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Yohji Yamamoto Designer, Artist, Thinker

Category: Features

Maestro of avant-garde fashion, Yohji Yamamoto remains one of the world’s most influential and enigmatic designers and over the last years has made a vital contribution to fashion

Yohji Yamamoto was born in 1943 in Yokohama, Japan. After receiving a law degree from Keio University in Tokyo, he enroll in the city’s Bunka Fashion College. Yamamoto completed his fashion studies in 1969, and founded his own fashion house in 1971. He showed his first pret-a-porter collection in Japan in 1977. The presentation of his first collection in Paris, in 1981, was a turning point for Yamamoto, as well as for the fashion world more generally. Ever since, Yamamoto has been designing clothes for several labels simultaneously, including the labels +Noir and Y’s. His clothes may be purchased at his flagship stores in Tokyo, Paris, and London, as well as at other major department stores worldwide. Despite the economic challenges experienced by Yamamoto’s fashion company in 2009, it remains stable. From a theoretical perspective, Yamamoto’s work may be analyzed as a form of post-modern art related to the philosophical principles of deconstruction: by undermining Western hierarchies andbinary constructions such as beautiful/ugly, feminine/masculine, elegant/unkempt, new/ old, perfect/imperfect, Yamamoto adopts an approach similar to the one described, most notably, by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Moreover, Yamamoto’s designs refuse to affiliate themselves witha clearcut gender, national, or artistic identity. The hybrid character of his works, and his numerous quotations from Japanese tradition and Western culture, may be defined as an avant-garde form ofpostmodernism that appeals to a global population. Yamamoto himself referred this global orientation as early as 1984, when he declared that he was interested in creating international fashion, by whichhe meant global fashion, before this term came into common use.The Japanese Avant-Garde Wave in ParisYohji Yamamoto arrived in Paris as part of a wave of Japanese designers who took over the French capital in the 1970s and 1980s. These designers included Kenzo Takada, who opened a fashion house in Paris in 1970; Issey Miyake, who first showed his works in New York in 1971 and then presented his first collection in Paris in 1973; and Hanae Mori, who presented her first collection in Paris in 1976 and became a member of the French Haute Couture Association.

Like Rei Kawabuko, who founded the label Comme des Garחons, Yamamoto is a member of the second generation of Japanese designers in Paris. He was followed by additional Japanese designers, such as Akira Onozuka, who first presented his works in Paris in 1989; Junya Watanabe, who first presented her works in 1993; and others.

It is important to understand Yohji Yamamoto’s arrival in Paris and his success there in the sociohistorical context of Western life in the 1970s and 1980s. This period was shaped by events thattook place in the 1960s, which changed the face of Western culture: the coming of age of the baby boomers born during or immediately after the Second World War made this generation into the largest and most influential consumer group during that decade. The baby boomers rebelled against the values and lifestyle of their parents and sought to create a permissive, pacifist culture, while protesting against sexual and social prohibitions which they viewed as restrictive and oppressive.The 1960s were characterized by innovative cultural production in a range of fields, including music, visual art, architecture, and fashion. This change in lifestyle led to the emergence of a new fashion look and of new designers such as Mary Quant in England and Andrי Courrטges in France, whose fashion designs embodied the aspirations of this young generation.These designers created innovative fashion while undermining the status of former super-designers such as Dior, Cardin, and others, as well as the hegemonic status of haute couture more generally. When the Japanese designers arrived in France in the 1970s and 1980s, the fashion arena wasready for further change.

According to Yuniya Kawamura, the success of the Japanese designers in Paris was made possible by the destabilization of haute couture, yet this development did not weaken the French fashion system. Rather, the arrival of these designers, alongside the maintenance of previously existing codes, only served to further strengthen this system.In general, one may attribute the arrival and success of the Japanese designers at that specific historical moment to the opening up of the Western culture to other cultures in the global sphere, as aptly described by Richard Martin:In the final third of the [20th] century, Western fashion struggled to find a new sign system that recognized fashion as a quotidian phenomenon more than as a function of an elitist couture […]. As an intellectual system, Western dress yearned for a new universal. Why did Japanese designers offer the best new options from the 1970s to the 1990s? Japanese design offers the extant alternative that reconciles kimono ceremony and applied use for dress (formality and informality). The ethos offashion in Japan, and especially the objectives of the new designers, did not functionally separate the best from the most basic in apparel. And Japan offered an aesthetic and practical possibility beyond conventional Western tailoring.The Japanese designers wisely exploited this window of opportunities. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, their designs successfully integrated foreign elements and familiar Western elements. In this sense, their contribution to the world of design is unique. Other foreign designers who arrived in France during the same period or over the following decade (in the 1990s) createdfashion that adhered to accepted French codes. This was also true of designers who headed (or who still head) large fashion houses, such as the English-Spanish John Galliano for Dior, the BritishAlexander McQueen for Givenchy, and the German Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and of independent designers such as the Tunisian Azzedine Alaןa, the Turkish Rifat Ozbek, and others. By contrast, theJapanese designers aspired to undermine, to a certain degree, conventional Western design codes.A number of journalists and fashion scholars initially described these Japanese designers as “invaders” or as the “Japanese army” – terms that bespeak their perception as another expression of an ongoing geo-political confrontation between East and West.

In reality, however, the opposite is true: this conflict-ridden (and sometimes even combative) terminology – the use of terms such as “imperialism,” “imperialist rivalry,” “colliding histories,” and “Asian exoticism” – appears today as old-fashioned, and does not in the least address the avantgarde character of these designers’ works. From today’s perspective, we can acknowledge their designs as heralding a new form of fashion, which both preceded and helped shape the imminent arrival of globalculture.

Yohji Yamamoto’s Aesthetic JourneyDespite their shared background, each of these Japanese designers created a unique style. Yohji Yamamoto’s designs are characterized by a restrained palette dominated by black; oversize cuts; multiple layers that blur the contours of both the male and the female body; asymmetry; fabrics that appear used; and unraveled hems. At the same time, it is important to note that Yamamoto’s designs also include quintessentially Western elements, such as two-piece suits and white button-down shirts with collars. In some instances, moreover (1996, 1997), his collections were largely based on the Western design legacy of the 1950s. Yamamoto’s clothes are characteristically very comfortable, andradiate Parisian chic and elegance. Much has been written about the aesthetic approach underlying Yamamoto’s designs. According to Patricia Mears, for instance, his work over the years has been shaped by three aesthetic principles: the blurring of gender identity, the dominance of the color black, and values associated with deconstruction. Yamamoto’s designs for women intentionally exclude familiar Western markers of femininity such as high heels, dיcolletage, and short skirts; moreover, the suits he creates are similarlycut for both men and women. Black, which may be associated with poverty and tragedy, is also associated with chic, elegance, and intellectual pursuits. In this sense, Yamamoto’s use of blackcommunicates contradictory messages. In addition, as Mears notes, Yamamoto’s cuts emblematize the values of deconstruction that dominated French intellectual circles in the 1970s and 1980s.

The clothes designed by Yamamoto also creates a dialogue with Japanese tradition. To begin with, his loose, multilayered designs blur the contours of the body. In order to understand the significance of this quality, we must turn back to briefly examine the origins of Western fashion, which dates back to the mid-fourteenth century. By definition, fashion is a system in which all members of society replace their attire not because it has become tattered, torn or faded and is no longer suitable to be worn,but for non-practical reasons that have to do with changing “fashions.” The invention of fashion paralleled the cultural discovery of the body and the appreciation of its beauty, which was highlighted by means of cuts that emphasized the body or certain body parts. In order to achieve this goal,professional tailoring emerged in order to custom-make for individual bodies, thus enabling them to conform to the fashion ideal of the moment in the most precise manner. At the same time, the evolution of Western fashion also involved the development of various accessories (especially undergarments) designed to shape the body itself, such as girdles, petticoats, crinolines, bras, heels, and so forth. In addition, gender-based visual distinctions between the sexes became prominentelements of fashionable dress.Other, non-Western cultures did not participate in this fashion revolution, so their traditional forms of dress remained stable over hundreds of years. For the most part, the role of clothing was not toemphasize the body or redesign it. This is certainly true in the case of traditional Japanese attire, the kimono, which is worn by both men and women. Kimonos are not sewn according to the specific measurements of individual bodies; rather, they wrap around the body and are tied at the waist. In cold weather, Japanese men and women wore several kimonos one atop the other. To a large extent, then, traditional Japanese dress respects the body, and serves it rather than abusing it. Ultimately,an individual’s appearance is created through the interaction between his body and the clothes he wears.Yamamoto’s designs quote some of these traditional elements, such as the loose cuts and multiple layers worn one atop the other. As he himself has stated, the focus of his designs is not the body,and he does not view the human body as beautiful or dependable. Yamamoto’s clothes respect the female body – and most of them do not expose it by means of tight-fitting cuts, deep dיcolletage, or semitransparent fabrics. Nor do they require the body to change in accordance with their design. Working at a removal from the provocative style and sexual obsession characteristic of Western fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, Yamamoto offered women an elegant alternative. As he himself has noted on various occasions, the exposure of the body is contrary to both his ethical stance and his aesthetic approach:I think to fit clothes tight on a woman’s body is for the amusement of man … It doesn’t look noble. Also it is not polite to other people to show off too much.The androgynous quality of his designs is similarly inspired by this approach. Finally, the appearance of the person wearing Yamamoto’s clothes is a result of the interaction between the wearer and his outfit and between the outfit and the surrounding space:Understanding his highly aestheticized clothing is to position modern minimalism against an urban dreamscape. As much as he is pioneering a new direction for clothing, Yamamoto is creating a new environment for them. […] he imbues form and shape with emotions and ideas and releases them to metamorphose on the wearer. The garments themselves are designed to hang unambiguously or drape romantically around the body. Precise seams intersect the planes of fabric fitted against the body or extending from it, like joins between walls that tell the story of how the building is constructed. Every cut he makes is an act of defining space.Yohji Yamamoto pays careful attention to the fabrics he uses. As he himself notes:Fabric is everything. Often I tell my pattern makers, “Just listen to the material. What is it going to say? Just wait. Probably the material will tell you something.” The fabrics are produced in Japan according to his instructions. He also uses traditional Japanese methods of dying fabrics, such as the Shibori and Kyo-Yuzen methods, as well as embroidery andknitting. Oftentimes, the final appearance of Yamamoto’s designs combines heavy fabrics such as gabardine and tweed with delicate, soft fabrics. In contrast to his colleagues, such as Issey Miyake with his trademark use of plissי fabric and Rei Kawabuko (who transforms fabric by means of puncturing it, unraveling it in different areas, and so forth), Yamamoto does not alter the fabric once he receives it. In addition, he hardly ever uses prints, which are popular among Western designers.The simple, streamlined quality of his designs is the secret of their chic. And contrary to what may be expected, the unraveled hems that appear here and there do not mar their appearance or allude to poverty, but rather appear as a unique finish. Finally, despite, the loosefitting appearance of his clothes, they are meticulously cut thanks to Yamamoto’s exemplary tailoring skills.Yet in addition to building on postmodern quotations and heterogeneous traditions, Yohji Yamamoto has created a distinct, contemporary, cutting-edge style while remaining consistently faithful tohimself and to his unique approach. As one of his workers notes in Yuniya Kawamura’s book:A designer needs to maintain a strong identity and image. Although it is a new collection every season, there has to be a continuity but not repetition. Image is very important so if the designer keeps changing his image, there is no way that the designer is going to be successful. Yohji was able to reproduce the same kind of image.Thirty Years of SuccessHow may we explain Yohji Yamamoto’s success, which has been ongoing for over three decades? This question may be answered in several ways; to begin with, even though the body is not the focusof Yamamoto’s designs, his clothes do complement the body. In addition, they are extremely comfortable. This is especially notable when it comes to his shoe designs, which are characterized by an absence of heels and which often resemble sports shoes. Ultimately, Yamamoto’s fashion statement centers on liberating clothes – the body does not work for the clothes, but rather the clothes work for the body.Yohji Yamamoto’s clients usually are not concerned with the origin or global spirit of his designs. They buy them because they like them and find them flattering, and because they serve them well. This quality was especially notable in the 1980s and 1990s, when Western culture was obsessively concerned with sports, body sculpting, and revealing designs. During those years, haute couturedesigners presented un-wearable designs that were clearly nothing but a means of generating public relations for the accessories produced by elite fashion houses – perfume, cosmetics, glasses, andso forth. In this context, Yamamoto offered a respectable alternative, which also respected his clients. Secondly, Yamamoto’s clothing is designed for urban living and for busy men and women interested in buying clothes which, paradoxically, will be forgotten the moment they are worn, and serve themthroughout the day and evening.

Thirdly, in the same spirit, Yohji Yamamoto creates clothing designed to serve their wearers for many years. His sophisticated designs do not wear out or age, and continue to remain relevant; asTamsin Blanchard puts it:His clothes are timeless and as apart from the ups and downs and crazy cycles of fashion as it is possible to be.Yamamoto Beyond YamamotoIn addition to his work as a designer for his own fashion house, Yamamoto collaborates with other companies: he designs sports clothes for adidas that may be purchased in company stores oronline, as well as bags for the Italian company Mandarina Duck; you can also custom-order a bag designed by Yamamoto from the prestigious French luxury goods company Hermטs. Recently, the Japanese fashion company Edwin announced that in the fall of 2012, it will produce a series of pants designed by Yamamoto.Yamamoto’s designs have been widely reviewed in the media, and have been the subject of sophisticated analysis and academic attention. Especially noteworthy among the exhibitions, books, and films devoted to his work are his autobiography, My Dear Bomb, which was written with Ai Mitsuda and published in 2010 by Ludion; and the 1989 film Notebook on Cities and Clothes by the German director Wim Wenders. Also worth noting is the important exhibition held in 2011 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London coinciding with the celebration of Yamamoto’s 30th anniversary as a fashion designer, as well as Yohji Yamamoto’s artistic collaborations with the singer Elton John, the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, and the Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano.