Art: Wearable Art

Mary Baskett talks about Japanese design

Joe Lamb

Mary Baskett stands amid her collection of Japanese fashions at the Cincinnati Art Musuem, which she contributed for the exhibition Where Would You Wear That?

Mary Baskett is wearing an Issey Miyake dress. It has vertical gathers along the side seams in a most interesting way. She's also wearing an asymmetrical Miyake necklace. A slightly askew look is perfectly natural in our surroundings, an exhibition of clothing by Japanese designers called Where Would You Wear That? currently on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM).

"You can wear it anywhere," is Baskett's answer, and she should know.

The exhibition came out of her own closet and is from the collection she has been accumulating — and wearing — since first discovering the untraditional sensibilities of Japanese designers in the 1970s. Baskett, an authority on contemporary Japanese prints, regularly visits Japan for professional purposes. She often expands her wardrobe there as well.

Although the designers in the CAM exhibition have influenced designers everywhere, their own clothing seems to float serenely above fashion ins and outs.

Do these outfits ever appear dated?

"No," says Baskett.

She indicates a black dress in polyester and leather.

"It will look so fresh five years from now," she says. "At first you may not understand a dress, then you come to know how to wear it. ... I knew from the beginning that these three designers (Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo) really interested me. Sometimes Issey Miyake might have an off year, but then someone else would be having an on year. For instance, look at this."

We are looking at one of the most recent additions to the collection: a suit, jacket, bodysuit skirt/trousers and hat by Yamamoto. If that seems a long list of attributes for a garment, recognize further unconventionalities: two accommodations for the wearer's arms, effectively four sleeves; there are pants and also the suggestion of a skirt.

"I first saw it in the store window, the only thing in this marvelous gallery space, there she was!" Baskett says. "It's so beautifully tailored; it doesn't look stupid. It looks as though it flows. You step into the pants; one cuff is up and the other down. The skirt is split in back."

The hat, a frequent inclusion for this designer, is large, black and double-brimmed. Beside it is a quiet looking suit, "cement-colored," says Baskett. On closer examination, the jacket is long on one side, short on the other.

"This is such a famous signature design for Yohji, he's been doing it for years," Baskett says. "You just feel perfect the minute you get into that jacket. So imaginative, but the tailoring! He's a tailor's tailor."

Miyake, whose inventive use of artificial fibers is part of his attraction, "has an arm of his business dedicated to research and development," Baskett tells me.

I ask what happens when his "Bouncing Dress," a layered, cone-shaped formation, needs cleaning.

"I throw it in the washing machine in a nice net bag for a couple of minutes, with a mild soap, normal rinse cycle, then a couple of minutes in the drier."

And the Bouncing Dress bounces again.

"The way he pleats it holds it out," she says.

Kawakubo, whose work "echoes the abstractions of visual artists and the spatial concepts of architects," according to the well-done gallery guide that accompanies the show, is responsible for the dress Baskett wears when she travels.

"The skirt is so neat, it's reversible," she says. "(It's) designed so that it all floats when the right side is out, but I like the wonderful colored fabric lining exposed."

Its striped T-shirt is lettered "PLAY Comme Des Garçons," the last phrase in the name of Kawakubo's company.

"She usually has shoes and socks for every outfit. The ones for this are crocheted, bright pink."

Asked if women designers are rare in Japan, Baskett replies that Kawakubo "comes from a long line of talented women but, yes, the women's movement in Japan is resulting in more action from women designers."

Cynthia Amnéus, associate curator of costume and textiles for the CAM, has produced a high-spirited exhibition in Where Would You Wear That? shown in an appropriately off-kilter installation.

Is this a closed collection, the art world term for a gathering of work considered complete in itself?

"Oh, I hope not," she says, laughing. "Sometimes I think I'll stop, and then I go to Tokyo and see something wonderful and I know — it's not time to stop."

So watch for the woman in the unusual dress, the one that might have four sleeves or relate only obliquely to the human body. She might well be Mary Baskett, wearing the latest addition to her collection or perhaps one of the earliest. As she says, these clothes don't date.

WHERE WOULD YOU WHERE THAT? is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Aug. 12.