In today’s uncertain climate, many designers are thinking about functionality when creating garments and using technical materials to achieve it. But it was over 20 years ago that the industry started paying attention to these “magic” fabrics that spoke of the future.
Junya Watanabe was one of the designers that pioneered their use. To mimic the effect of the cellophane gel used in lighting, he developed a polyurethane-laminated nylon tricot for his fall 1995 Mutants collection, and his famous, hand-sewn honeycomb ruffs for fall 2000 were made using nylon organza. Manus et machina in action.
In his spring 2000 collection, titled Function and Practicality, Watanabe made truly dramatic use of a water repellent fabric, created by the Japanese mill Toray. To demonstrate the fabric’s utility, models walked under a cascade of water to the strains of The Carpenters’ 1971 hit “Rainy Days and Mondays.” They wore headscarves and pretty shift dresses in an early 1960s cookie-cutter vein, a number of which were reversible. This was fashion with function, which has long been Watanabe’s way. “Sometimes I feel a little ridiculous putting so much thinking into a dress that looks that simple,” Watanabe told when talking about an earlier lineup, a sentiment that applies here as well.
The dresses were colorful and girlish, featuring ruffles and polka dots and florals. “His waterproofs are fanciful, feminine, and metamorphic: a Lilly Pulitzer-esque shift that, if unzipped and unpeeled and rezipped, mutates from one dress to another; a shawl that drops to become the ruffled skirt of a flirty dress,” wrote Sally Singer in Vogue at the time. “Every season, Watanabe takes on an unlikely challenge and overcomes it with humor and a resilient devotion to conservative notions of elegance.”
The collection was received with delight, and it’s been reported that the reclusive designer had to take two bows. Outlander star Caitriona Balfe, who opened the show, remembers it clearly. “Walking through the rain effect during the show was magical… you could feel the water drops bounce off the fabric, but other than feeling it on our arms we remained completely dry. There was a palpable buzz coming off the audience and I remember feeling so proud to have been part of something so unique and special.”