For 25 years Dr Gene Sherman (Director of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington) wore black clothing by Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, to the very near exclusion of anything else.
Returning regularly to Japan, she built an extensive collection of avant-garde garments and accessories by these three groundbreaking Japanese labels, and she recently donated over 60 pieces from it to The Powerhouse Museum.
A former Trustee of the Museum, she had a ‘wearing wardrobe’ of 20 pieces and a policy that every time she acquired a new garment she would ‘retire’ an older one to the archive, which now adds substantially to the Museum’s holdings of contemporary Japanese fashion.
When did you first become aware of Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto?
I first saw a Miyake piece in ‘85 at a shop in Double Bay, a one-armed leather jacket, and as my husband’s business was just taking off I felt okay about buying it for myself. 18 months later I went to Japan for the first time and that’s when I really started engaging with Japanese culture, food, language and literature – I read nothing but Japanese literature in English for two years. I felt very drawn to Japan, the aesthetic and whole way of being. I became aware of Yohji and Comme and I went back to Japan regularly for the gallery, and that’s how I ended up with this wardrobe.
Why do you think the Japanese have such a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic?
They had almost 300 years where they could do their own thing largely uninfluenced by anybody, so there’s a very distinctive culture. Instead of the European tradition of haute couture with its enormous amount of detail and huge numbers of seamstresses and very skilled people doing delicate beading and embroidery, the Japanese were doing something very different all together. They started at the beginning with the textiles themselves and they have revolutionised the textile tradition. They were poised to make a unique contribution because they were so unique, and I don’t think you could walk up any fashion street in the world now and find that the Japanese influence has not been major.
What’s the appeal of black?
The whole notion of that faze of Japanese design in the ‘80s with these three designers was that form was more important than colour. That’s what drew me to them. If you look at the art works from my personal collection, which comprises 600 objects, you can see there is hardly any colour, it’s very dark and sombre and conceptual. When I started the gallery I ran it as a sculpture gallery for two years because that’s really what interests me. It’s the same with what I wear – the concentration is on the shape and sculptural elements.
The other reason was that I was a mother with two young children, I was travelling a lot and my husband was very busy and also travelling. I had to be able to do things quickly if I was going to fit in to the day what I needed to do. I’ve always been interested in clothes and by reducing the pallet to very basic colours, almost all black, I didn’t have to think about what would work. I could pack in five minutes.
And you can shop in five minutes too can’t you?
Yes. I don’t like being helped by people in shops – they don’t know me, they have no idea what I’ve got already or what my taste is or what my lifestyle is. I always say leave it to me. My eyes are trained and I can easily go through the racks in 5 or 10 minutes and know straight away which pieces will work.
You’ve never owned a pair of jeans and you’re a big advocate of dressing up. Would you say Australian fashion across the board is disappointingly casual or tame?
I think it’s much better now. People make more of an effort to look interesting in Melbourne, I’m not sure about Brisbane but it’s so hot it’s hard to make an effort. Heat is hard. Australia goes back many thousands of years in terms of its indigenous culture but fashion was not their thing, they were just surviving in this hot, harsh land. The focus on us being who we are, separate to England, is a very recent thing. I don’t think it’s fair to compare this country to one as old as Japan where the sense of aesthetics has been developed over thousands of years. I think we’re doing pretty well quite honestly.
What things have influenced your personal style?
I travel a lot and I’m a prolific reader and I’m very aware of my surroundings. I’m interested in aesthetics and the look of things but I’m not interested in a look that hasn’t got complex ideas behind it. I’m very sensitive to my interior environments and I feel happy if I go into a very well designed space with lovely fabrics and nice furniture, but it doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested if its very original furniture or a new use of materials or something cutting edge that takes ideas forward. It has to have a conceptual underpinning.
What conceptual underpinning interested you with these Japanese fashion designers?
They were not interesting because they were glamorous or sexy, they interested me because they were original, a little bit odd. Miyake once said, “I don’t design for high-maintenance women.” I’m very careful with my clothes but I can scrunch them up and pack them away and they will just spring back. It was a statement about women working, not having time, moving about and taking charge of their lives.
What’s your plan now that you’ve given this huge archive away?
I stuck to Issey, Comme and Yohji for 25 years but now I’ve freed myself from the collection and from that discipline. I might still buy them but not exclusively – I bought an Akira [Isogawa] the other day. We moved house and didn’t have room for the archive anymore, and I wanted to finish with that project. But the 62 pieces is not the last of it, I will keep retiring things from my wearing wardrobe to the collection, so it will probably have about 100 garments in the end, covering a significant era of design history.
On 6 May Gene Sherman will be giving a lunchtime talk at The Powerhouse Museum, where a selection from the archive is currently on display.