Fine Weave Woollen Dress, Spring Summer 1988 / Loose Coat with Crushed Effect, Autumn Winter 1984 – 1985.
Yohji Yamamoto in Paris, making final revisions to the show for Spring Summer 1991.
New York Catalogue, Autumn Winter 1984 / 1985.
A fitting in progress in Yohji Yamamoto’s workroom in Tokyo.
Evening Gown in Black Gabardine, Spring Summer 1993 / Cutting to the millimetre, rather than the centimetre.
“People wear my clothes to make a statement,” explained Yohji Yamamoto, summing up, in the laconic style we have become familiar with over the last twenty or more years – a contribution to fashion that constitutes an exploration of fashion itself. For this was not the leisured opulence of haute couture, the flashy brilliance of prêt-à-porter, nor even the futuristic vision of the avant-garde. What became clear, gradually but inexorably, as we followed the Japanese designer’s repousal of the great archetypes of fashion, was that his choice of a neutral vocabulary, his adoption of a simplified palette and range, was the power and essential difference of the Yamamoto style. It was an approach which, while taking into account the contribution of Paris couture, and indeed traditional Japanese costume, nevertheless set out quite deliberately to tap new areas of creative potential in the domain of fashion in all its modes and manifestations – a world that had experienced more fresh starts in a single turbulent century than it had in the previous thousand years.
When the first Yamamoto model insinuated itself into the brilliant, structured, over-accessorized world of Paris prêt-à-porter in the eighties, the line was loose-fitting. The garment stood right away from the body it delicately encased, apparently never touching it. Usually thick, opaque and dark in color, it often seemed to be standing up by itself. Of positively medieval severity, it had a second-hand look about it that prompted some to describe it as post-punk (grunge was still light years away). It looked lived-in, as though it had acquired a patina with the passage of time, like those items in our wardrobe that have become special favorites. It reflected that hatred of what is new that is so wonderfully exemplified by a certain sort of English dandy who used to have his boots broken in for him, and got his valet to wear his camel-hair suits for the first couple of years. To Wim Wenders, who made a feature film about him, the designer confided: “My dream is to draw time.”
One thinks of all those oversized capes, unstructured coats, and asymmetric jackets. “Symmetry – the symbol of perfection – is not sufficiently human.” And it is, precisely, to humanity that this master of scissors and fabric looked for his inspiration – to the work clothes worn by hundreds of anonymous figures; for example, those men and women from the German heartland who posed for the photographer August Sander between the wars. To boilersuits, dungarees, overalls, pea jackets. Even the railwayman’s outfit made up of layers – the apotheosis of the tramp who carries the world on his back. A garment that becomes one with the person who wears it, so much a part of him that it is entirely subordinated to the force of his personality. “Whether a season’s fashion is interesting or not does not depend on the designers who created it, but on those who see and buy it.”
Although he would not go so far as to lay claim to the status of artist, in his approach to clothes Yohji Yamamoto shows himself to be exceptionally responsive to contemporary trends – in the same way that couturiers of preceding generations responded to Cubism, say, or the Ballets Russes or Pop Art. Caught up in the delirium of the seventies, Andy Warhol was heard to remark, “When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.” (indeed he went so far as to reserve the formula, explaining that he liked Rome because it was a sort of museum, “like Bloomingdale’s.”) Arte Povera went further still, with its refusal to be seduced by smooth surfaces, Pop colors and the consumer society, opting instead for basic elements that had not been transmuted: wood shavings, rags, mud, coal, and so on. In the “roaring eighties,” Yohji Yamamoto would attempt something comparable – one of a small number who tried to break away from a fossilized conception of what clothes were. He did this by disrupting the codes by which clothes made their appeal; by rethinking the glamorous signals sent out by their external appearance; by redefining their relationship with the male or female body; and, ultimately – to near universal incomprehension – by radically reinterpreting the respective contributions of beauty and ugliness, past and future, memory and modernity.