After Nagara Sambandaraksa’s show this evening, I was asked by one of his biggest customers—a society fixture—what I thought of the clothes. In my mind, it was a farraginous collection, but I told her that it felt like I was seeing, once again, homage to Nippon costume. Her rejoinder: “Pi Toi loves Japan”. But we already new that.
(When I was first acqainted with the Nagara label some 15 years ago, I thought I heard it uttered as Nagoya. Moreover, the name does sound rather Japonais, and there is, coincidentally, a Nagara River in the Gifu prefecture of central Japan.)
His connection to Japan can be traced back to his student days when Nagara studied traditional Japanese arts and crafts in Kameoka, one of the country’s foggiest cities that abuts Kyoto to the east. Throughout his career, and even during his collaboration with Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company, Nagara has visited and re-visted Japan. From the kimono to the obi to the hakama, he has somehow worked them into his designs. For some observers, he should, perhaps, have been a costumer, and be employed in traditional theatres across Japan. And when he’s not engaged in putting together the clothes for a production, he should be designing get-ups for those who perform or parade in Harajuku.
This time, outside CentralWorld, Nagara returned to Japan by way of India. The collection’s main motif is the peacock feather, which he used, not sparingly, in print as well as the actual plume itself. A short chemise dress with beaded neckline and sequined bodice was overlaid on the skirt with tiers of peacock feathers that were severely trimmed to show only the ‘eye’. I tried very hard, but I could not put Prada’s Spring/Summer 2005 collection off my mind. To Pi Toi’s loyal fans, this may not be fair likening, but the similarity is too uncanny to ignore.
However, Nagara does not share Prada’s aesthetic. He does not tailor; he does not engineer. He tends to pattern his dresses flat, and assemble them as if joining two pieces of cloth. His clothes tend to be flowy, much in the spirit of the suitai form of nageire ikebana. In essence, a kimono or, more accurately, yukata approach to dress-making.
He showed column dresses, tunic tops, duster-like coats, and too many drapey numbers to count. He did not scrimp on fabrics since the clothes–pleated, gathered, and draped–used so much of cloth, and it was through the fabrics that Nagara was able to articulate something. As a trained textile designer, his silks were intriguing, if not imaginative.
At this point, I should state that the Japanese pull was not overwhelmingly evident in the womenswear. It manifested itself mostly in the togs for guys, which might be beyond the ken of average Joe. The samurai influence was clear enough, but what was not apparent was the relevance of the outfits to a modern male wardrobe. Who do you know (or how many) would wear a jacket with sleeves and cowl neck, minus the body? Or a sleeveless Mandarin-collared top with frog buttons? Or a dragon-emblazoned boiler suit? Were the guys put on the catwalk so that the women’s clothes could, by contrast, look real and wearable?
I focused on the male models, who were unruffled by the extraneous elements of their outfits, and wondered if they would still look so cool dressed in this manner somewhere in Sukhumvit. The problem was, I could not decide whether it was fashion or fancy dress.