ON HIS UPPER ARMS, above the jagged tattoos, Takahashi has others. On one arm, in swirling English script, is the word ‘‘chaos’’; on the other, the word ‘‘balance.’’ ‘‘That’s hard to get,’’ he says, looking down at each tattoo in turn. If some of Takahashi’s shows are reminiscent of McQueen’s, it seems important to remember that there is, by contrast, a whimsical and sometimes even seriously hopeful quality to his dark vision. In the groupings of his fall women’s show, the lace-crowned ‘‘choir,’’ white-horned ‘‘agitators’’ and green-jacketed ‘‘soldiers’’ inspired awe. Then came the so-called ‘‘new species,’’ somewhere between insects and humans, clad in black and somewhat threatening. The view became momentarily ominous. And yet the show’s subtitle was ‘‘A new race living in Utopia.’’ The impression was magical but the narrative open to interpretation: How were these mute creatures populating their world, exactly? ‘‘The story was based on the idea that everyone has a right to live equally,’’ Takahashi says. ‘‘There is an aristocracy and a monarchy, but they are not in a position of dangerous authority at all.’’
We walk downstairs to look at the fall collection up close. Pink satin sleeves suggesting huge rose petals are draped across a hanger, next to a bustle made of ostrich feathers. There are diamanté spiders, and gold bees with human faces. The monarch’s ruby dress stands at the far end of the room, grand and embellished, like the ghost of Elizabeth I. One of the most arresting pieces, though, is a simple, pretty blue chiffon blouse hanging by itself on a rack. For all the artifice and fantasy that Takahashi conjures, he makes plenty of normal clothes as well, and there’s a curious intimacy to the fact that alongside all the gestures of deliberate rebellion, he knows how to make something so breathtakingly lovely and as delicate as skin.
He shows me the original drawings for each item — detailed designs that diverge not at all from their results. Each season, he is methodical: His sketchbooks begin with shoes, because they take the longest to make. The system was borne of necessity, not creativity. ‘‘I don’t want to begin with shoes,’’ Takahashi says plaintively.
Next he pulls out a black jacket with an ’80s-style peplum, and another with two kimono folds down its back.
‘‘What kind of insect has wings like that?’’ I ask, as I stroke the strange pleated articulations across the black satin.
‘‘Maybe some cockroaches?’’ he replies.
It’s very Takahashi to identify the individual even in a fiction: Certain cockroaches may share these traits, but possibly not all.
AFTER SCHOOL in Kiryu, Takahashi went to Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Yohji Yamamoto had gone there in the late ’60s, Tsumori Chisato in the mid-’70s and Junya Watanabe in the early ’80s. ‘‘I had assumed there would be gorgeous, crazy, interesting people out there,’’ he remembers. ‘‘I thought there would be a lot of music lovers like me. But it was totally different. All the girls wore body-conscious dresses. It wasn’t my style.’’
Instead, he ventured into the city, finding his place in nightclubs and the music scene, and in the theatricality of everyday life. Before he’d even graduated, he’d launched Undercover. It was a different trajectory from the one young fashion-school graduates typically took, in which you might get a job as an apprentice to a great Japanese designer and work for him or her for years until you struck out on your own. (Watanabe took this path in working for Kawakubo. So did Chisato, with Miyake.) Takahashi also broke with tradition aesthetically. This was 1990, the height of Japanese minimalism, an era defined by monotone, cerebral fashion, avant-garde ideas and the sculptural silhouettes of Yamamoto and Miyake. Takahashi’s work was, from the start, fresh, rough, singular.
Five years later, he met a fashion show producer named Yoshio Wakatsuki. They were introduced at a nightclub by a mutual friend 10 days before Takahashi was due to show Undercover’s third collection. Wakatsuki was working for Rei Kawakubo, and had staged shows for Issey Miyake, but he understood that Takahashi was fundamentally against the system. The economic bubble had just burst in Japan. ‘‘It was like a fall from paradise,’’ Wakatsuki reflects. Into this territory walked a person he immediately recognized as a new kind of designer. ‘‘He had a way,’’ Wakatsuki says, ‘‘of reading the era.’’
Undercover’s early shows were run guerrilla-style, in warehouses and parking lots, with friends turning up to model, many of them drunk and argumentative. The press was relegated to the back row, while Takahashi’s cohort of fans sat in front, on the floor. Wakatsuki had never seen anything like it — the setup or the clothes themselves. For instance, he says, some of the shoes were covered in dripping paint. ‘‘I’d seen something like that effect before, but the designer just coming up and dripping paint right then and there? I’d never seen that. If he wanted something shorter, he’d just cut it — no hem. New knitwear would be delivered, and he’d cut into the neckline and make holes. It was so shocking to me. I really felt the power of it.’’
Takahashi, Wakatsuki says, never trusted fashion people. It may be more accurate to consider Takahashi as less a fashion designer and more an artist, with an artist’s varied outlets and preoccupations. The fact that it’s possible to buy and wear the associated merchandise seems almost like a coincidence. For his spring 2009 collection, in lieu of a show, Takahashi made a photo-book that contained a sci-fi tale about a colony of furry cyclops dolls. (The dolls, which he made by sewing clumps of vintage teddy bears around table lamps, are in his office. In their christening gowns, they look like the love children of Miss Havisham and E.T.) He has used the basement of his office, where the pattern-cutters now work, as a music venue; Patti Smith once played there to an intimate crowd. He has designed a whole collection in tribute to the Surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer; for another he dressed his models in men’s-style suits with ties, in homage to the ’60s jazz pianist Bill Evans. In 1974, Evans recorded a live album with the saxophonist Stan Getz titled ‘‘But Beautiful,’’ a phrase that Takahashi has used in the names of several shows, including his most recent, which was entitled ‘‘But Beautiful III, Utopie.’’ You might say that his entire body of work was created to preface that phrase: daring, dark, comic, wild, (insert your preferred adjective), but beautiful.
One of Takahashi’s regular collaborators is Katsuya Kamo, who oversees all the hair, makeup and creature-like headgear for his shows. When I visit Kamo, there are layouts for his forthcoming book pasted all along one wall of his workshop: the pleated helmets made from industrial carpet he created for Junya Watanabe, the white paper roses he embedded in crowns for Chanel. But his most outrageous work by far is for Undercover: masks with feathered wings, mesh face-coverings that glow in the dark, white rabbit ears, dried hydrangeas, wild thorns that look like prehistoric fangs.
When I ask to see some of the finished pieces, Kamo rummages around in boxes that seem mainly to contain raw materials. (One is labeled ‘‘insects’’; two others are labeled ‘‘plants’’ and ‘‘human hair.’’) There is a crown of thorns, plants that look like antlers and a desiccated red parrot. Most of it has been scavenged from the local park, he explains. He also strikes deals with taxidermists.
‘‘The last time I sent an assistant there, they wouldn’t give him a bag,’’ Kamo recalls, sounding baffled. ‘‘It was for a black crow, just dead. He had to bring it back trailing blood — and he was wearing white.’’ The crow’s feathers were used to make larger, human wings in an Undercover collection; they terrorized Takahashi’s staff because Kamo had left some flesh on them, and the smell became unbearable. ‘‘It was quite smelly,’’ Kamo admits. Then he adds: ‘‘But beautiful.’’
ONE AFTERNOON, Takahashi sits at a long table while various items from one of his men’s diffusion ranges, JohnUndercover, are presented to him for a styling check. There are men’s shirts, made in calico, with fabric samples alongside them. Takahashi puts on a pair of glasses, and proceeds to line up different button options next to the samples. Where a pleat is missing beneath the yoke, he draws a sketch to correct it. When the shirts are done, there are screen-printed T-shirts, then jewelry — pendant necklaces, hanging from black silk cords. Takahashi oversees everything: two women’s wear shows a year, two men’s wear collections, his Nike collection, three diffusion lines. His company is independently owned, and the responsibility clearly weighs on him.
Despite his workload, he is strict about his hours. He leaves the atelier every evening at 7 p.m. and has dinner with his children and wife, Rico, a former model. Takahashi takes weekends off, even right before a show. ‘‘It’s so ordinary!’’ he says.
But Wakatsuki thinks family life is key to Takahashi’s success. ‘‘I can give you some incredible information,’’ he tells me. ‘‘His parents go to Paris every season, and sit in the front row — they’ve never missed a show.’’ His younger brother, who has taken over the family business in Kiryu, now comes to Undercover two days a week to help manage the business, a skill Takahashi confesses he lacks. His daughter has started modeling.
Wakatsuki recalls that Takahashi has occasionally been inspired by his kids’ toys. His fall 2003 collection, ‘‘Paper Doll,’’ featured knitwear with little white tabs attached to the clothes’ edges, as if they were cut out of a book. That black coat made from layered cutouts of felt skulls from his fall 2005 collection was influenced by a child’s bulletin board with felt shapes you could stick to it. Takahashi himself thinks that he hasn’t changed fundamentally — though he adds that ‘‘every day, I strongly feel that I should have more self-awareness as a father.’’
‘‘My first impression, when I saw the Tokyo Sex Pistols, was all about punk,’’ Wakatsuki reflects of Takahashi’s rebellious early days. ‘‘But since he met his wife and had children, I’ve felt his creative power. What’s at the heart of him is still a punk attitude. Anti-establishment sentiment — that’s what he wants to show. But he’s more dreamy, more playful, softer. Love,’’ he says. ‘‘That element is becoming stronger and stronger in him.’’