Graphic Prints in Archive Fashion: Undercover by Jun Takahashi
Graphic prints on clothing. A classic and simple staple feature that adds that extra something to an outfit. A bold visual with a hidden meaning. A canon of references that the designer may or may not have pulled from. An enigma, or at times blatantly obvious. Archive fashion and the brands that ARCHIVE.pdf follows have seen an extensive use of graphic prints across the years. We’ve covered a large selection of these graphics within our library of scans and reckoned that it was equally right to give some hero brands and their use of said graphics a closer look.
Introducing the new ‘Graphic Prints in Archive Fashion’ series, here we will be profiling our favorite archive fashion brands and the graphic print designs we’ve been spotting time and time again, as well as those one-offs tucked away inside the archive. The first brand we will be profiling is Jun Takahashi’s UNDERCOVER.
Jun Takahashi founded UNDERCOVER in 1993. From conception, pulling references and getting inspiration from culture and close environments has been an integral part of the brand’s DNA, lending to why its use of visual imagery and graphic prints is so striking and memorable. Takahashi’s own personal interests were used as the initial canvas for most UNDERCOVER collections: the brand is peppered with references to punk, the designer’s homeland, street culture, American-influenced streetwear styles and much more.
Takahashi was very outspoken in his own views, oftentimes using his collections and their use of cultural references as a form of social commentary on current affairs. This is why you’d more often than not spot the use of a dark, moody palette than one brimming with color and life, or why collections could feel slightly surreal and very on the nose. Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo called Jun “the only one with courage” for this reason. Everything was on show, motivated by what was wrong and could be changed versus the beautiful, great and easy to sell to the public.
There’s a great introduction by Takahashi in TGRAPHICS, a rare UNDERCOVER t-shirt graphics book that explores the brand’s use of designs and prints since its introduction. The end reads: “On the occasion of publishing this book, I checked all of the many and varied designs from the past, and I found they easily surpassed 1,500 in number. Now that UNDERCOVER has become a collection brand, creation with dresses is important, needless to say. However, designs on T-shirts are just as important to me as a way to express what is in my brain.”
Whatever part of the UNDERCOVER brand you choose to hone in on or fall in love with, Takahashi has let you know that his use of graphic prints on t-shirts is how he expresses what’s in his brain. That’s important and not to be overlooked. Archive.PDF has selected some key graphic designs from the past 40 years to give ourselves and our audience better insight into the context behind each and the deeper meaning to the designer himself.
Tokyo Sex Pistols:
Dedicated Jun Takahashi and UNDERCOVER followers will know that as a young man, Jun was the lead singer of the punk tribute band “The Tokyo Sex Pistols”. “The Tokyo Sex Pistols” was who he first started putting out designs for. The prints that were layered onto short-sleeve t-shirts were minimalist, donning a monochrome color combination and inspired by the British band itself. He appreciated The Sex Pistols spirit of rebelliousness and soon became interested in the connection between rebelliousness in music and rebelliousness in fashion.
This connection would be a mainstay for the brand moving forward, with the motto ‘We Make Noise, Not Clothes’ representing the power that Jun thought clothing had when it came to statements of intent, provoking thought or pushing for change. It had the insubordinate energy of the ‘noisecore’ genre big in the crust punk, d-beat and power violence genres, one that echoed the phrase “Noise, not music” and pushed a radical style of music as a form of true free expression. Jun’s UNDERCOVER journey was first kicked-off by musical inspiration, from which he turned sound and audible creativity into something wearable and visually evocative.
Collaborating with other artists and brands became a staple move for Takahashi, especially those that expressed a similar outlook on the power and impact that art could have. One of these relationships was between Futura and the UNDERCOVER brand.
The New-York graffiti artist became friends with Takahashi when he moved to Japan and founded ‘Futura Laboratories’. Widely celebrated now, Futura’s first foray into fashion collaborations was with UNDERCOVER. In 1998 Takahashi released the ‘Exchange’ collection. It had an overarching concept to it - customizing through zipping and unzipping. You could remove or add pieces to the garment through the said zipping action - whether that be removing a sleeve or adding a collar to a jumper - which was a unique and exciting premise at the time. Releasing alongside the collection was a booklet that detailed the design process as well as information on how to customize your garments. It featured designs done in collaboration with Futura, where the figures drawn by the street artist donned different pieces from the Exchange collection, highlighting the ‘exchangeability’ of the pieces in the range. A t-shirt featuring the ‘Pointman’ figure was also released alongside the collection’s name, with these same graphic figures being featured on many UNDERCOVER pieces since then.
Some other graphic-heavy collaborations between the two include the UNDERCOVER x Futura Samurai School designs from 2000, the 2006 Silly Thing’s Event Horizon Exhibit t-shirt by Futura x Supreme x UNDERCOVER, the UNDERCOVER x Futura ‘Generation Fuck You’ t-shirt and ‘Teaser’ t-shirt both from 2000 and a more recent collaboration between UNDERCOVER, Futura and HYPEBEAST for the magazine’s 27th ‘The Kinship Issue’.
Takahashi discovered the street-artist KAWS around the same time he came across Futura; KAWS was put on his radar through friends in Tokyo who followed the street-scene. What at first started with Takahashi buying KAWS’, Futura’s and Stash’s art later turned into the designer incorporating the artists’ graphics into his own brand. In the early 2000s Takahashi did a full collection featuring these artists’ artworks and patterns, a first for the designer.
For SS2000, KAWS’ art appeared on different UNDERCOVER garment pieces and for SS2001, UNDERCOVER collaborated with KAWS on exclusive graphic t-shirt designs as part of the ‘Chaotic Discord’ collection. The collection itself showcased a variety of elaborate and cartoonish graphic prints across garments, of which KAWS’ designs were included. The prints contained amalgamations of UNDERCOVER’s ‘U’ and the KAWS skull ‘X-X’ designs and are highly coveted pieces to collect today. You can also find a Medicom colour-blocked bear vinyl figure online dubbed the ‘bear companion’ from the collaborative duo, their most recent partnership piece.
Jun Takahashi is clearly a fan of anatomy, both human and non-human. You’re bound to find more than a handful of references to bones, skulls, intestines and all that gory stuff pasted onto his UNDERCOVER garments, often twisted and unexplainable. As mentioned before, Jun has a myriad of interests and points of inspiration that he has woven into his designs. One of them is clearly the body. In the introduction to TGRAPHICS he states, ‘I design abstract images with dresses and express more concrete creation with T-shirts. Loveliness, beauty, ugliness, irony, humour, philosophy… interweave them and create a worldview.’
This is what comes through in those UNDERCOVER designs that present the body in abstract ways. There’s both loveliness and a certain creepiness that comes with swapping out veins and the flowing of blood with richly-colored strawberries. A face made out of intestines is wildly unnerving. A half human, half robot head figure with a bizarre assemblage of organs creates a surrealist universe through which we feel like we’re observing the inner-workings of Takahashi’s brain. UNDERCOVER loves a reference towards the anatomical composition. You’ll most likely find one tucked into the crevices of every season the brand has released since 1993.
Political Satire (Anti-Imperialism):
Another sentiment that Takahashi enjoyed covering was one focused on anti-imperialism and political satire. He would design in correlation with the current affairs of the times and embed his own political opinion into the clothing he created. As such, several UNDERCOVER collections exuded strong anti-capitalist, anti-war and anti-imperialist messages within actual garment design as well as catwalk set design detailing, one famous example being the SS2003 SCAB presentation.
There are also a wide range of graphic designs that make a not-so-subtle politically charged comment towards real-life events. Many of these came across in the drastic butchering or mocking of key symbols of British royalty, wild slogans such as ‘Generation Fuck You’, and the critique of war and imperialism through - at first glance - cute and fun cartoon designs with deeper and darker stabs at those in positions of power.
In a similar vein as the graphics heavy with political satire, Takahashi featured several graphics that were punk-inspired and/or had punk values. Jun was influenced by the punk movement of the 70s and 80s and, as mentioned before, was the lead singer of the punk tribute band Tokyo Sex Pistols. British punk rock bands especially were a favorite for the designer.
Throughout UNDERCOVER’S graphic designs you can spot several punk rock references, those that evoke rebellion and subversion. He pulls from his favorite music artists such as Patti Smith, Joy Division, David Bowie and Talking Heads, and twists the references to highlight and strengthen the non-conformity angle he so strongly wants to champion. The spirit of punk is both a part of Takahashi and an equal part of the UNDERCOVER brand. We imagine that the last graphic Jun puts out there will be overtly punk-heavy and disorderly.
UNDERCOVER and Supreme have had a strong collaborative relationship over the years. For Spring/Summer 2015 Supreme announced that it was partnering up with Takashi’s brand as part of UNDERCOVER’s 25th anniversary celebration. In an interview with HYPEBEAST, Takahashi mentioned that the partnership felt natural to both brands because of their ‘rock and art inspiration’ and a similar ‘backbone for inspiration’.
James Jebbia had an interest in UNDERCOVER’ use of graphics which Takahashi remembered Jebbia thinking was ‘particularly strong’: ‘they wanted to see as much graphics as possible from me. So we picked some out from our archives and also created some new ones for them’.
Supreme and UNDERCOVER have both had a penchant for graphics on clothing since their conception. References to popular culture, key milestones in history and artistic recreations of what’s popular and known are commonplace for both. For their 2015 collaborative capsule collection, the brands released a range of exclusive garment pieces alongside four new original graphic t-shirts. Unsurprisingly, the graphics included the previously used ‘Anarchy is the Key’ slogan, Takahashi’s much-loved visual of a mutated teddy-bear and of course, references to witchcraft and witches. Since the 2015 collection, the two have collaborated twice more, once in FW2016 and once for SS18, and have created original graphics layered onto tees and jumpers. You can still find these pieces online to check out or purchase.
UNDERCOVER’s graphic print canon is extensive and ongoing with graphics being an integral part of Takahashi’s ethos for the brand and a key mode of expression for the designer. The references touched upon in this article are a good foundation for learning more about Jun himself as well as UNDERCOVER’s history simply because they stand synonymous with the brand as a whole.
Jun’s unique graphics have made UNDERCOVER renowned for its t-shirt designs, those that feature slogans, manipulation of well-known visual tropes or even the graphics that are so bizarre they become instantly memorable. Oftentimes, his use of graphics will have hidden meanings, whether that be critiquing those in power or making a statement about real life events. If you were holding a graphic-laden t-shirt from UNDERCOVER you were most likely also holding a piece of fashion propaganda hailing from the mind of Takahashi himself. A piece of Takahashi, if you will.
At the end of the book TGRAPHICS, Takahashi writes: ‘I want to endeavour as ‘prophet’ of T-shirts of the fashion world so that I can release madder creations. When UNDERCOVER ends, I think it would be nice if I can bring it to a successful conclusion with T-shirt designs that are made all manually just like when it was started.’ At the start, there were T-shirt designs. At the end, there will be T-shirt designs. We’re looking forward to the works of graphic art from Jun Takahashi and UNDERCOVER that are yet to come.
Writer: Nova / Marianna Mukhametzyanova