REVIEW Years after Europunk deconstructionists copped a few tears, ties, and folds from Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo and A-list fashionista Carolyn Bessette Kennedy championed the cutting austerity of Yohji Yamamoto, it's safe to say that the once-coupled Japanese designers and their slight predecessor Issey Miyake have been firmly ensconced as pillars of avant-garde fashion. But that doesn't mean their work and that of Kawakubo acolytes Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara is ready to be filed away without another look. Take another, then another, because the ravishing, ingenious frocks on display at "Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute," presented in conjunction with Hiroshi Sugimoto's "History of History" and cocurated by the photographer, will likely trigger seething desire in the most adventurous dressers and lance residual snobbery regarding the concept of fashion as art in the most rigid cultural conservatives.
Sugimoto punctuates the exhibition's two dramatically darkened rooms with four large-scale images selected from a forthcoming series. These foreground the clothing's architectural alchemy amid his masterful interplay of creamy light and nuanced shadow. But the dresses, shown without the visual noise of notation, are the real stars. Miyake's 1989 spiny, black, pleated polyester gown simultaneously evokes prickly succulents and sea urchins, intricate origami, and cryptic ninjas a surreal fusion that the designer continued to rework, refining an innovative pleating technique that allows the garment to lie flat and morph with the wearer. Cuing recollections of papal robes and ship bows, Yamamoto's 1996 wool dress and underskirt reference the elaborately sashed silhouette of a traditional kimono as well as the modernist lines of Cristóbal Balenciaga. And one can't help thinking of the Venus of Willendorf and Jennifer Lopez while gazing at the down-padded, protruding shoulders and posterior of Kawakubo's 1997 body-conscious vamp-as-linebacker ensemble.
STYLIZED SCULPTURE: CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE FASHION FROM THE KYOTO COSTUME INSTITUTE Through Jan. 6, 2008. Tues.Wed. and Fri.Sun., 10 a.m.5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.9 p.m.; $6$10. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, SF. (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org