Born: Yokohama, Japan, 1944. Education: Studied civil engineering and English, Nippon University; graduated from Bunka College of Fashion, 1967. Career: Apprenticed with Junko Koshino and Hosano; designer, Hisashi Hosono, circa 1968-71; opened firm, Yamamoto Kansai Company, Ltd., Tokyo, and showed first collection, London, 1971; first Paris showing, 1975; opened Kansai Boutique, Paris, 1977; organized program for India-Japan Mixed Cultural Cooperation Committee, 1997; worked with Junko Koshino revitalizing the kimono, 1999; took Ningensanka eyeweare line to the Middle East; signed licensing deal with Ayoyama USA for eyewear, 2001. Awards: Soen prize, Bunka College of Fashion, 1967; Fashion Editors award, Tokyo, 1977. Address: 4-3-15 Jungumae, Shibuyaku, Tokyo 150, Japan.
Koren, Leonard, New Fashion Japan, Tokyo, 1984.
Contemporary Designers, Third Edition, Detroit, 1997.
Queen, Bobbie, "Kansai Confidence," in WWD, 28 January 1985.
Steber, Maggie, "Future Shock, with the Brilliant Innovators of Japanese Fashion," in Connoisseur, September 1986.
DuCann, Charlotte, "Zen and the Art of the Real Shirt," in the Independent (London), 29 June 1989.
Strauss, Frédéric, "Au Vrai Chic Wendersein," in Cahiers du Cinema (Paris), December 1989.
Martin, Richard, "Sailing to Byzantium: A Fashion Odyssey, 1990-91," in Textile & Test, 14 February 1991.
"Emerging Vision and Aoyama USA Sign Trading Partnership Contract," in Business Wire, 15 February 2001.
"Ajisu-cho in Yamaguchi Hosts the Japan Expo Yamaguchi 2001," available online at Japan Travel Updates, www.jnto.go.jp, 14 October 2001.
"The Investigation of the Truth of the Design and the Beauty," available online at Gifu City Women's College, www.gifucwc.ac.jp, 14 October 2001.
"More Opportunity Surfaces in the Gulf as Eyewear Demand Levels Up," online at Optical Middle East, www.opticalmiddleeast.com, 14 October 2001.
"1980s Kansai Yamamoto Silk Scribble Skirt," online at Enoki World, www.enokiworld.com, 14 October 2001.
"Signed Kansai Yamamoto," online at Yoko Trading Company, www.yokotrading.com, 14 October 2001.
"Yukata," online at What's Cool in Japan, www.jcic.or.jp, 14 October 2001.***
Kansai Yamamoto's presentation of his fall-winter 1981-82 collection was divided into 14 parts, among them Peruvian Geometry, Sarraku (Japanese 17th-century painter), Korean Tiger, Ainu, and Sea Foam 5 Men Kabuki Play. Yamamoto declared in the accompanying program notes: "True originality is almost impossible to imitate as it is the expression of the creator's personal experience and cultural environment. As a Japanese, I always seek the 'Oriental quality' that is within me." Yet Yamamoto's personal sensibility is a single aspect of Orientalism and reflects a style relatively little known in the West in Asian forms, but comparable to many traditions of the West.
Yamamoto is Kabuki in his overt theatricality, flamboyant sense of gesture and design, and brilliant colorful design as much to be read from afar as admired at close range. Leonard Koren, writing in New Fashion Japan, (1984) said, "For Kansai, fashion means creating a festival-like feeling using brightly colored clothes with bold design motifs inspired by the kimono, traditional Japanese festival wear, and military clothes." Gaudy by desire, larger-than-life by theater's intensity, and virtually to Japanese culture what Pop style was to Anglo-American culture, Yamamoto has consistently cultivated a fashion of fantastic images, extravagant imagination, and sensuous approach to both tradition and a view of the future.
Unabashed entertainer and impresario (long a familiar product spokesman on Japanese television), Yamomoto achieved cult status in the 1970s for his worldly transmission of Japanese culture. His work has often been controversial in Japan inasmuch as it is thought to promote and exploit images of Japanese vulgarity internationally. Is Yamamoto creating an "airport art," expensive exoticism for the West that still thinks of an East Asia of bright colors, lanterned festivals, Kabuki masks, and fabulist stories with dragons and tigers? Yamamoto seems poised between traditional Japanese culture, the Pop sensibility of the late 20th century, and a longing for a millennial future.
Central to Yamamoto's work is his delight in mass entertainment and popular culture, a sense of both following and leading the ordinary population whether in graphic t-shirts or the convenience of knitwear. His silhouettes for both menswear and womenswear are extreme, suggesting either the most wondrous last samurai or the most magnificent first warriors for intergalactic futures; his appliqués have been in the ambiguous realm between primitive art and 20th-century abstraction.
In a West frightened by Japanese militarism (no Yukio Mishima, but no Buddhist monk either, Yamamoto has drawn inspiration from firefighter's uniforms and other easily identified work vestments traditional in Japanese subcultures of conformity) and prone to disregard any popular culture if not its own, Yamamoto became a designer of special but limited interest in the 1980s. His less-than-solemn work is ridiculous to some, celebratory to others. Cerebral, spiritual, aestheticized Japan (as represented by Issey Miyake or Rei Kawakubo) seemed more ideal, especially to the West. Yamamoto's plebeian flash was for many in the West the worst of two worlds.
Yamamoto's sensibility, however, is universal. If he was the first fashion designer to bring Kabuki circus-like joy, impertinence, and Japanese common culture to international fashion, and has remained a significant figure in espousing such conspicuous love of theater, a love of life, and love of exaggeration. His aggrandizements begin in delight and exuberance and end in celebration of the most universal kind. They benefit from a relationship to costume, though Yamamoto is always grounded in the wearability of his clothing. They often function as happy graphic signs, emblems of the most bold in fashion. On the opening of his Madison Avenue boutique in 1985, Kansai remarked to Women's Wear Daily, "My clothes are no good for someone who loves chicness." If we understand chic to be slightly haughty and narrowly sophisticated, Yamamoto misses the mark by express intention. Rather, he is seeking an earthy, populist ideal of clothing created in the grand gesture for the great audience. "I am making happiness for people with my clothes. If you walk through Central Park in them you create a 'wow.'"
In July 1999 Yamamoto explored the yukato, the traditional single-layered cotton kimono worn next to the skin. He and Japanese designer Junko Koshina helped to update and popularize the versatile garment for sale in department stores. Initially intended for after-bath and relaxing, it began to appear in outdoor styles featuring Western flower, fruit, and animal prints in black and dark green with matching obi, geta, ornamental hairpins, fans, and cloth.
At the end of the year, as demand for eyewear in the Middle East expanded rapidly, Yamamoto showed his stylish Ningensanka line at the Middle Eastern optical exhibition held at the Dubai World Trade Center in the United Arab Emirates. The exhibit targeted medium and upper-level consumers, the eyeglass shoppers for whom Yamamoto designs frames. In February 2001, Emerging Vision Inc. announced formation of a trading partnership with Aoyama USA, leading Japanese manufacturer of high-end titanium eyeglass frames and sunglasses. Employing online services to support their supply chain worldwide, Aoyama retained exclusive U.S. distribution of Yamamoto's brand.
In addition to garments and eyeglasses, Yamamoto's creative contributions influenced a variety of venues. In November 1997, following the ninth meeting of the India-Japan Mixed Cultural Cooperation Committee, he organized "Hello India," a program promoting relations between the two countries. For the Japan Expo in 2001 he designed daily performances for the main pavilion. At Gifu City Women's College, he has served annually as designer-in-residence and delivered lectures to students who intend to specialize in fashion design, production, distribution, and advertisement.
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass