Yohji Yamamoto is widely regarded as ranking among the greatest fashion designers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He is one of the few in his profession who have successfully broken the boundaries between commodity and art, by creating clothing that ranges from basics like athletic shoes and denim jeans to couture-inspired gowns that are nothing short of malleable mobile sculptures. Lauded as a blend of master craftsman and philosophical dreamer, Yamamoto has balanced the seemingly incompatible extremes of fashion's competing scales.
Despite the magnitude of his talent and the importance of his work, however, Yamamoto has yet to be the subject of serious critical discourse among fashion journalists and historians. It is perhaps ironic that the only probing analysis of Yamamoto—both the man and the designer—came from someone who possessed little knowledge of or interest in fashion. Wim Wenders, the renowned German filmmaker, produced a documentary in 1989 entitled Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Throughout the film, Wenders dramatized Yamamoto's creative genius by setting the words of the late German philosopher Walter Benjamin against the urban backdrops of both Tokyo and Paris. Yet the director's probing failed to illuminate the crucial elements that constituted Yamamoto's fashions. Neither the elements particular to the art of dressmaking nor Yamamoto's particular aesthetic contributions were discussed.
Inspiration from the intangible, mainly images of historical dress from sources such as photographs, has been a mainstay in Yamamoto's work. The crumpled collar in a August Sander portrait, the gauzy dresses captured by Jacques-Henri Lartigue while vacationing on the Riviera, and the gritty realism of Françoise Huguier's travels among the Inuit of the Arctic Circle are but a few examples. It is not surprising that the riveting catalogs created for each of Yamamoto's high-end ready-to-wear women's collections have included the work of such notable photographers as Nick Knight, Paolo Roversi, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Vinoodh Matadin. Whether Yamamoto is evoking historicism via the ancien régime or the belle epoque, or ethnic garments made of richly woven silks and woolens, he has come to epitomize the vast range of creative possibilities in the art of dress.
Yamamoto was born in Tokyo on 3 October 1943. He never knew his father, who died in Manchuria during World War II; he was reared by his widowed mother Yumi. A dressmaker by trade, Yumi suffered what Yamamoto recalls as the indignities of a highly skilled worker whose gender and station in life afforded her little opportunity to make a rewarding living or to obtain recognition for her talents. Yumi encouraged her son to become an attorney—he graduated with a law degree from Keio University but never practiced. The lure of becoming a designer, however, pulled Yamamoto into fashion.
After completing his university studies in 1966, Yamamoto studied fashion design at the famous Bunkafukuso Gakuin, a fashion institute in Tokyo. Despite his skills as a master craftsman, he started his career as an anonymous creator around 1970. Two years later he marketed his own designs under the label Y's. Clothing under this label is now considered to be Yamamoto's lower-priced, or "bridge," line. In 1977 he presented his Y's collection for the first time in Tokyo. Along with his compatriot Rei Kawakubo, he designed his first high-end women's ready-to-wear collection in 1981 and presented it in Paris. Over the next two years, Kawakubo and Yamamoto pioneered the idea of deconstructed fashions. Their revolutionary aesthetic shocked the world with clothing that appeared to be unfinished, tattered, and haphazardly put together. Yamamoto's loose, flowing silhouettes and ubiquitous use of black further enhanced his groundbreaking work, which became the favored look of the 1980s urban aesthetic. In 1984 Yamamoto presented a deluxe menswear line that incorporated many of these same elements.
From the moment Kawakubo and Yamamoto presented their first fashion collections to an international audience in the 1980s, they were defined as Japanese designers. Virtually every article about them as well as the critical reviews of their collections began by describing them as inseparable from and encapsulated in their Asian heritage. Many journalists inaccurately assumed that they produced clothing worn by all Japanese people. The reality was that the loose, dark-colored, and seemingly tattered garments were as startling to the average Japanese as they were to the Western audiences that first viewed them. Although Yamamoto's work changed and evolved over the next two decades, it retained several key elements— the ambiguities of gender, the importance of black, and the aesthetics of deconstruction.
Gender ambiguity. Yamamoto's professed love of and respect for women has not been evident to many because his clothes were often devoid of Western-style gender markers. He expressed an aversion to overtly sexualized females, and often dressed women in designs inspired by men's wear. Such cross-gender role-playing has long been a part of Japanese culture, and a persistent theme among performers and artists for centuries. The fact that Yamamoto on more than one occasion chose women as models for his menswear fashion shows was another small piece of his sexual identity puzzle.
Even when his later work embraced the sweeping romanticism of postwar Parisian haute couture, Yamamoto's historical recontextualizations contrasted sharply with the work of other marquee designers. Deliberately absent from his runway presentations were the requisites of the contemporary high-fashion wardrobe for women: high heels, rising hemlines, plunging necklines, and sheer fabrics. These characteristics might be the reason that Yamamoto's dark tailored suits and white shirts for both men and women have been some of his most enduring and compelling products. Worn by Western men of all classes for two centuries, the dark-colored suit and the white shirt have a combined ability to convey both sexuality and power through conformity. This blend of erotic appeal and strength was a perfect template for Yamamoto to express his postwar version of male and female sexuality.
Basic black. No color in the fashion palette has been as important in the work of Yohji Yamamoto as black. This early unrelenting black-on-black aesthetic earned his devotees the nickname karasuzoku, or members of the crow tribe. Black has certain associations in the history of the West that have been processed through a kaleidoscope of self-conscious modernist or postmodernist theories and assumptions. As a result of historical recontextualization, black had by the last quarter of the twentieth century acquired a range of meanings, such as poverty and devastation for some fashion critics, and sobriety, intellectualism, chic, self-restraint, and nobility in dress for others.
The aesthetic attributes of traditional Japan and contemporary culture, as well as the role black plays in fashion, can be seen in the color's association with poverty. For some observers, black is an illusion of—or perhaps an allusion to—rusticity, simplicity, and self-restraint. In Japan, black dyes may connote rural origin as well as noble warrior status. An important connection between black and the symbolic associations of old Europe, traditional Japan, and the modern urban landscape may also be derived from the couture atelier. Yamamoto, like Cristóbal Balenciaga, often created day suits, dresses, ball gowns, and coats devoid of any ornament. Charcoal gray, navy blue, and of course black woolens were often molded and manipulated into pure sculptural forms that displayed both marvelous engineering and tailoring techniques as well as a love of dramatic form.
Deconstructed styles. The connection between deconstruction, originally a French philosophical movement, and contemporary fashion design has yet to be fully explored by fashion historians. There is no direct evidence that such ideas were the motivating force in the early designs of Yohji Yamamoto. It is more likely that he combined a mélange of influences: the devastation and rapid rebuilding of Japan in the postwar era; the revolt against bourgeois tastes; an affiliation with European street styles; and a desire, like that of the early proponents of abstraction in fine art, to find a universal expression of design by erasing elements that assign people to specific socioeconomic and gender roles.
Aesthetically, the dressmaking techniques that gave Yamamoto's work its deconstructed look were also related to traditional non-Western methods of clothing construction as well as to the concept that natural, organic, and imperfect objects can also be beautiful. Yamamoto's clothes masked the body with voluminous folds and layers of dark fabric; in addition, they diminished such evident elements of clothing as frontality and clear demarcations between the inside and outside of a garment.
Yamamoto's version of deconstruction fashion more likely began by questioning the very essence of his postwar existence. Japan's initial efforts to rebuild its physical and political infrastructure, and its later economic ascendancy, did provide the right environment to foster the talents of an amazingly creative generation that included the architects Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki, and Kenzo Tange as well as the furniture designer Shiro Kuramata and the fashion designers Yamamoto and Kawakubo.
It seems more plausible that Yamamoto was fueled by the anger typical of the generation that spearheaded the social changes of the 1960s. Thus he arrived at a new vision for fashion that railed against the bourgeois conformity that resulted from what Yamamoto obliquely referred to as American colonialism. Though the exact elements that led him to the creation of his particular style may not be known, more than one journalist concluded that Yamamoto's clothing reflected a kind of anger that evoked images of nuclear holocaust survivors and were labeled the "Hiroshima bag lady" look by some. A few critics even made an alliance between his fashions and a coven of witches.
Despite such misunderstandings, the designs of Yamamoto paralleled the rise of punk fashions and street style, and their connection with mid-twentieth-century urban degradation. In fact, more than one writer noted that the look established by Yamamoto was neither a pure invention on his part nor a derivative of Asian culture. Such London-based designers as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, like other disenfranchised English youth, turned clothing into a medium for political expression and were at the forefront of the punk movement.
Yamamoto's ability to see beauty in degradation, however, and to strip things to their foundation in a search for the inherent integrity of each object is profoundly Japanese. This aesthetic of imperfection, incompleteness, or poverty, is a hallmark of wabi-sabi. A worldview that originated in Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi was later applied to the creation of objects characterized by external lack of ornamentation and internal refinement (wabi) and an emphasis on the ephemeral nature of all things that eventually leads to decay (sabi). While Yamamoto did not formally study wabi-sabi, he is the product of his culture, one that is arguably the most aesthetically refined in the world.
The initial impact of Yamamoto's designs began to diminish as the 1980s came to a close; the designer fell into a self-professed decline for the next few years. By the mid-1990s, however, Yamamoto experienced a resurgence of creativity rare in contemporary fashion. His output was vastly different from his work of a decade earlier, in that it fully embraced the most lyrical and fleeting elements of historical modes. His designs became a blend of street-style realism and Victorian romanticism, reshaped and reconfigured for a contemporary audience. At both extremes, Yamamoto retained his very personal vision—creating clothes for an ideal woman who, according to the couturier, does not exist.
Perhaps the most potent quality that Yamamoto displayed was his brilliant ability to recontextualize the familiar into wearable creations that came as close to works of art as any clothing designed in the early 2000s. Although he created several lines of clothing for both men and women, it was his couture-inspired creations for women that manifested this concept most completely. One of the best fashion presentations in recent memory was the spring 1999 collection that Yamamoto created around the theme of a wedding. All the Yamamoto hallmarks were evident: the play on androgyny as seen through an array of masculine-tailored suits; the reliance on a neutral color scheme of black, white and khaki; and magnificent three-dimensional gowns that evoked both the Victorian era and the golden age of twentieth-century Parisian haute couture. The glory of the garments was further enhanced by the lyrical presentation itself, with the highlight being a young bride who performed a reverse striptease. Rather than disrobing, as is usually the case in fashion shows, the mannequin, dressed in an unadorned hoop-skirted wedding gown, pulled her mantle, a pair of sandals, a hat, gloves, and finally, a bouquet of flowers from pockets hidden in the gown. Fittingly, the usually jaded fashion journalists found themselves shedding tears before giving Yamamoto a standing ovation. After the success of this collection, he was honored as international designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York City in June 2000.
Yamamoto continued to evolve in the early 2000s. His spring 2003 collection was not shown during the Paris ready-to-wear fashion week in October of 2002, but instead during the haute couture presentations earlier that year. Simultaneously, he became the designer for a new line of clothing produced in conjunction with the Adidas sportswear company called Y's 3. This agreement came about after Yamamoto first designed an astoundingly successful set of trainers, athletic shoes, and sports shoes for Adidas in 2001.
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