Gyakusou in Context

Writer David Hellqvist
Images courtesy of Nike, Inc.

In the wake of all the exposure, after the dust has settled on previous collections, and as we await next season's product at the end of another year, it's the ideal time to consider Gyakusou in a broader context. Alongside some of the iconic imagery created around the brand, David Hellqvist examines a collaboration between Nike and Undercover that has been successful in design, performance, and sales terms ever since its arrival in 2010.

In a time where fashion – and menswear specifically – is all about fusing and merging styles and brands, it's easy to tire of collaborations and sartorial remixes. Too often quality is diluted as marketing strategies replace a genuine desire to further design ideas by enlisting outside help with a completing skill set. Nowhere else is that as visible as within the increasingly grey area between sportswear and high-end fashion; luxury houses team up with sportswear brands to gain access to iconic styles and a younger, more street-savvy audience. The results are, not surprisingly, mixed. But thanks to the car crashes, the honest ones stand out even more. The ones where you can see and feel a genuine respect between the two labels, where a whole new brand is born – not just a short-lived collaboration gaining blog hits and release day queues.

One such setup is Gyakusou, the high-tech running gear partnership between Nike and Undercover head honcho Jun Takahashi. Seven seasons in, Tokyo's Gyakusou International Running Association (GIRA) has gone from strength to strength, practically revolutionising the idea of mixing high-end fashion and exercise clothing. It would be inaccurate to say that Gyakusou was the first such collaboration, and it's not the only successful one. Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas have, with Y-3, created a brand with its own life through shops and shows. The main difference is that Gyakusou will most likely never have either of those. Early on, Nike and Takahashi realized there was a niche gap in a niche market and they went to work filling it. They probably don't have world domination plans for the line, and it will definitely never be big enough to cater for a mainstream market. But, in only three years, Gyakusou has identified a problem and solved it. Arguably, GIRA should not even function within the traditional biannual season system. Instead, view the brand's collection as Takahashi constantly working on developing and improving the brand rather than just remaking his first Gyakusou collection over and over.

Although Takahashi is the creative brain behind Gyakusou, it's important to remember the group that enables the success. Behind each big-name designer there's a team of talented and hard-working helpers; it's often the assistant designers, pattern cutters, PR officers, studio managers and interns that carry the brand, making sure there's a coherent collection to show twice a year. It's not due to lack of involvement from the creative director, merely a sign that fashion is an ever-escalating business, constantly demanding ideas, concepts and products. Like his fellow catwalk designers, Takahashi relies on creative help for both his main line and Gyakusou. For his GIRA collections, Takahashi is able to draw on Nike's longstanding expertise; few other brands posses such knowledge when it comes to innovative materials, high-tech details and advanced technology. As is often the case, this is all down to the staffers.

Ushi san is a product developer for Nike Japan. His job is to help create and merchandise the sportswear giant's Asian output. "I've been working for Nike for 20 years, so I know all Nike's sports history," Ushi says. "I was there when Nike Air Max came in! So I know all about Nike's innovations as well as the necessary features that an athlete needs for particular activities, whether that's for basketball or for running outdoors." Which is probably why Ushi was asked by Fraser Cooke, the Nike Global Energy Leader who initiated the project, to assist Takahashi on the Gyakusou brand. Ushi was tasked with facilitating Takahashi's creative directions: "Every season we'll have a kick-off meeting where we decide what we're going to do. Jun will always come to the meetings with his recent discoveries, and he'll always bring up real needs," Ushi explains. This is key to Gyakusou: it's all about substance – style is only a pleasant side effect. "For example, he'll say, 'Ushi, I went for a run this morning and I think we need more breathability,' or maybe he'll say, 'It was really hot yesterday – we need more sleeveless singlets, or shorter lengths.' A lot of the detail comes from his actual running experiences."

If you study the Gyakusou collections – or better yet, if you wear them – you'll soon discover a slow and organic change in the fundamental design approach. The focus has shifted from intricate and lavish concepts to a more stripped-down take on pure exercise. "Jun is getting more and more serious about running and his needs have become more specific and professional," Ushi says. When visiting the Gyakusou Paris showroom for a collection launch last season, Takahashi echoed Ushi’s point of view: "Design-wise, it’s getting simpler. I wanted to focus more on the functions – and for the functions to work, the design doesn’t need so much space. The first season had more of a sharp design to it and that was a design that was not necessary for running – now it’s a lot more functional."

As a designer Takahashi benefits from having two very different outlets. Undercover is a Paris catwalk line committed to mind-bending concepts, while Gyakusou deals with reality. Ushi agrees: "It's about function and purpose. For Jun, running is real life, which is a totally different process in terms of the creation of the collection. All the storytelling surrounding the [Gyakusou] collections comes later on, and it's more like a movie-ending. We are not creating the products for the core seasonal theme – which itself is actually more the result of what we've done." If anything, this makes Gyakusou more credible. There's enough image-led collaborations merging fashion and sportswear out there. No-one questions Nike's running commitment and, the way things are going, the same can be said for Jun Takahashi. Last year he ran the Honolulu marathon for the third time in a row.