In the words of vogue….
“With my eyes turned to the past, I walk backwards into the future,” the enigmatic Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto said in 2011, summing up the ethos behind his long career of smashing fashion boundaries in the name of invention. From his first Tokyo collection in 1977, “avant-garde’s Far Eastern couturier,” as Town & Country once called him, has restlessly sought to discover new ways of dressing the female form. Step by groundbreaking step, Yamamoto has never wavered in his pursuit of his life’s passion: achieving anti-fashion through fashion.
Yamamoto first descended on the Paris scene in 1981 with what the Tokyo press had dubbed the “crow look”—voluminous black garments cut along severe, almost monastic lines. Enveloped in elegant asymmetry, Yamamoto’s crop-haired, makeup-less models somberly filed out in simple flats . . . and the shoulder-padded, lipsticked cognoscenti stopped in its stiletto tracks.
“A nuclear bomb explosion,” the European press called Yamamoto’s debut. Carla Sozzani, an Italian fashion editor, described seeing his work for the first time as “an emotional shock”: “At that moment, everything was all Mugler and Montana, kind of big shoulders and a lot of makeup and high heels, so Yohji’s clothes were like a revolution.” Their hallmarks were black, a color both “modest and arrogant at the same time,” as Yamamoto himself once said; a reverence for, and sensualization of, the female form through inventive tailoring techniques; and an embrace of wabi sabi—the transient state of beauty, marked by imperfection and incompleteness. “Perfection is the devil,” he has said.
With one dark, lovely swoop, the gauntlet had been thrown down. Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, his fellow Japanese designer—“the Monk and the Nun” they were called—were the leaders of an important new movement: deconstructionism. The Japanese shows were the hottest tickets in town—if you could get in. “It was almost a brawl,” recalled Irène Silvagni, then European editor for Vogue. “It was like being at a rock ’n’ roll concert, and I thought, ‘The age of black is here!’ ”
“Their presentations were so powerful and their clothes so radical that some feared they would change the face of fashion irrevocably,” The New York Times fashion critic Bernadine Morris observed in 1985. Another critic went so far as to declare that their androgynous abstractions presaged “the end of fashion.”
Yamamoto and Kawakubo gained a cult following, and avant-gardistes from Japan to Manhattan dared to wear their attention-getting garments (this was the eighties, after all, when wild fashion experimentation was all the rage at street level). The pop-rock singer Sting made a uniform of Yamamoto’s loose-cut suits and crisp shirts—as did a generation of with-it women who shopped both sides of the aisle at the au courant New York boutique Charivari. Still, in those early years, many more mainstream consumers of high-end fashion were left scratching their heads. In 1986, Women’s Wear Daily dismissed Yamamoto’s fall collection with a terse, “Sayonara.”
By the late eighties, however, all-black statements, androgynous suiting, and origami-like envelopes that enfolded the body in artful ways no longer looked alarming; the public at large had absorbed the basic tenets of deconstruction, and had begun wearing it. Yamamoto was no longer feared, he was copied.
Yamamoto (who, it was becoming more and more clear, was in fact a master tailor) began to adopt a more structured, feminine style as the nineties dawned. Some silhouettes, betraying a deep vein of poetic romanticism, echoed those of the Belle Époque or the post-war New Look. At his spring 1999 show, a model in a hoop-skirted wedding gown of ivory satin stopped and began a reverse striptease, drawing the rest of her ensemble—bridal bouquet, gloves, and slippers—from a hidden pocket. “A unique, historic moment,” the Vogue columnist André Leon Talley called it. Reportedly, some in the front row actually cried.
Yamamoto’s fall 2001 runway brought an even bigger surprise: sneakers, made in collaboration with the sportswear giant Adidas. They were an instant commercial hit, and Yamamoto soon found himself appointed creative director of a new division, Adidas Sport Style, and the designer of a new label, Y-3. “It’s the first link between sport and fashion,” he said in 2007. “It inspires me a lot. . . . I can touch street culture and cool people. It also gives me the opportunity to make street a little more aesthetic.”Since then, the popular Y-3 has expanded to encompass sporty clothing and accessories.
In addition to Adidas, Yamamoto has lent his sketchpad skills to the Italian luggage maker Mandarina Duck, the pearl purveyor Mikimoto, the sunglasses doyenne Linda Farro, and—reaching all points of the shoe spectrum—Ferragamo and Doc Martens. Despite his ever-widening sphere of influence, this man who can only be expected to do the unexpected has insisted, “I’m not interested in fashion, generally. I’m just interested in how to cut the clothing.”