Eras of Undercover: Deciphering the Past, Present, and Future of Jun Takahashi's Cult Brand
In an ever more interconnected and ever shifting landscape, creating something memorable is more of a challenge than ever, but despite this some have managed to make a mark in their own fields. In the fashion world, Undercover has done just this, opting to create seasons that speak to the needs of the moment and yet remain relevant decades after their initial showing. From the early days of Seditionaries-inspired tees to transformations of Kubrick movie shots into clothing, Undercover has been making waves for over a quarter of a century, achieving what many designers and brands could only dream of. Decade after decade, the cult brand has put out unique collections that are sought after even to this very day, with items going for more than retail on the second hand market. However, Undercover’s secret to success seems to lie in what stays consistent between collections.
The only real thread between these collections seem to be Jun Takahashi and Undercovers’ fidelity to the times and the cultural atmospheres these seasons are produced in, while still putting out timeless and enduringly stylish pieces of clothing. By combining these traits, Undercover has cemented itself and its legacy both in streetwear and high fashion communities, all the while winning both critical acclaim and consumer praise.
'WE MAKE NOISE NOT CLOTHES', 1993 - 2002
Young Jun Takahashi and Early Days of Undercover. Original Source: Undercover Rizzoli.
Even before finishing middle school, Takahashi had started to become influenced by punk rock after borrowing a friend's copy of Nevermind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols; as said by Takahashi himself, “...Everything about it made a lasting impression”. This would soon lead him to the work of Viviene Westwood, who was the stylist for the Sex Pistols and designer of Seditionaries. According to Takahashi, Westwood’s work took root in his core, which is clearly visible, especially in his early works. Moving into the 90’s, he seemed to have first begun designing clothing for the band he sung in at the time: The Tokyo Sex Pistols.
These early garments were simple and had common characteristics with older Seditionaries works. Eventually during his time at Bunka Fashion College, he would meet Hironori Ichinose, and together they would go on to create Undercover. Before Takahashi had even graduated, Undercover launched in 1993, with the 24 year old student putting out punk inspired tee shirts and other punk-esque designs. However, rather than merely being reproductions of punk clothing, Undercover’s designs were inspired by classic punk culture and aesthetics, and had elevated details and important twists put onto them. This served to modernize the punk look, as well as allow Takahashi to create his own vision of what punk clothing looked like.
Beyond just being punk clothing updated for the 90’s, Undercover’s works were also politically charged and of the moment, with many seasons touching on events and political issues. One season in particular stands out: SS2000 Teaser. The collection was plastered with slogans such as ‘GFU’ and ‘GFY’ — a.k.a ‘Generation Fuck You’ — and featured a show invite of a man being vulgar amongst lavishly dressed models.
Undercover's SS2000 'Teaser' Show Invite. Original Source: QUOTATION Magazine.
While still relevant in terms of how the youth tend to view older generations, these phrases and graphics were even more pointed during that time. This is due to the fact that Japan was dealing with the end of the first ‘Lost Decade(s)’, where young people were given less and less economic opportunity and stability in their lives. This was in stark contrast to the generation that came before them, who, in the wake of World War 2 and during Japan's economic boom, were afforded with a degree of stability and a relatively high quality of life. In comparison, however, those growing up in the 80’s and 90’s were afforded with no such luxury and were pressured to compete for less and less, creating a whole lost generation of workers in the process. This fostered feelings of resentment towards the older generations who had a much easier time economically. Fast forward to today, Undercover’s SS2000 season remains timeless in its nature, with even Supreme using the ‘Generation Fuck You’ graphic and slogan on their collaborative pieces in 2016. Undercover was not content to limit itself to just being a mere political brand, however.
Some of Undercover’s shows, such as AW2002 Witch’s Cell Division, focused on past cultures and ideas, all the while demonstrating Takahashi’s willingness to strike a balance between streetwear and high fashion. Witches Cell Division seems to embody youthful fascination with the occult and robots; these childish preoccupations took the form of witches and mechas, with prints featuring witches, transforming mechas, crosses, and allusions to magic and machinery. With this seemingly bizarre cultural mash up of ideas, Takahashi created garments that were easily wearable, and could be mixed and matched with other high fashion labels. This idea of being both high fashion and streetwear would come to define Undercover for the rest of the decade, as well as embody the full potential of Undercover as its own unique style. In essence, years before the likes of Virgil Abloh and many others, Takahashi had found the perfect compromise between high fashion and streetwear through Undercover.
AW2002 Witches Cell Division Editorial Feature. Original Source: The Knot Theory.
This period of 1993-2002 set the tone and laid the foundation for what Undercover would become in the following decades. Undercover would be streetwear, high fashion, punk, political, and above all else potently of the moment. This willingness to critique real power while still being stylish has proven to be a strong suit for Undercover, as shown by later seasons such as SS2003 SCAB and AW2017 BRAINWASHED GENERATION. Of course, there isn't only one season that makes this era of Undercover what it is, but some seasons that are emblematic of the era include D.A.V.F. (Decorated Armed Voluntary Forces), Relief, and Exchange. By staying true to Takahashi’s punk roots, and by building upon the foundation laid during this era, Undercover would soon take the world by storm.
'PEACE THROUGH ANARCHY', 2002 - 2010
In 2002, Undercover got its big break onto the international scene in the form of a Paris Fashion Week show slot. In the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, along with the buildup to the Iraq war, Jun Takahashi stayed true to his punk ethos and decided to spit in the face of warmongering. With this opportunity of Paris Fashion Week presented to him, Jun Takahashi dared to be bold with the presentation of SS2003 SCAB, which was a chock full of staunchly anti-war, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist messages. By fully displaying his political punk nature, along with creating immaculate designs Jun Takahashi would set the tone for the next era of Undercover, spanning from 2002-2010, and win himself critical acclaim the world over. Following SS2003 SCAB, Undercover would continue to show collections in Paris. During this period, Undercover embraced many different styles and ideas, ranging from technical fabrics to punk rockers and even anarchist politics. Combined with these wide array of topics were the clothes themselves, which were spectacularly detailed, cut, and constructed to express Takahashi’s own personal political views.
Without SCAB, Undercover would have still remained an important streetwear staple, but it may not have broken into the high fashion scene with such force if not for it. Following the 9/11 attacks, there was a feeling of unease in terms of how the fashion world and designers would address these events during Paris Fashion Week. Instead of shying away from current events and popular opinion, Undercover feasted on the forbidden fruit, and had their most political and timely season as a result, with even models in burkas ending the extremely political show. The show's political statements were much more than simply showing models in burkas, however, with many of the tee shirts having anarchist imagery and the season itself being centered around radical anarchist politics — in particular anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-environmental exploitation. These themes have remained extremely relevant, with war, consumerism, and climate crisis only getting worse in the years since the SCAB show in 2002. SCAB was truly an unabashed statement in favor of an Anarchist way of living, and was against the current capitalist systems of oppression.
Undercover AW2004 'But Beautiful' 68 Denim. Original Source: Grailed.
Beyond merely relying on shock value as a brand, Undercover would quickly go on to show that it was so much more than merely a topical, political brand. For Undercover’s But Beautiful collection, Takahashi channeled Patti Smith’s androgynous and rebellious spirit into a stunningly simple and elegant season; this seemed to have been his way of taking a break from the noise and everyday outrages occurring with the war in Iraq. While Undercover most definitely took inspiration from Patti Smith's wardrobe and updated parts of it for the 21st century, it also added its own unique touches and takes to these proto-punk-inspired outfits. Shirts featured graphics as worn by Patti Smith, the clothing had a wide variety of androgynous cuts, and the jeans looked like they had been through hell and back. The most long lasting and treasured garments from this season is without question the 68 Denim, a pair of aged and distressed jeans in cuts similar to the Levis worn by Patti Smith herself, and are embroidered with a lightning bolt mirroring her knee tattoo. However, the season was so much more than the 68 Denim, as it showed that Undercover could create an impactful and lauded collection without relying on shock value or political messaging, and could simply rely on the clothes themselves. This further deepened Undercover’s legacy and cemented their cult status among both streetwear and high fashion audiences alike.
Undercover AW2004 'But Beautiful' Runway Looks. Original Source: Labyrinth of Undercover.
During this period from 2002-2010, Undercover would put out some of its most memorable and celebrated collections, including, but not limited to: But Beautiful, Arts and Crafts, SCAB, T, Paper Doll and BBV GURUGURU. This era of Undercover is considered by many to be Takahashi’s peak as a designer, with intricate details, inventive designs, and out of the box thinking, making each season a true masterpiece in and of themselves. Pieces from this time period managed to be culturally relevant when they released, and yet are still full of a timeless energy and appeal. This juxtaposition of being relevant both then and now is proven by critics and consumers, as both regard these collections highly back then and even now.
'MEDIA IS GOD', 2010 - 2018
Undercover AW2018 'BRAINWASHED GENERATION' Lookbook. Original Source: Undercover.
During the period from 2010-2018, Takahashi and Undercover would once again shift their seasons’ main focus from music to the more meta subject of culture and popular culture as a whole. This shift to a more meta cultural discussion led to a wide array of ideas and possibilities, ranging from superheroes, to classic cinema, and even the systems of information control that permeate our daily lives. One must imagine that the systems of modern information control in the form of social media have impacted the fashion industry heavily, and by extension Undercover. This era of big data and surveillance capitalism was really just beginning to take off around 2010, with the general public becoming more aware of the way they are surveilled and manipulated by algorithms. This technological revolution laid the groundwork for one of the more interesting collections from this era: BRAINWASHED GENERATION.
The collection, shown in 2017, is a blunt criticism of algorithmic control, and by extension the culture that has arisen in its wake. The presentation for BRAINWASHED GENERATION was quite simple, with models standing around in various poses wearing the season's statement pieces which were covered in anti-media prints that decried the current reality of corporate and algorithmic control. This season, much like SS2003 SCAB, was a pointed political critique, with Undercover questioning whether it is right to allow algorithms so much control over our lives, and whether these innovations in the field of technology are more harmful to humanity than helpful. These ideas of information control and dissemination are most likely nothing new to Takahashi, with writers referenced in previous Undercover seasons exploring similar topics.
What is new however is the scale and all-encompassing nature of these systems today. Compared to the past, where every town had a newspaper and a multitude of radio stations, each with arbiters of what was published and what wasn’t, today's tech CEOs and media conglomerates have such a wider reach, not to mention the ability to determine what is and isn't published. On top of this, by using algorithms these technology organizations and media corporations can control what you see when using their services. This, combined with their loyalty to profit margins, has created quite the concoction of the ability to control, mixed with a lack of accountability, and topped off with power. The fact that you are reading this right now means that you were most likely guided here in one way or another by an algorithm (To be clear I'm not immune to the algorithms either, none of us truly are).
Undercover AW2018 'BRAINWASHED GENERATION' Lookbook. Original Source: Undercover.
The clothes from the BRAINWASHED GENERATION collection embody this message wholeheartedly, with many items featuring graphics of phrases such as ‘HUMAN CONTROL SYSTEM’, ‘BRAINWASHED GENERATION’, and even flatly ‘MEDIA IS GOD’. Beyond the more obvious visuals, all of the models featured in the collection were wrapped in layers, never revealing their natural form. This could easily be an allusion to the way most people act on social media, i.e. not showing their real life as it is actually happening. In a similar vein to previous seasons from previous eras, Undercover’s critique of these algorithms and systems of control is a very pointed critique of our media-driven moment. The fact is that, given the size and scale of these technology companies and bloated media corporations, the pieces and critiques displayed in BRAINWASHED GENERATION will in all likelihood stay relevant for decades, if not a century to come.
Once again Undercover would not merely invent styles out of whole cloth, but further refine and tailor existing styles to fit the message, aesthetics and cultural ideas being portrayed. This isn't to say that culture was the only source of inspiration during this period, with other topics ranging from the anatomy of humans, to music from various eras, political shifts, past Undercover seasons, even David Bowie. In terms of critical acclaim the reviews from this era are somewhat mixed, with some seasons winning acclaim and producing beautiful pieces that are loved by the customers of Undercover, and others receiving only lukewarm reviews and aren’t nearly as memorable. Some of the more celebrated seasons from this 7 yearlong era include Anatomicouture, No (B)orders, Underman, Less But Better, BRAINWASHED GENERATION, GODOG, and Instant Calm.
'I'M JUST A WEIRDO, I'M JUST A CREEP', 2018 - Present
Since the New Warriors show in 2018, Takahashi seems to have moved his and Undercover’s sights less off of meta cultural analyses, and has moved forward with a more media and media culture based theme. This complete harkening back towards the past while still attempting to be of the moment has arguably produced somewhat lackluster collections from Undercover. In a sense this is a reflection of the times, with movie franchises and Hollywood studios merely producing remakes of cultural icons from the 90’s. In a similar fashion Undercover is attempting to play on this nostalgic feeling, and in doing so seems to have lost, even if just momentarily, its connection to the present moment. This is emblematic of the moment popular culture is in, however, where its stagnation serves as a malignant breeding ground for recycled content and ideas. This approach of detaching Undercover completely from the moment in some seasons has provided somewhat mixed results thus far, with some of the newer fans of Undercover enjoying the shift, and older fans tending to eschew this newer iteration.
Presented in the spring of 2021, Undercover’s CREEP VERY show marked a return to the brand’s faithfulness to the present moment, with the show exploring thematically, in Takahashi’s own words: “a person who is frail and weak but has a truly pure heart,”. While the show generated lots of hype on social media for its Neon Genesis Evangelion collaboration and features, Undercover stayed true to their name and left a message below the surface, within reach for those interested in digging deeper. With the womenswear collection’s music being a stripped down version of Radiohead’s Creep, combined with Neon Genesis Evangelion-themed prints and silhouettes, the message of despair and angst is quite clear. This is especially flagrant through its use of Neon Genesis Evangelion, specifically with its protagonist Shinji and his troubled existence within Neon Genesis Evangelion. Shinji is a very frail and weak person with a pure heart who deals with extreme circumstances, is in the midst of coming of age, and is in a deeply flawed world. This feeling of powerlessness experienced by both Shinji and the person depicted in Creep seems to be one many younger individuals in the developed world understand far too well in the current moment.
Undercover AW2021 'CREEP VERY' Runway Images. Source: Undercover.
As young individuals grow up and form identities, issues such as the increasingly exploitative nature of globalization, wealth inequality, and a declining standard of living in most developed countries seem to weigh heavily. Much in the same way Shinji is unable to feel inner peace in the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion, today's youth seem unable and unwilling to accept the veritable hellscape they are coming of age in. These feelings of unease, despair, lack of control, and anxiety for what lies in both the past and future is all too relatable during these times. In this way, Jun Takahashi’s direction is fitting and in touch with the younger target audience, and the times we live in; in his own words, this direction is, “...Much more personal and emotional.” However, much like the older seasons and eras of Undercover, this season has the ability to resonate for years to come. The character Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion provides the collection with this longevity, as he resonates with young individuals and thereby provides them with a world to identify with. As long as societal issues continue to fester and remain unaddressed, this season and its message will remain relevant to both young and even older individuals far into the future.
Throughout Undercover and Jun Takahashi’s time designing clothing, there has been a constant drive to explore different topics, cultural ideas, and everything in-between. This range has given
Undercover its unique legacy and some of the gravitas it carries today. Throughout the eras of Undercover, Jun Takahashi has been unflinchingly himself, and has presented this view to the world without letting the world around him smother his creativity. He and Undercover have stayed steadfast in their reflection of the cultural moment throughout their seasons, while still producing pieces with a seemingly everlasting allure. Whether Jun Takahashi and Undercover decide to change this formula or not, Undercover has made its mark, and created a unique view on a multitude of cultural moments, and will most likely continue to do so in the future and beyond.
To learn more about Jun Takahashi and Undercover, check out our latest Undercover scan offerings.
Author: Isaac L. Davis
Editor: Casino Riv