Icons before Instagram: How Yayoi Kusama changed fashion as we know it

Spend a few seconds inside Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, and you’ll understand why she rightfully owns her “polka dot princess” title. But if you’ve never had the chance to step into her starry LED light ocean, you’re in luck: A new retrospective showcase of Kusama’s work (the selfie-breeding Infinity Room included) has landed on our sunny shores.

The Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow exhibition will open its doors to the public from 9 June to 3 September at the National Gallery. Featuring 120 paintings, sculptures, videos and installations dating way back to the 1950s, this art blockbuster marks the first time Kusama is holding a major museum exhibition in Southeast Asia.

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Kusama reclining on Accumulation. (Photo: KUSAMA Enterprise)

Sure, Kusama is the matriarch of contemporary art, but the polymath’s CV reads like a roll call of creative industries: She has penned eight novels, once started an erotic newspaper, published a few poetry books, produced films, and designed a bus. And if we were to ask what she might be dabbling in if she wasn’t a spot-obsessed artist, we wouldn’t be baffled to get fashion as her answer.

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Marc Jacobs and Yayoi Kusama in front of her studio, 2006. (Photo: WWD)

A fundamental facet of the Japanese artist’s magnetic personality is her emphasis on self-presentation. Her photographic archive shows how much she takes pride in creating a personal “look” that perfectly chameleons each of her masterpieces.

From her early beginnings to her monumental collaboration with then-creative director Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, we delve into her archives to see how Kusama became one of the century’s most prominent iconoclasts who broke down the walls between fashion and art.

Her salad days in the United States

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When Kusama begun her dotty journey in the United States, she made a strong point to highlight her land of origin through her sartorial choices. Bedecked in a floral blush kimono she had brought from Japan, she was recorded walking through desolate New York streets for her 1966 slide work Walking Piece — using the traditional garment to position herself as a creative outsider breaking into what was known to her as an alien city.

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Yayoi Kusama in Walking Piece, 1966. (Photo: Sammlung Goetz Fillmbox)

Her short-lived fashion label

Then in the late 1960s, Kusama set up her own clothing line. She created the most intrepid designs — avant-garde at best, risqué at worst — of which featured strategically-placed cut-outs to expose the wearer’s breasts, buttocks or genitalia. Sounds familiar? Well, that’s only because today’s fashion luminaries live off the rebellious spirit Kusama once championed (we’re looking at you, butt-revealing jeans of Vetements’ creation).

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A fashion show in Yayoi Kusama’s New York studio, 1968. (Photo: David Zwirner Gallery)

Although she discontinued the label not long after she checked into a mental hospital, Kusama has continued to design her own clothes, using motifs from her paintings on bespoke fabric.

Her visually enticing “more is more” wisdom

If there’s anything we’ve learnt from the apparent steady growth of fashion brands which have been doing astoundingly well despite desperate economic times — Gucci, Vetements, Off-White, you name it — is that the market favours the bold and the rule-breakers. Nevertheless, the mould-breaking Kusama preceded them all.

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Yayoi Kusama with Infinity Mirrored Room, 1965. (Photo: David Zwirner Gallery)

Mirroring her art, Kusama dressed as wildly unpredictable as her next installation. One day it could be a bare-it-all threadless look, then the next, a figure-hugging red catsuit.

Now 88 years old, her predilection for a statement-making look has yet to waver. The now-legendary “Kusama look” is more often than not topped off with a fluorescent-hued wig.

Her mega collaboration with Louis Vuitton

After a string of artist collaborations with the likes of Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince, Louis Vuitton teamed up with Kusama on a collection. Launched in the summer of 2012, Kusama’s was — and most probably, still is — the largest artist collaboration initiated by any luxury goods or fashion house, spanning leather goods, ready-to-wear apparel and accessories.

With Louis Vuitton stores the world over engulfed in her dotty escapades, Kusama’s reach officially went mainstream.

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A Yayoi Kusama waxwork, complete with her Louis Vuitton bag. (Photo: Dazed)

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is open to the public at the National Gallery Singapore from 9 June to 3 September 2017.

Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore 178957