Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The fashion world hardly knew what to make of Yohji Yamamoto's extraordinary alternative vision of fashion when he first showed his clothes on the Paris catwalks in 1981. Three decades later, it's a different story. Yohji is lionised not just as a fashion great but as a guru and an artist by his peers.
In this compelling 20-minute film shot in Yamamoto's Tokyo studio, the designer provides a laconic, engaging and sometimes passionate commentary on his career and design values.
He considers how his work has evolved since his Paris debut, explains why he designs so differently for men and women and touches on his plans to paint murals for his V&A exhibition this spring. Along the way, Yamamoto also provides a withering personal analysis of the current state of the fashion industry.
Book Tickets to Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A
12 March - 10 July 2011
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Yohji Yamamoto: 30 years at the cutting edge
An interview with Yohji Yamamoto, whose three decades of controversial and revolutionary design are being celebrated with an exhibition at the V&A.
BY TAMSIN BLANCHARD | 06 FEBRUARY 2011
Yohji Yamamoto in his office in Tokyo Photo: Amber RowlandsWarning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Yohji Yamamoto is fingering the sleeve of my dress. He is telling me about the outraged reaction to his first show in Paris 30 years ago, and he suddenly stops. 'This is dirty!' Admittedly, the dress in question, an old Vivienne Westwood Anglomania number, is several years old and washed out. It was once black but has turned dark grey from too many washes. I didn't think it was actually dirty, though. His wise and open face, a little lined and weary around the edges, his eyes watery from a cold, breaks into a smile. 'It's beautiful.'
Yamamoto's office in Tokyo is what could reasonably be called a tip. It's a den, not an office. Behind his old wooden desk is a line of old leather boots. They could be there for research purposes but I suspect he simply forgot to take them home. There are several guitars in one corner, and the central circular table where we are now sitting looks as though somebody emptied a waste paper basket on to it. Space is made for a tray of tea, and Yohji clears a small area next to his pin cushion and dressmaking scissors - perhaps the only things on the table he actually uses - for his cigarettes. He chain-smokes throughout the interview.
Yamamoto speaks English fluently but stops a lot mid-sentence, for seemingly endless minutes at a time, deliberating on what he is about to say next. With relief I gradually realise that, in Yohji's world, 'dirty' is a compliment. 'Many journalists kept saying, "Yohji, why are you making such dirty clothing?" ' he is saying, referring to the way his clothes come in many shades of black and can often look worn in, a little distressed around the edges. 'But I was seriously thinking that those are beautiful compared to the established style of garment from other famous designers at the time. Dirty is good.'
On the eve of an exhibition at the V&A (I would say retrospective, but he dislikes the idea and chooses to ignore his 30th anniversary this year: 'Who is going to celebrate?' he asks quietly. 'I'm not. It's boring.') it is hard to imagine the hostility of the fashion world to Yamamoto's work when he unleashed it on an unsuspecting Paris in March 1981. He and his girlfriend at the time, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, showed clothes that bore no resemblance to anything the fashion world had seen before - Yohji's dark, voluminous, misshapen coats worn with huge brimmed hats that hid the models' faces - and the reaction from the fashion establishment was one of outrage, describing it as 'Hiroshima' and 'holocaust chic'.
'The Japanese Offensive!' was the headline in Le Figaro , adding, 'Is there a "yellow peril" on the horizon?' In 1983 the paper's fashion editor, Janie Samet, was still feeling under attack, describing Yamamoto's collection as 'a snobbism of rags that presents the future in a bad way'. In the International Herald Tribune , the then fashion editor, Eugenia Sheppard, called it 'suicidal'. The powerful trade paper WWD ran pictures from the collection with a black cross through them, describing it as clothes for homeless people who lived on station platforms. 'Intellectual Bag Ladies', the headline sneered.
For Yamamoto the headlines were deeply shocking and upsetting. 'At that moment, I didn't respect any designer. Any history. I was simply looking for the idea for myself, for my own excitement. So it was naturally out of trend, out of fashion. I was panicked by the reaction. I really felt I don't mean that, I'm not coming here to Paris to say something against the fashion. I just wanted to open my own small shop. That's it.'
But in a world used to immaculate strong shoulder lines, perfect linings, luxurious embroideries and glitzy buttons that had more to do with the wearer's status in life than with the practicalities of fastening a jacket, Yamamoto and Kawakubo's collision course with the establishment was set.
'It was big pressure [showing the following season]. At the beginning, my memories are of more than 70 per cent of the audience booing and 30 per cent understanding or welcoming. I remember… panic. From the next collection it became a war. I didn't want a war but too much attack made me fight.' And you are a good fighter, I say, referring to his black belt in karate. 'I am,' he nods. Rei Kawakubo's showing alongside him was, he says, important. 'When one designer is thinking like that there is not so much reaction, but because there were two, it meant "the army from Asia".'
It was not all hostile. British Vogue ran a story devoted to 'the Japanese' in 1982 and the newly launched Face and i-D magazines were the spiritual home for their radical designs. 'Gradually, gradually, it was becoming 50/50 between people understanding and not. When I felt that it became even, I felt comfortable. And afterwards when I felt I was welcomed by more than 70 per cent, I felt very uncomfortable.' He laughs. 'They started to call me master, maestro. So I was shouting in my mind, "No I'm not, I am just a dressmaker, fighting." '
Although Yamamoto is ignoring his 30th anniversary, this is a big year for him. His autobiography, My Dear Bomb , which he describes as 'half creation, half truth', was published here last month by Ludion and his first Y-3 shop in Britain opens in Conduit Street, London, opposite his main shop, this month. Coinciding with the show at the V&A, which will take over the main exhibition space as well as six locations around the museum including the Tapestry Room where there will be classical music playing in the semi-darkness and the surprise of three red boiled- wool coats lurking mysteriously among the tapestries, there will be a companion exhibition taking place at two other locations across London, at the Wapping Project in Wapping, east London, and the Wapping Project Bankside.
In the reclaimed hydraulic power station at Wapping, a single installation will feature Yamamoto's vast wedding dress from autumn/winter 1998, which has a bamboo crinoline and a monumental hat, and will be suspended over a pool of reflective black water, with a rowing boat to take you for closer inspection. The Bankside space will also showcase Yohji's Women, some of the innovative and influential imagery that has been used to publicise Yohji's collections over the years, including work by Nick Knight, Inez van Lamsweerde and Craig McDean. Yamamoto will attend the opening of his shows (no doubt hiding in the shadows) and will return later in the year for a Q&A at the Victoria & Albert museum.
Nevertheless, Yamamoto is resolutely downbeat when I ask him if this is a good time to take stock. 'Maybe I'll be not here, maybe I'll be here. Recently every time I do a show, all I think about is this might be the last one.' He says he has felt like this for the past three years. 'I'm simply saying I don't know about tomorrow.'
In October 2009 Yamamoto's business became a victim of the recession and with debts of £42 million his company filed for bankruptcy protection. He was bailed out by the investment firm Integral Corporation, which signed a deal to sponsor the brand and give it a much-needed cash injection. His autobiography opens at this point in his life, with a letter written to him by his friend the German film director Wim Wenders, concerned about the state of his business. In reply Yamamoto, who was the subject of Wenders's 1989 documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes , wrote, 'Around May to June of last year I was considering retirement. But, as my new partner was not thinking in terms of mergers and acquisitions, we ended up producing a 20-year business plan and I signed the contract… I consider this turning point the beginning of my final chapter.'
Talking to Yamamoto, it does not feel as though his attitude towards business has changed much. He is as out of kilter with the demands of the fashion world as he has ever been - seemingly happily so. In an industry which is about selling bags and accessories, Yamamoto prefers the practicality of a pocket (although the 'Yohji' messenger bag he created for Hermès - the luxury leather house's first designer collaboration on a bag - in 2008 became an instant classic). His clothes are timeless and as apart from the ups and downs and crazy cycles of fashion as it is possible to be.
Yohji Yamamoto was born in Yokohama in 1943. His father was conscripted to fight in the war and was killed in action. One of his earliest memories is of going around the paddy fields on his tricycle after the funeral. In My Dear Bomb , he writes, 'I remember that at some point after I entered elementary school, I think, my mother held a funeral for my father in spite of the fact that none of his remains had been returned to us. "Died in the line of duty during fierce fighting in the mountainous region east of Baguio, Philippines," said the notification of death. His remains have yet to come home.'
After her husband's death, Yamamoto's mother, Fumi, learnt to sew at the Bunka fashion college and ran a dressmaker's shop in what her son describes as the 'seedy Kabukicho area' of Shinjuku in Tokyo. His aunt brought him up while his mother worked to pay the bills and to save for his education which, she was determined, would be the best she could afford. He had a tutor and was sent to a crammer so that, by fifth grade, he was at private school. His mother remembers him being good at painting and drawing as well as playing the guitar around the age of 12 while he was at junior school. He had borrowed a guitar from the boy next door and taught himself. He has played ever since, collaborating with other musicians, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he played at his autumn/winter 2008-09 catwalk show.
'My mother's shop was a very small dressmaking shop in the neighbourhood and our customers there were housewives,' says Yamamoto, who worked there between his studies, first a law degree at Keio University and then a three-year fashion degree, at Bunka. 'They were the wives of somebody else, the women who didn't pay by herself.' Mainly, his mother copied looks from fashion magazines - American and European ones. The young Yamamoto hated it. 'They were not right for their proportion. It might be a floral-printed very feminine dress and they would ask, "Could you make it 1cm tighter here?" ' Yamamoto stubs out a cigarette. 'No way,' he says through clenched teeth. 'I was obeying their requests for five or six years.'
In 1969 Yamamoto won a fashion prize at college to travel to Paris. 'It was the exact moment when ready-to-wear was blossoming,' he says. He had studied the great masters of couture at school - Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel - and suddenly it all seemed irrelevant. 'I felt I was totally useless. I was sinking… to the bottom of the River Seine.' He spent his nine months trying to sell his fashion sketches to magazines but he didn't sell a single one. 'It was very tough training,' he recalls. 'The disappointment was very hard.'
He returned to Tokyo at 26, as he describes, 'a kind of good-looking boy' with new dreams and aspirations. He could have continued to make a living working at his mother's shop, but he began planning his own line of ready to wear. One of these collections - made up only of raincoats - attracted the attention of Japanese buyers and they began to order from him. Did your mother encourage you, I ask, wondering how she felt to be losing her talented son from her shop. 'I have no memory about that. She might have been very anxious. Hmm. She is on the third floor, ask her.'
Now 94 and dressed in an unassuming black jumper with black trousers and a smart but not 'designery' jacket and comfortable-looking black leather loafers, Fumi Yamamoto welcomes me with cups of real lemonade and jelly sweets, laid out neatly on lace doilies before us. She has devoted her life to her son. After the war in Japan, life was grim, particularly for a widowed mother. She recalls taking a rucksack into the countryside on the outskirts of Tokyo to forage for food. It is unimaginable now - particularly when I see her later being driven home in the back of a shiny limo - but then, life was simply about survival.
Fumi pushed her son to do well at school, and supported him financially. She was convinced enough about her son's talent to sell her own shop to help him to open his in 1972. He even took on one of her loyal employees, Takayuki Kurihara. He still works as Yamamoto's pattern chief. Fumi's salary stopped when the new investment team stepped in, though she keeps her driver and continues to travel with the team to Paris for the womenswear shows twice a year where she makes sure everyone is happy and cooks for Yohji and the team (one of her specialities is a type of Japanese omelette made with layers of egg).
Yamamoto launched his Y's collection in Japan in 1977 and had an established business when he went to Paris to show in 1981. 'The wind was blowing,' he says. 'I had a map of Japan on the wall and I had a pin for each city where I had a connection with a shop.' Within three years, most of Japan was covered. 'And then, well, why not? Open a shop
in Paris. The idea came.' Sure enough, despite the unsupportive fashion press, he opened his shop in Paris on rue du Cygne in the first arrondissement in 1981. And the customers - women who discovered a new way of dressing overnight - began to buy, and haven't stopped since.
Today, his business back on track, Yamamoto employs about 70 people. It takes at least three years to become an assistant. 'There is a freedom here,' he says. 'But freedom is very heavy, it carries responsibility. And that freedom to create something is hell. There is no excuse. The clothes, the finish of the clothes tells everything - how they love, how they eat, how they spend time - the clothes don't lie.'
The core members of the design team, including his right-hand man, Tadashi Kubo, sit outside Yamamoto's office. At one point while we are being shown around the studio, Kubo springs up from his chair and pulls out one of the thousands of brown manila envelopes that line the studio. It's a folded pattern from the mid-1980s. The entire archive of more than 30 years' work is here on paper. He shows us the pattern cutters, working amid apparent chaos of long rolls of pattern cutting paper, and then the fabrics in every weight, texture and shade of black and grey imaginable. Then, with a glint in his eye, he opens a door into a small room packed from floor to ceiling with rails of clothes. This is the inspiration room, where Yamamoto's eclectic collections of old clothes - many rare and unusual army and navy uniforms - are kept. It is the designer's own museum.
'I have been collecting so many secondhand clothes for 30 years,' Yamamoto says. 'Army uniforms are made with special thread, for certain specific reasons - for the fight, or for protection. Ordinarily you cannot order those types of fabrics. There is no ornament; everything is necessary.' He refers to these clothes - a mad mix of the military and the folk, traditional clothing from around the world and through different periods of time - to recreate a particular fabric, or to be inspired by the cut of a jacket. There is an honesty about these clothes that he likes.
For Yamamoto the starting point of a new collection can be fairly abstract. How does a collection begin? 'I start speaking. Like last time, I started talking to my pattern maker, maybe I said "Hey, I'm treated like a master and I hate it, so I know you are very highly technically experienced, but please forget it. Don't make perfect. I want to be like a young designer starting out, so don't repeat your high quality. You have to break your experience, forget your experience." I started this time in that way, and for the fabric team I started, "Hey, I'm going to do psychedelic print and accessories" - which I hated for a long time. And then they struggle to see how I am feeling, what I'm thinking, and there is a ping-pong.'
Every garment will be shown to Yamamoto 10 or more times (it is usual for a designer to make changes to a toile three or four times), for fittings that last for days at a time, as he cuts into the fabric, drapes, pins and creates on the body; each piece of clothing is a process from the fabric itself to the pattern cutting to the fittings, the embroideries (it's not always all plain and black), and finally the finished product.
Everything is made in Japan, and often pieces are finished by hand as part of a cottage industry keeping alive the arts and crafts of the country's traditional textiles business. It is about as far away from industrialised fast fashion as is possible to be. While the design and cutting is done in Tokyo, every one of Yamamoto's fabrics is made specially in Kyoto at the family-run Chiso factory, which was established in 1555, when it made garments for monks, and has been producing Japan's finest ceremonial kimonos for decades. A single kimono can take up to one year to produce, using up to 15 artisan processes along the way.
It is an extraordinary relationship - a 21st-century operation that can connect Yamamoto with a dying breed of artisans capable of the finest craftsmanship. Here, in the suburbs of Kyoto, up impossibly narrow, steep staircases is a kimono painter, Mr Kimura, who sits down at his workshop table every day, using a rice paste to stop the colours seeping into each other, working 10-hour days to produce five or six kimonos a month. It was this ancient Yuzen technique that was used to create the extraordinary oversize kimonos Yamamoto designed for his friend Takeshi Kitano's poetic 2002 film, Dolls .
Here, too, are the embroiderers, only three of them, in a sun-filled room, their sharp eyes focusing on millions of often microscopic stitches in the most exquisite shiny silk thread that appears to have been spun like candyfloss. A single kimono takes 12 days to embroider in this way. This workshop, at the top of another steep staircase, is run by Mr Murayama. He hand-dyes his own threads now because the supplies are no longer available in the subtle range of colours he requires. When Yamamoto needed special embroideries for costumes for Elton John's Red Piano tour in 2003, this is where they were done. The samples are still in the archive - silky spiders, and silver and gold safety pins so heavily worked that they look almost three-dimensional and real.
For special projects, when money is no object, Yamamoto can indulge in using the craftsmanship he loves. But it is surprising when I am taken to visit a machine embroiderer in a block of flats on the outskirts of Kyoto, who is busy working on sections of jackets for the spring/summer 2011 Yohji Yamamoto menswear collection. Mrs Yamagata, who has been sewing like this for 40 years, is stitching bright motifs on 60 jackets, each badge taking 15 minutes, deftly moving the fabric freestyle, without a foot to keep it in place, around the needle of the sewing machine. These hand-finished jackets will go on sale this spring for £1,870. Mrs Yamagata reminds me of how Fumi Yamamoto would once have worked, sewing away at home to make a living for herself and her only son.
For Fumi, the hard work and investment have paid off. She is proud of her son, as well as her granddaughter, Limi Yamamoto, 35, whose label Limi Feu was launched in 1999 from the ground floor of Yamamoto's HQ. She works completely separately to her father but the aesthetic is dark, androgynous and unmistakably Yamamoto. She has not had to fight the battles her father did. He paved the way for her generation. The product of Yamamoto's first marriage, Limi has an older brother, Yuji, who works on the commercial side of a multi-brand fashion company in Japan, and a teenage stepbrother, from Yamamoto's current partner, who has worked with him for 25 years.
While Yamamoto is downbeat about the future, the V&A exhibition will surely give him a boost. To relax, he likes to gamble, and there is a dartboard outside his office. He has written some new song lyrics as part of My Dear Bomb , but says he is not making music at the moment. 'I have no time,' he says. He also likes to draw and paint and will be doing a painting in situ at the V&A the day before the opening. 'This one or two years has been very, very tough and busy so I hope I'm coming back to my physical life: creating of course, and taking care of business, and taking care of myself. Like doing stretching exercises. Hopefully, a healthy life.'
The Yohji Yamamoto exhibition is at the V&A Museum, South Kensington, London, from March 12 to July 10 ( vam.ac.uk )
Running simultaneously with the show at the V&A are two other related exhibitions. Yohji's Women with photographs by Nick Knight, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadi, Peter Lindbergh, Craig McDean, Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi and Max Vadukul is at The Wapping Project Bankside ( thewappingprojectbankside.com )
Making Waves is at The Wapping Project, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1 ( thewappingproject.com )