BEIRUT: Even sushi inspired Grace Rihan in her new collection of ready-to-wear entitled “Wink to Japan.”
“Even in the food you see the repetition,” Rihan said as she flipped through photos from her recent travels to Kyoto and Tokyo. A simple minimalism, drawn from an ancient design language based in repetition and geometry defines Japan’s modern visual landscape. This was the basis of Rihan’s new ready-to-wear collection, which incorporated her usual minimalist approach but with a hint of the East Asian country.
She flipped to a picture of a traditional teahouse, the simple wooden paneling broken into various rectangles like a muted Mondrian painting. Then she pulled up a photo of a contemporary building, where a similar design – the natural wood and open glass – repeated itself along the facade of the massive high-rise.
Three sushi pieces were laid out in three diagonal lines on a clean plate: minimalist, repetitive and modern.
“It’s repetitive, but it’s not boring,” she said.
Rihan said she recognized the architectural cleanliness of Japan’s structures in the daily street style as well. In one of her pictures, a female monk, holding up a bowl for alms, is dressed in traditional ascetic clothing that the designer found strikingly elegant. Sleeves on her outer black cloak gathered in perfect folds; her white, starched pants provided a strong contrast; and on her feet were basic rope sandals.
Rihan explained the seamless continuity from traditional modes of dress to modern-day street style in Japan. Women would wear designer kimonos, for example, to a design exhibition alongside friends in contemporary garments like sherwal pants or loose-hanging drop-waist dresses.
“It’s traditionally modern, modern but old. There’s a continuum.”
That elegant minimalism served as the basis for Rihan’s new line of simple and structured dresses, skirts and jackets.
Rihan doesn’t like boxes. In her basement showroom in Ashrafieh, therefore, she’s created a laboratory free from the constraints of seasonal fabrics or colors, trends and expectations. Debuted in December, in the fashion industry’s off-season, “Wink to Japan” is a collection done almost exclusively in ivory and black – with the exception of some gold, purple and red detail.
Japanese inspiration is most recognizable in the collection’s kimono-inspired pieces: a top with starchy angular shoulders that wraps and ties at the waist; a loose silk kimono of Rihan’s imagination cut into hundreds of half-moons; and a loose black wrap dress. Rihan has already sold pieces from her line of black kimono jackets, which feature a strip of Japanese silk taken from real kimonos.
Origami also played a role in Rihan’s work. Paper penguins hang from the ceiling in her industrial workshop and the collection includes stiff folded lines and organic pleats inspired by the paper art form.
“When they wrap a present, they don’t tape it. Everything is closed by pliage [folding],” she said.
As in previous collections, Rihan created unique accessory pieces, mostly brooches, that are used to customize outfits. Feathery, folded headpieces can double as shoulder ornaments or be worn on the lapel. She’s also created a line of felt ribbon pins that she displayed on a plain black dress but could just as easily be worn on a wool coat. Her designs often include transmutable details like this. In another piece, for example, the coat arms can unbutton to become deep kimono sleeves.
Inspiration took less literal forms as well. A crème mini dress was made from hundreds of gathered polyps that reflected the kind of repetition Rihan found in Tokyo’s building facades.
Rihan’s Wink to Japan also has a consistency with her past work in that it reimagines traditional garments, stripping them down to their most basic forms and constructing them from contemporary fabrics.
In 2012, Rihan put out a summery collection of neutral-toned jersey gilets, sherwal and off-the-shoulder T-shirts inspired by traditional Arab garb. Past collections also incorporated kaftanlike coats and vests made from rich silks.
This was Rihan’s first trip to Japan, but she’s had an interest in the country for decades. Rihan began her career as an architect – she’s also married to an architect – and her fascination with Japan began with its structures. Many of the photographs she brought home to Beirut were not of fashion, but of the buildings, gardens and teahouses she visited.
Rihan has also worked with Japanese textiles in the past. In winter 2012, she unveiled a collection of scarves made from warm wool-felt blends manufactured in Japan. Her interest in the Far East is part of a small but growing movement of Lebanese fashion designers looking East rather than West for inspiration and clientele.
Lara Khoury, another rising ready-to-wear designer, has found a market for her own creations in Japan and established couturier Basil Soda recently broke into the Australian market.