In 1965, the year Toyota introduced its humble Corona sedan in the U.S. and started Japan's hostile takeover of global auto markets, a subtler sort of invasion began in New York. There, a Japanese fashion designer named Hanae Mori presented her first collection. Her designs, which blended traditional Western forms with Japanese aesthetics, were a critical and commercial sensation; major department stores snapped up Mori's creations, and it wasn't long before "Madame Butterfly," as she came to be known, owned boutiques in New York and Paris and became the first Asian to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, France's prestigious fashion union.
Mori, 80, is the grand dame of a clutch of Japanese designers who have since made waves of their own. Over the last 30 years, Mori, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto each left indelible impressions on international style with their groundbreaking work, proving that Asia could be a wellspring of inspiration, not just a base for textile mills and clothing factories. In his debut at the 1973 Paris Autumn/Winter Collection, Miyake stunned the fashion business with designs that were functional yet futuristic. His emphasis on creating a garment from a single piece of fabric earned him the nickname "Cloth Sculptor," but he ultimately leveraged his influence far beyond the boutique. Today, the Issey Miyake brand extends to luggage, home furnishings, even bicycles. Then there is Yamamoto, who revolutionized avant-garde clothing in the late 1970s when he unveiled a collection of elegant women's fashions based on men's garments. Though he was aggressively courted by Paris fashion houses, Yamamoto stayed in Tokyo, where today he mentors his daughter, Limi, a young designer who regularly takes part in the Tokyo Collection.
Still influencing creators around the world is Rei Kawakubo, the reclusive founder of Comme des Garçons, which grew into a global chain in the 1980s. With co-conspirator Yamamoto, Kawakubo burst onto the Paris fashion scene in 1981 with her "rag look." These often austere garments, sometimes lacking a sleeve or other component, seemed almost antifashion back then, but their impact was so widespread that many designers are now classified as "before" or "after" Comme des Garçons. In her show at Paris Fashion Week this year, Kawakubo's models appeared in outfits festooned with oddly shaped fragments of cloth and plastic, including some shaped like the rising sun of the Japanese flag. This rebelliousness is the essence of her character. "The other day I had an opportunity to review the bulk of my past work," she told me recently, "and there is much I would happily discard." In an industry where reinvention and change is the only constant, that very un-Japanese dissatisfaction with the status quo has been an indispensable trait for all four of Japan's great fashion iconoclasts.