduation, often landing positions at prominent design houses such as Miyake, Yamamoto and Kubo. The Bunka Fashion Graduate University, which was established 10 years ago, offers further education and resources for those seeking to start their own brands. The school provides business counselling, helps students exhibit their work and runs two studio spaces in central Tokyo that young designers can use as ateliers.
I tell my students to create work that is fulfilling.
While non-Japanese students make up as many as 18 per cent of the student population, classes are conducted exclusively in Japanese. “Students come to our school because they are interested in immersing themselves in Japanese culture,” Kosugi notes.
However, the graduate university offers a four-year master’s programme in clothing science studies, called the Global Fashion Concentration Course, in English. And this year the university launched a double degree course with the Paris-based school École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs.
When asked about the future of the domestic fashion industry, Kosugi is optimistic. “The Japanese fashion world is very attractive now. I tell my students to create work that is fulfilling.”