How A Niche Fashion Designer Has Maintained Entrepreneurial Longevity

The entrepreneurial fashion designer Alpana Bawa has remained in business for more than 30 years in New York City. This is no small feat as emerging designers can be the hot darlings of the fashion world one moment, kicked to the curb the next. The fashion industry is notoriously fickle.

Bawa’s eponymous clothing line is known for its bold and funky mix of colors, prints, patterns and fabrics. She operates her own boutique that sells her collection, currently located in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown and Little Italy.

Donning an outfit she designed—a bright green skirt with vertical stripes paired with a fuchsia embroidered blouse—Bawa straightens out the displays in her long glass-front shop with a bright red floor. Her pieces, typically made of silk, cotton or wool fabrics, are not cheap. A dress might cost $400, a shirt $250 and a t-shirt $45, but each piece is individually constructed, the craftsmanship is exquisite.

Professionally, Bawa came of age in the 1980s in New York City. She moved from Delhi, where she grew up, to study fashion at Parsons School of Design in 1983. The city was wild, affordable and exploding with underground creativity—from the club scene and early hip-hop to the art of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The infamous nightclub Area —mind-boggling because of its decadent artistry and fantastic mix of clubgoers—opened the year Bawa arrived. “I am really lucky that I was part of that,” reminisces Bawa, who frequented the city’s clubs.

Bawa’s early career is a veritable who’s who and what’s what of the 1980s downtown scene. Her first collection sold at Susanne Bartsch’s SoHo store (before Bartsch became the city’s reigning nightclub queen) where Bawa worked. Madonna purchased one of Bawa’s velvet outfits, which she wore for a photo spread in the now defunct Details Magazine. Bawa’s designs sold next to pieces by Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, among other British designers.

Because of Bawa’s creative outfits she was soon working the door at the nightclub M.K. where she met Serge Becker, a downtown entrepreneurial figure connected to some of the city’s most renowned clubs, bars and restaurants; currently the Creative and Artistic Director of the Museum of Sex.

“I talked with Serge about wanting to start my own business,” recalls Bawa when she worked at M.K. “He gave me a check and said, ‘Okay, go do it. And you don’t have to kill yourself to return it,’ so I still haven’t returned it,” Bawa laughs. “He just believed in what I was trying to do. I don’t know if you would find that anymore,” exclaims Bawa, someone willing to fund a creative endeavor without a guaranteed return on investment.

Those formative years of the analog and affordable 80s are the ethos by which Bawa still operates as an artist and entrepreneur, despite today’s harsh economic reality. How has Bawa, who values creativity and quality over profitability, remained an artistic small business owner?

Listen To The Gut, Be Yourself

Throughout Bawa’s first twenty years, she hired and fired PR people; opened and closed retail stores. “I did fashion shows, trade shows, I’ve done it all,” says Bawa who also graced the pages of major fashion publications, from Vogue to Elle. “At the end, I just felt like I was a manager,” says Bawa. “I don’t want to be a manager, I’d rather be creative.”

At one point she began to ignore all well-intentioned advice about growing her business. “Once I stopped listening to the outside, I could listen to the inside voice.” Instead of expanding, she chose to downsize and streamline, which turned out to be a prophetic decision because she downsized just prior to the 2009 recession.

While social media is the lifeline for many artistic entrepreneurs, Bawa uses it minimally and is fine with it. “I mean, I do have an Instagram page,” says Bawa reluctantly, “but being a little old fashioned, I don’t feel comfortable with bombarding people.” She even feels slightly embarrassed sending emails to customers on her mailing list about a 20% off sale.

Loyal Customers

Bawa has a devoted, loyal customer base, most of whom are in their 30s or older, working in creative fields. “Customers appreciate the craftsmanship, see the value if it. And don’t want the fast fashion,” explains Bawa. Since each piece is already individually made, Bawa offers her customers custom colors, slight design changes and tailoring, usually at no extra cost.

On a recent afternoon Jenny Raymond, an oboist and the executive director of the Harnisch Foundation/Awesome Without Borders visited the Alpana Bawa store with her young daughter Pippa. Raymond has been a regular customer since her brother bought her an Alpana Bawa skirt as a gift more than 25 years ago (and was subsequently stolen). “It was the first beautiful piece of clothing I ever owned,” recounts Raymond.

Cutting Costs By Cutting Out The Middleman/woman

“I control all ends of it,” says Bawa of her collections’ production, which she’s manufactured in India for the past 25 years. “I don’t produce with an outsider, I’m not paying someone double the amount of what the cost is,” she notes, underscoring, “There’s no middleman.”

Location

Many artistic entrepreneurs in New York City opt to sell their products via pop-ups, marketplaces, Etsy or similar ecommerce sites over paying New York City rent for a brick and mortar shop. Some small business owners have even moved Upstate or cheaper cities like Philadelphia. But Bawa feels that her products need to be touched and seen in person.

Despite NoLita’s astronomical retail rents, which can run $200 to $450 per square foot, Bawa is staying put, as the neighborhood is known for its small designer shops, drawing tourists and residents with deep pockets. “I like being in the shop,” adds Bawa, “I like the interaction with people, the feedback.”

Several years ago Bawa did attempt an online shop connected to her website, but by the time the backend was ready, the images were a year old. “To redo things just takes too long,” explains Bawa. However, she does hint that maybe she’ll hire someone in the future to oversee an ecommerce site. “I do want to move that way,” she concedes, “Maybe the next few years I’ll phase out the shop and go online.”

Queen of cool: how off-duty Diana became style’s new muse

Diana has always been a style icon – but only now has she has become truly hip. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Alexa Chung have all been referencing her look and celebrating her at her most alive

A selection of Diana’s greatest fashion its and (centre) Rihanna, sporting the look. Composite: Getty/Rex

For the first time ever, Princess Diana is cool. Diana has been many things – the fairytale bride, the ill-treated wife, the pioneer of revenge dressing and, finally, the queen of hearts – but hip is the one thing she has never been. At her wedding in 1981, and again at her funeral in 1997, she was a tabloid goddess. In between, she was a Vogue cover star. But she was never an avant-garde muse – until now.

Virgil Abloh made his name as Kanye West’s creative director, and his Off-White label is now one of the hottest in the fashion industry. A profile in W magazine called him the “king of social media superinfluencers” and “a canny translator of youth culture”. His show in Florence last month was an installation combining fashion and poetry created in collaboration with the American artist Jenny Holzer; a political statement that Abloh described as being about “immigration and the plight of refugees”. Abloh has art-directed an album for Jay-Z and designed limited-edition sneakers for Nike.

Diana at Alton towers sporting the big-jacket look. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

You get the picture: Abloh’s point of view is a fashion hot take. Last week, he released – on Instagram, naturally – his moodboard for next season. With a caption reading, “One woman, 40 Off-White looks in the works come September”, the moodboard was a collage of photographs of Diana: Diana laughing in a green baseball jacket at Alton Towers with her sons; Diana in denim dungarees at the polo; Diana leaving the gym in cycling shorts; Diana in a grey marl sweatshirt with a HARVARD slogan; Diana with a white polo neck worn layered under bright knitwear; Diana in a calf-length skirt.

Her status as a muse for Off-White officially makes Diana the coolest style reference of the moment. What’s more, Abloh’s moodboard highlights how Diana’s off-duty wardrobe – overlooked in the homages to her glamour that focus on her blockbuster gown-and-tiara moments – looks uncannily modern. That college-style baseball jacket? Revived by Ashish at his London fashion week show this season. Denim dungarees? Worn by Alexa Chung (with nothing underneath) in the campaign for her latest collection for AG. Cycling shorts? Kim Kardashian is on a mission to bring them back. Logo sweatshirt? Swap out Harvard for Kale and you have got one of Beyoncé’s most memorable looks. The white polo neck as an underlayer? Straight out of the Céline catwalk playbook. The calf-length skirt? I’m wearing one now. You probably are, too.

This is a new take on Diana, and the first one that positions her as cool. Diana as a style icon is not new, but her previous incarnations have been very different. We had Diana the red-carpet bombshell, glinting with diamonds and wafting Elnett, with glamour straight out of an episode of Dynasty (and the love-rat storylines to match). That Diana was glamorous, but not hip. After that, the dreamy, engagement-era innocent Diana in the pie-crust collar was adopted by east London fashionistas. Chung turned this look mass, when she revived the pie-crust collar for her collection at Marks & Spencer last year. That look was too heavily sardonic to count as true championing of Diana, and too self-consciously ironic to be sexy.

The new framing of Diana – more sexy, dynamic and modern – can be traced back almost four years, and it starts with Rihanna. In 2013 – at about the time the singer was photographed wearing a two-tone baseball jacket very similar to Diana’s, as it happens – Rihanna told Glamour magazine that the princess was her fashion hero. “She was like – she killed it. Every look was right. She was gangsta with her clothes. She got oversize jackets. I loved everything she wore.” Last year, Rihanna was snapped wearing Diana’s face on an oversized tribute T-shirt, worn as a minidress over thigh-high spike-heel boots.

Diana with Charles (and white polo neck) in 1981. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Since then, versions of Diana’s off-duty looks have been heavily referenced by street-style stars. Those blazers with the disproportionately wide shoulders that Balenciaga did last year, and which have evolved into the double-breasted numbers that will be infiltrating our wardrobes this autumn? Add white jeans, ballet pumps and car keys, and you have single Diana in the mid-90s. The rise of the one-piece statement swimsuit as the summer look that trumps a bikini? Nobody did it better than Diana. (Think of that unforgettable image of her alone on a diving board in a pale blue one-piece, taken in her last summer.)

Diana-nostalgia in this new form is a mirror image of the sentimentality for the 80s that Stranger Things tapped into. Just as Stranger Things celebrates a popcorny version of 80s Americana, big on backpacks, Pop-Tarts and Spielberg references, so the new version of Diana celebrates a more carefree image of her life than the traditional narrative. This Diana is more about log-flume rides and Chelsea gym sessions than betrayal, divorce and revenge. A new generation of fashion consumers has only a sketchy recollection of Diana as the doomed young bride or the scandalously wronged woman. Two decades after her death, this generation is celebrating Diana at her most alive.

States of Undress Takes Fashion Reporting Further

States of Undress Takes Fashion Reporting Further

Within the past year, 27-year-old reporter Hailey Gates has traveled to France to dissect why there’s been a recent rise in Islamophobia within the country, and to Bolivia to examine the source of its identity politics and changing social currents. She’s been to Mexico City to understand why certain subcultures, or tribas urbanas, have formed, and to post-war Liberia to cover the existing disparities between race, class and gender. On paper, Hailey has the credentials of a hard-hitting investigative journalist—and rightfully so. She’s put herself in dangerous situations and broken bread with sexist, racist, xenophobic and otherwise discriminatory individuals for the sake of exceptional reporting. But she’s done it all while hosting a show that is about—or appears to be about—fashion.

Called States of Undress, the Viceland program is in its second season and proves that clothing and style have a place in discussions about politics, social movements, cultural revolutions, and more. Each episode, Hailey goes to a different city with the initial intention of covering something fashion-centric (oftentimes she will go to cover a fashion show or pageant; more rarely, she will go to cover a specific style of clothing or trend that has caused buzz) but winds up delving deeply into the location’s sociopolitical happenings. In short, she uses fashion as a point of access to important stories that are otherwise often off-limits to American media crews.

“We go to places with associations that are dominated by ideas of conflict and try to hopefully alter those perceptions through an angle that’s seemingly frivolous,” explains Hailey, who was never interested in appearing on a show that simply grazed the surface of the fashion industry. “It’s a way to get people interested in something they maybe wouldn’t be interested in through other means.”

Hailey in Liberia.

Take, for example, this season’s episode that brings Hailey to Beirut, Lebanon, a city that is home to designers who are world famous for their couture gowns. Their luxe, expensive creations often show in Paris and are sold to wealthy consumers from the West and gulf Arab countries—and they’re often being made by Syrian tailors who fled their country because of theSyrian Civil War. “I spoke with a designer [with Syrian employees] who is a very strong supporter of Hezbollah and has been an anchor for many Hezbollah news stations,” says Hailey, who attended a conference of Syrian tailors and visited refugee camps while filming. (Hezbollah is Shi’a Islamist militant group and political party that supports Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.) “In doing this small piece about fashion and refugees, the conversation just kept getting more and more complicated, even within the small circle of [Lebanese] designers,” she continues. “Coming back home from filming it, we landed in New York the day the travel band was instated. We walked through the airport while a protest was occurring. It was so hard to come from spending time in these refugee camps where people were starving to get by and then coming back home to a place where we’re not even letting them in. That was pretty rough.”

Just as the peg behind the Lebanon episode was a seemingly petty exploration of couture gowns, the fashion hook of the France episode was the nation’s 2010 “burqua ban” and the smaller town-sanctioned burkini bans that were happening last year; the Bolivia episode hook was a fashion show featuring both traditional cholita style clothing and more Westernized designs; the episode in Mexico City was initially approached with the intention of exploring the definitive styles of prominent subcultures including punk and emo; the Liberia episode centered on a sartorial event: Fashion Week Liberia.

Hailey with Bolivian women wearing traditional cholita attire. Courtesy of Viceland.

Clearly, Hailey and her crew have been able to visit a myriad of diverse places under the guise of fashion journalists—accessibility is something they have on their side. While many reporters and outlets have a difficult time being approved for visas to such countries or are even flat-out rejected, because of the supposedly superficial nature of Hailey’s reporting she and her team are often allowed in with little trouble. “We go to cover ‘fashion,’” she explains, drawing out the last word to imply it should be bookended with quotation marks. “There are definitely a lot of people from other outlets and shows who feel very frustrated because they’ve been waiting for visas from some of the same places that they don’t get.”

Although the fact that the show is produced by a largely female team does have frustrating drawbacks (“half the time we have a female director but in many moments we have to pretend one of our camera guys is the director so that the contributor or fixer will take us seriously), it can also be a major advantage. “Having a female team can be one of our best assets in terms of getting people comfortable on camera,” says Hailey. “It’s often hard to get people to feel like they can say the things they want. The world gives so much credence to male leaders and male politicians and the male leader of the family. I think it’s why we all work so hard on the show and care so much. It’s an opportunity for us to go and hear everyone’s voices.”

States of Undress has brilliantly allowed fashion to become a serious topic of conversation–a lens, if you will, through which major events, shifts and advancements can be viewed. Hailey’s exceptional interview and reporting skills give the program serious depth, while her silly sense of humor and on-point outfits keep it real, accessible and captivating. “I think the show is at its best when we’re not pointing out the differences between people but rather the sameness,” she says. “There’s such a boogieman culture today. There’s just so much xenophobia and so much fear of the other and I think if we’re able to show that the other is not so other I would feel the show is a success.”

Fashion swaps black for colour in brave, bright new world

CUE Georgette ruffle dress; Ginger & Smart skirt and top; model at Tibi S/S 2017; Caroline Issa.

It is one of the most common questions I am asked as a fashion director, and it used to be a pretty straightforward one to answer. What colour is in this season? Blue is what I might have said once, or maybe red. Another season it might have been yellow or green. There would have been two options maximum. Easy.

These days my response depends on how long you’ve got. For spring-summer 2017 there was a veritable paragraph’s worth of hues on the catwalk, the common theme being bright-bright-bright. There was red (as seen at Christian Dior and Celine), pink (Valentino and Balenciaga), green (Fendi and Emporio Armani), blue (Salvatore Ferragamo and Prada), sunshine yellow (Chloe and Erdem), and that was just the beginning.

Gucci delivered a mash-up of colours so manifold that it left the term kaleidoscopic in the shade. “Why have one colour when you can have 73?” seems to be the motto of its creative director, Alessandro Michele.

What’s with all the colour? It’s because that’s where fashion is at these days, on every darn tootin’ thing. Trouser shapes and skirt lengths are subject to debate. Eras are referenced and mixed up with the abandon of a confused A-level history student. It’s not that designers don’t know what to do any more, it’s that they know they can’t be dictators. The modern woman wants options. More than that, the modern woman no longer exists. She is no longer a homogenous entity who can be summed up as “woman” in the singular. Modern women, they are the ones who are shopping for clothes, and their predilections — like their postcode — may lie any which way.

All of which is good yet confusing news for us consumers. We are allowed — finally — to pick and choose colours, not to mention shapes and styles, that suit us. Many of us appear to be embracing that opportunity. Hot hues such as yellow and pink are selling out like never before, according to retail analytics company Edited, up by 68 per cent and 67 per cent respectively in the past three months compared with the same period last year.

As Lydia King, the women’s wear buying director at Selfridges, observes: “Colour is less trend-led now. It’s more about brand personality, and about the fact that women want clothes that are individual and easy to wear.”

Carla Zampatti jumpsuit, $1149.

But what if we aren’t sure what suits us? Isn’t it safest to stick to what we know? (Which, let’s be honest here, probably means black, navy, white and earth tones.) I hear you. However, part of the reason fashion has gone potty for bright colour is because it is such a great game changer, a one-stop way to change how somebody looks and feels. More than that, it does so without getting in the way of your life. What even the most highfalutin designers have clocked is that even the most highfalutin women want easy clothes that don’t dictate they sit a certain way or breathe a certain way. So they have endowed simple, often classic items with new-found specialness by way of unexpected colour, be it Dior’s scarlet biker jacket ($5200, in store only, dior.com) or Ferragamo’s sapphire trench dress ($2600, in store only, ferragamo.com). We can — and should — learn from that. (For more affordable alternatives try Lth Jkt’s red leather biker, $US495, lthjkt.com, and Finery’s blue linen Hartington wrap dress, $165, finerylondon.com.)

Caroline Issa, publisher of Tank magazine when she isn’t being papped for her superlative personal style, is one of the most dedicated followers of colour in the fashion business. “I love it. I actually feel strange wearing black now.” However, she has her rules, which is why hers is an approach worth noting by those of us who are less tonally skilled. “Keep your silhouettes simple and make colour the loudest thing about your outfit,” is her top tip. She is also a big fan of bright tailoring. “I love wearing head-to-toe purple or strong blue suits, playing with the combination of a strict cut and a fun colour.”

If that sounds like too much, then you could wear a popping jacket with neutral trousers, or vice versa. Issa’s advice: “Use accessories to add colour to an all-black outfit, or a white shirt with jeans. Think colourful shoes, a bag or jewellery.” It’s those small forays into rainbow chic that will help you to build confidence to attempt something bigger. I like Milli Millu’s Manhattan cross-body bag, which comes in yellow, red, cerise, forest and eight more colour combos ($378, millimillu.com). Or how about Katerina Makriyianni’s gorgeous pink and green gem chandelier earrings? ($545, avenue32.com).

What if you are feeling braver? First things first. Always scope out a new-to-you colour in the flesh — which means trying it on in a shop or being brutally honest about sending back an online purchase if it doesn’t look right. And make sure to try it on in daylight, accessorised with your real make-up, hairstyle, shoes and bag.

Naturally Issa isn’t having any of it when it comes to the notion of certain colours suiting certain people. “I tend to ignore that idea that there are particular colours that you shouldn’t wear, and I tell my friends to do the same,” she says. “Redheads always tell me that they can’t wear pinks or reds or more oranges, but I think if you play with colour confidently then anything goes.”

Australian designers have an inherent understanding of colour. The coming spring-summer season sees bold reds from Carla Zampatti, including an angled neckline jumpsuit (carlazampatti.com.au), greens from Ginger & Smart (gingerandsmart.com) and Dion Lee’s imminent autumn collection features cobalt blue and deep orange (dionlee.com).

On the high street, Cue (cue.cc) is spruiking cobalt and crimson this season, while US label J. Crew (jcrew.com) consistently nails bright colour like no one else.

At a higher price point, American label Tibi has become a fashion pack go-to. Standout pieces include an asymmetric red stretch faille top and a yellow crepe de chine top, which has almost sold out ($487 and $847, respectively, matchesfashion.com). British label Roksanda offers colour like few others, and its bell-sleeve Margot crepe dress — available in blue or peach — has already become something of a classic since it launched three years ago ($1700, matchesfashion.com). What a joy of a dress it is. And that’s the key to the whole matter, according to Issa. “I recently wore a red dress and was stopped on the street by teenage girls, a 70-something man and everyone in between, all excited by the colour.” I can’t think of a better reason to boldly go.

Miami Swim Week fashion trends you’ll need to know about for 2018-2019

Miami Swim Week is a marathon of fashion events centered on swimsuits that rolls into Miami Beach every July.

Thousands of manufacturers, buyers, designers, stylists, models, press and “social media influencers” go to catwalk capers, product launches, nightclub parties, designer presentations and private dinners.

There’s even a smattering of celebrities, such as Christina Milian, Tyson Beckford, Wale and Leighton Meester. And if you are of the opinion that reality TV can produce a “star,” then you would have been thrilled to spot Eva Marcille (“America’s Next Top Model”), Darnell Nicole (“WAGS Miami”), Angel Brinks (“Basketball Wives L.A.”), Erica Mena (“Love and Hip Hop N.Y.”) and Tatu Baby (“Ink Masters” and “Black Ink Crew”).

Basically, people come from all over the globe because Miami Swim Week is the largest in the world. Because of that, we can get a good idea of the trends that you will see when these styles hit retail racks next spring for the 2018-2019 season.

Sports Illustrated Swimwear at Miami Swim Week 2017.

While there is every possible kind of suit out there (the Boho trend is still very strong at the let’s-get-down-to-business trade shows) we focused on what’s new and directional on the catwalks.

MAJOR TRENDS ON THE RUNWAY

• Shimmer. Shiny fabrics, Lurex threading, gold beading, crystals and black sequins.

Courtney Allegra Swim at Miami Swim Week 2017.

• Thong and high-cut legs. The behind has moved to the front of fashion with bared buttocks all over the runway. And if you haven’t gotten a Vanicure (a patented term for apres-shave product line the Perfect V) in a while, you might want to rethink that situation since swimsuits are often cut very high all the way up to the hip bone.

• Sleeker looks. Less ruched and frilly effects and more one-pieces with color blocking, multi straps, mesh panels and lattice work in the place of dizzying prints. The one-shoulder is making a return from the ‘90s.

Hale Bob at Miami Swim Week 2017.

• Versatility. Swimwear is mixing with ready-to-wear for the woman who wants to go from sea to shore without a wardrobe change so look for . Designers showed swimsuits with off-the-shoulder tops, halter tops and high-neck crop tops. Many styles are reversible of have ties that can twist front to back to give one suit many different looks. Off the catwalk, in the trade show suites, designers talk about how the savvy customer is buying a black bikini bottom and mixing and matching with several different styles of tops.

MINI TRENDS ON THE RUNWAY

Gottex Swimwear at Miami Swim Week 2017.

• Hybrid of swimwear and activewear. Swimsuits are offering more support. Tankinis are still popular. And one of the newest silhouettes is a one-piece with a cap sleeve and a zip-front that resembles a scuba or a wet suit.

• Earth conscious. Not just earthier colors (such as clay, moss, olive, bark, rust brown and sunflower), but also designers and manufacturers are increasingly looking into using recycled and upcycled fabrics or sustainable material, like that made from the cassava root (instead of Lycra). A few luxury brands are focusing on hand- printing and dyeing to avoid commercial dyes.

Grayson Boyd at Miami Swim Week 2017.

FOR THE MER-MEN

Swim shorts that reach only to the upper thigh, about the same coverage as boxer underwear (say goodbye to surfer board shorts). The prints are usually either lush tropical botanicals or whimsical conversational prints.

FROM THE TRADE SHOWS

At the Hammock trade show at the W hotel: Lace, mesh panels and lattice effects; botanical and conversational prints; muted tones, cabana stripes on flats and sandals; feather jewelry.

At Swimwear Association of Florida’s SwimMiami trade show at the Miami Beach Convention Center: caftan coverups and maxi dresses in saturated colors and prints; Boho-chic has evolved into a world bazaar look (suits and coverups with hippie fringe, embroidery, pom-poms as well as straw bags and macrame should bags).

Luli Fama Swimwear at Miami Swim Week 2017

Fashion’s Ultimate Fantasist Makes a Comeback

Kansai Yamamoto isn’t a name that readily trips off the tongue when speaking about Japanese fashion design. Yohji is the Yamamoto that leaps to mind, a designer who upended Western ideas of dress alongside Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons in Paris in the early 1980s.

But Kansai (perhaps to avoid confusion, he tends to be referred to by his first name, rather than his last) got there first: He showed in London in 1971, a full decade before Kawakubo and the other Yamamoto. And his singular aesthetic — overloaded with color, print and Asiatic art inspirations galore — is proving especially influential to designers today.

You may not know Kansai’s name, but you’d recognize his clothes — from David Bowie, if no-one else. In clashing synthetics and high-shine silks in a cacophony of jarring shades, they are loud, even obnoxious. With sculptural, abstract shapes (practicality be damned!), they’re ideal to be seen from the back of a stadium — which is probably what attracted Bowie to them in the first place. Bowie started wearing Kansai’s ostensibly commercial women’s wear on his 1972 “Ziggy Stardust” tour, subsequently collaborating with the designer to create one-off showpieces.

David Bowie and Kansai Yamamoto at Kansai’s studio in April 1973, when Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour came to Japan. Bowie is wearing the “Space Samurai” jumpsuit, created by Yamamoto and based on the hakama, traditional Japanese men’s trousers worn with the kimono. Credit © Sukita

Born in Yokohama, on Japan’s east coast, Kansai graduated from Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College (also the training ground for Yohji Yamamoto, as well as Junya Watanabe and Jun Takahashi of Undercover). He founded his own business, Yamamoto Kansai Company, Ltd, at 28. The London show followed the same year, garnering attention and securing Kansai’s debut the cover of British Harpers & Queen magazine. “Explosion From Tokyo” ran the coverline. That first show made enough waves to attract Bowie’s attention, whose Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane tours cemented the Kansai aesthetic in popular culture.

Kansai allies his clothing to the Japanese concept of basara — a love of color and flamboyance. It’s also directly in contrast with the idea of wabi-sabi, the Buddhist ideal of the beauty in imperfection, modesty and humble materials. None of that is terribly Kansai. His clothes, by contrast, are more readily associated with the Azuchi–Momoyama period of Japanese art, a brief, opulent era between the mid-16th and early 17th centuries. The art of that period was pretty basara — lavish, decorative, often bold, even aggressive.

From left: Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci, fall/winter 2017; Valentino pre-fall 2016; Gucci pre-fall 2017. Credit From left: Firstview; courtesy of the designers (2)

Kansai’s aesthetic is, strangely, seldom tagged as “Japanese.” Perhaps that’s because we tend to think of Japan as wabi-sabi rather than basara — the former being readily associated with the intentionally distressed output of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo from the early 1980s, a look the fashion press disparagingly dubbed “Bag Lady Chic” and which remains, even today, the defining look of “Japanese” fashion. By contrast, Kansai’s designs cherry-pick from Japanese history — and roam through Asian art as a whole, fusing disparate visuals — irezumi tattoos, Imperial Chinese court robes from the Qing dynasty, a print derived from Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” — into single garments. Kansai’s prints and visual treatments echo the two-dimensional nature of much Asian art — bold and graphic, rather than nuanced and detailed, with the rich, brilliant colors of porcelain or enamel. He loved a wide unfurling cape, both for its impact as a silhouette but also as a canvas for decoration, like a Chinese or Japanese screen, allowing a pictorial story to unfold. The theatricality of the overall effect was also quintessentially early-’70s — and fundamentally glam.

Louis Vuitton’s resort 2018 collection, shown in Kyoto, featured a number of graphic designs created in collaboration with Kansai Yamamoto — including this Petit Malle purse, left, and a dress patterned with a traditional Japanese caricature of a yakko (warrior), right. Credit Courtesy of Louis Vuitton; Firstview

There’s something of a Kansai revival happening right now in fashion — or at least, a revival of his basara aesthetic. Kansai’s signature riot of color, texture and pattern is evident in Alessandro Michele’s most recent Gucci collections. Some designers have stuck closer than others to the Kansai style: The stated inspiration behind Valentino’s pre-fall 2016 collection was Elio Fiorucci, but a section that paid graphic homage to Japan (Mount Fuji included) looked pure Kansai. And Riccardo Tisci patterned his final Givenchy men’s wear collection in January with totem-pole graphics that bear uncanny similarities to Kansai’s gurning faces, with tongues protruding, inspired by the caricatured yakko (soldier) masks of Japanese theatre. Nicolas Ghesquiere at Louis Vuitton paid the most overt homage in his 2018 cruise show, which was held in Kyoto: He actually enlisted Kansai himself (who is now 73) to create several new graphics, including reworks of those grimacing yakko faces across brief shifts and boxy petit malle handbags.

That these contemporary brands are collaborating (or liberally borrowing) from Kansai’s obscure archive is less interesting than why. Why Kansai right now? Kansai’s clothes characterize a specific breed of 1970s escapism — into outer space, to new and imaginary cultures, to the future, from the past, shedding gender while you were at it. Glam rock — which Kansai’s designs for Bowie helped to fundamentally shape aesthetically — was about dreaming, about offering a certain unreality as a salve to troubled times. It was a colorful, campy distraction from terrorism, economic strife, the Yom Kippur and Vietnam Wars, and the crooked politicians of Watergate.

Ring any bells?

Gal Gadot, Cate Blanchett, and all the Best Fashion from Comic-Con’s Superhero Stars

Forget Hollywood: this weekend, all eyes were on San Diego for Comic-Con. Every year, actors from Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and assorted mega-franchises make their way to the event–and bring a wealth of designer looks with them. Showing up for panels, autograph signings, and photo ops means looking great and–spoiler alert–paying attention to the runways’ biggest trends.

Given their comfort level with superhero costumes and fantasy gear, the actresses of Comic Con weren’t afraid of taking a few fashion risks, or playing against their onscreen type. Fresh from donning horned helmets and a brunette wig as Hella, goddess of death in Thor: Ragnarok, Cate Blanchett arrived in a dapper suit from Monse. Her co-star Tessa Thompson kept things sweet in lacy Rodarte, a stark contrast to the layers of armor she sports as Valkyrie as well as the corporate power dressing she wears on Westworld. Lupita Nyong’o brought tropical glamour in a patterned Elie Saab, and Krysten Ritter kept things exciting with three monochromatic looks.

Of course, Marvel’s stars weren’t the only ones turning heads. DC faithful weren’t disappointed: Wonder Woman Gal Gadot’s sequined Stella McCartney raised the bar for best dressed. Here, a look at the freshest fashion from Comic-Con’s most stylish actresses.