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. Th