FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the latest edition of our series, UNDERCOVER designer Jun Takahashi reveals the cinematic magic behind his epic Kurosawa-inspired show at Paris Fashion Week.
“How did they do the arrows?” was the question everyone kept asking me after I divulged that Jun Takahashi, the designer of UNDERCOVER, invited me to watch the rehearsal of his latest show. It was based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood, a rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in medieval Japan. In its final scene, the protagonist, Taketoki Washizu (portrayed by Toshiro Mifune), is pinned to the wall by a shower of arrows.
Takahashi decided to reinterpret the film through dance, in collaboration with Damien Jalet, best known for choreographing the 2018 film Suspiria. The collaboration happened organically. “I’ve been a big fan of UNDERCOVER for a while,” Jalet tells me after the dance rehearsal. “I was doing some choreography based on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and saw that Jun did a collection based on it. Then, after I saw the Suspiria collection, I knew we had to work together. It was fate.”
“One day I got an email from Damien,” Takahashi tells me at his hotel two days after the show, “and I thought that it would be great to collaborate with him. I’ve wanted to do something on Kurosawa for a long time, but didn’t know how. And here was the answer.”
Takahashi and Jalet set to work, exchanging ideas via email every day. Jalet happened to have just watched Throne of Blood and was impressed by it, and was happy to help Takahashi turn three key scenes into a three-part dance performance. It would be the first time UNDERCOVER’s men’s and women’s collections would be shown together, giving the duo all the more reason to make the show more memorable. The collection, called “Fallen Man,” took Takahashi just two weeks to design. “I work fast,” he chuckles, seeing the expression of disbelief on my face.
The show was held at Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione in Paris’ Marais district. Its rotund arena was perfect for what Takahashi wanted to do: turn it into a giant archery target. The raised bullseye doubled as the titular throne. In the first scene, in which Washizu meets the spirits, Takahashi filled the arena with smoke. “I’ve always wanted to do something with smoke, and I finally got to do it,” he says. The spirit was played by three female dancers, and the lead was performed by Erna Ómarsdóttir, the artistic director of Icelandic Dance Company, who has collaborated with artists such as Björk and Sigur Rós. The dancers were covered by an enormous white kimono, which Takahashi created specifically for the performance.
In the second scene, the spirit turns into Washizu’s power-hungry wife, who wants to speed up the prophecy that puts her husband on the throne. In the third, he pays for his sins via a volley of arrows that eventually strike him down. And now to reveal the magic behind the show’s climax: The arrows were suspended in the rig under the circus’ ceiling, their magnetic heads perfectly positioned to meet the magnets embedded in the floor.
During rehearsals, Takahashi calmly looks on as Jalet gently prods the dancers to get everything just right — the moves, the flow of the dance, even their facial expressions. Ron Morelli and Krikor Kouchian of L.I.E.S. records (who created the show’s soundtrack) are also present. The Brooklyn-based techno duo recently attracted Takahashi’s attention with their industrial-inflected sound. “I have recently been attracted to industrial techno and ambient music,” Takahashi says. “I’ve never really paid attention to it before, but I’ve come to appreciate it. I’ve been doing quite a bit of DJing lately, and I like that sound. I’d never thought I would like EDM before listening to these guys.”
The designer turned 50 last September, and there is a newfound serenity about him that comes to an artist when he has said what he wanted to say and was heard. Arguably, Takahashi is at his creative peak, with a history of trailblazing that makes other, more hyped designers that helm sleek luxury fashion houses — Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, Dior’s Kim Jones — seek him out for inspiration and collaboration. The critical acclaim is constant, and so it was with “Fallen Man.” “[T]he product of thought and culture and feeling, made wearable,” as Luke Leitch wrote in his review for Vogue, deftly summing up Takahashi’s work in one sentence. People I spoke to days after the show were smitten, even those who hitherto weren’t fans of UNDERCOVER.
It seems Takahashi has also grown comfortable with his Japanese roots. Kurosawa was not an easy topic to approach, and it’s hard to believe that this is his first collection in which he overtly references Japanese culture. But when I say that he probably didn’t want UNDERCOVER to be pigeonholed as a Japanese brand, Takahashi replies: “No, UNDERCOVER is a Japanese brand.” Still, he remains unique in interpreting Western culture through his own transgressive lens, a lens that is deeply personal. A creative spirit shouldn’t be put in a box, though unfortunately, this is now commonplace, thanks to Instagram’s trigger-happy cultural commentators.
A few days later, Rei Kawakubo presented her COMME des GARÇONS men’s collection, which was immediately slammed on social media for cultural appropriation. “At least you won’t be accused of that,” Business of Fashion’s Tim Blanks quipped backstage. We laughed, because it was funny, and because it was sad.
Along with Kawakubo, Takahashi remains one of the last fashion punks, doing what he wants, when he wants it. He is unique in the way that he has enriched capital-F fashion while giving so much back to the youth culture that inspired him. Wearing UNDERCOVER is like wearing a band T-shirt in high school and connecting with those who get it. Undoubtedly, so it will be with “Fallen Man.”
- Words: Eugene Rabkin
- Photography: Eva Al Desnudo