Yohji Yamamoto, whose clothing designs revolutionised the sartorial codes of the late 20th century, reveals to Peter Yeoh his views on how intelligent fashion can transcend sexuality, cultural boundaries and passing trends

Yohji Yamamoto’s fashion constructs, renowned for their unconventional forms and innovative use of fabrics, continue to create a sensation thirty years after his first show in Paris. His clothes have upended the age-old western aesthetic goal of over-sexualising or fetishising the female body. The fashion icon from Japan has always rejected clothes that accentuate the female form. “The obsession with the overall proportions at the expense of everything else is proof of how extensively western aesthetics have poisoned our sensibilities,” he explained in his new autobiography, My Dear Bomb. “Japanese culture of long ago found beauty in the nape of the neck and in the curve of the back. It is the most subtle line, curving like a serpent.”

In its place Yohji proposed a radically different silhouette. He creates clothes with the intention of capturing the transcendent moments when a woman is the most alluring – not the most sexual. He conjures up an image of a woman casually putting on her lover’s shirt in the morning after they have spent the night together. Even though the shirt is too big for her, it conforms to her shape. This vision of unexpected beauty – ‘the brightness of the shirt will flow to the peak of her breasts, the pleats will gather at her elbow, and the shadows will stretch across her chest’ – is what inspires the designer. To him, his garments are fleeting moments of sublime beauty.

Why do you prefer symbolic over ostentatious beauty?
Symbolic beauty is very erotic. To hide is sexier than to show, a production for seduction.

What inspired you to defy the extravagant fashion of the 1980s?
It was my vision. I was not reacting against something, but rather was acting on my vision.

Is minimalism in fashion still relevant?
I do not consider myself as a minimalist. My clothing is very, very complicated in cutting and draping.

Yamamoto’s first Paris runway show in 1981 caused a media furore. Critics were either thrilled or confounded by his collection’s asymmetrical forms, odd shapes, and skewed proportions. Models trotted around in oversized clothes and floppy hats. Layers of billowing textiles wrapped their bodies, concealing their feminine forms. Heavy fabrics drooped from their shoulders to produce a dissonant look. He was experimenting with a new type of garment that bypassed gender distinctions and made male and female interchangeable concepts.

His creative director and former fashion director of Vogue Paris, Irène Silvagni, remembers her own response when she saw his 1982 collection. ‘You could even call it a sort of revolution, the start of a new age in the world of fashion,’ she enthuses. Silvagni too was also becoming disillusioned with repetitive and gaudy fashion of the ’80s, and observed that Yohji’s collection was ‘a whole new language, and it was smart, too. It was charming, revolutionary, and it seemed rebellious.’

You’re celebrating 30 years after your arrival in Paris.
I am not celebrating. It happens to be 30 years. Well, there is the Victoria & Albert Museum and the two Wapping exhibitions (Wapping Project and Wapping Bankside) so that’s a kind of celebration, no?

Do you consider this as a moment of renewal or a time to look back?
I usually do not look back. I just think about today and the collection to come.

Can you share a memorable moment in Paris?
The success of the wedding collection (spring/summer 1999) – unexpected!

While it may be said that the frisson of Yamamoto’s constructions derives from their radical silhouettes, their true essence lies in inherent contradictions. From the sartorial to the personal, Yamamoto struggles with conflicting instincts that push him towards perfecting his craft. His artistic sensibility comes from a paradoxical and existential inner being that extends outwards into all aspects of his life, and Yamamoto firmly believes that inner struggle is crucial for an artist.

“If one would be a true actor in life, one must feel as if one is constantly at war,’ he states in My Dear Bomb.
Beyond his contradictory yearnings, Yamamoto attributes his restlessness to an absence that had haunted him since childhood, ‘a persistent sense that something is missing.”

He was born in Tokyo in 1943, two years before the end of World War II, and his father was killed in the mountainous region of Baguio in the Philippines. His remains were never returned to Japan. His mother raised him on her own, earning her living as a seamstress in the seedy Kabukicho district of Shinjuku. He recalls that, when he was a child, his mother arranged a war widow’s funeral for his father, since she had given up hope that he would ever return. As he watched the ceremony, he remembers experiencing ‘anger and emptiness for the first time.’

Despite losing his father to war, Yamamoto did not adopt a nationalistic or militaristic perspective. On the contrary, he questioned his country’s motivations for going to the war, and its actions during the conflict. In 2008, six decades after the war, he established the Yohji Yamamoto Fund for Peace (YYFP) in conjunction with the China Friendship Foundation for Peace and Development (CFFPD) as his way of healing cultural wounds.

YYFP’s mission is to help develop the Chinese fashion industry by sending an emerging designer to a fashion college in Japan or Europe, and a Chinese model to make his or her runway debut during the Paris prêt-à-porter season. About China’s young designers, Yamamoto has seen ‘many angry young people’, but believes that ‘being a fashion designer or an artist, you have to be angry.’

You said to be a designer or artist you have to be angry.
My feeling is I’ve always been ambivalent towards life, time, and women. Fundamentally, it’s my way of being. For a long time I have this constant magma inside me. I was born to be the only son of my mother who became a war widow: the fundamental inequality. So I named my book My Dear Bomb. The bomb can signify many things depending on the moment, sometimes anger, sometimes resignation, and sometimes resentment.

How has the war influenced you as a designer?
My father died during the war, my mother raised me alone. So women are my motto, so is my woman’s fashion.

Why did you establish the Yohji Yamamoto Fund for Peace?
It was my way to apologise as a Japanese war widow’s son to what we did to China.

Another contradiction is Yamamoto resists over-intellectualising the creative process even though it is the conceptual strains and sculptural interrogation of forms in his designs that differentiated him from other fashion designers. ‘Creativity will not flow from intellectual manipulations,’ he writes.  “Without asking the most fundamental questions of existence, one will not be able to create.”

Even his book is a paradox, refusing to adhere to the standard format of the biographic genre. True to his contrarian approach to everything, his biography is structurally incongruous, meshing memories, anecdotes, poetry, history, and design philosophy together in a disjunctive narrative style. This is the kind of incongruities that challenge and confound him. ‘The pendulum within me swings wildly back and forth.’

How would you describe the last 30 years of Japanese fashion?
Very influential but the change of the fashion industry, I’m feeling that it’s my fault. I cannot change the world. I’ve been a little lazy. I should have known a little more about the market. It’s like a film director getting old and cannot see anymore his audience. All that I can do is to keep sending the same message, I’m here, I don’t want to go down to the flat market. I am an animal making clothes. My body reacts when I see the clothes.

Yamamoto does not hide his distaste for fashion retrospectives in museums – another paradox – even though he has been the subject of more than 30 fashion-related exhibitions around the world. Ligaya Salazar, Curator of Contemporary Programmes at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and curator of the retrospective on Yamamoto’s oeuvre this spring, finds his reluctance not surprising when she considers “how closely his garments are linked to the human presence that is meant to inhabit and move in them.” And in her essay for the V&A catalogue, independent dress historian Alexis Romano argues that Yamamoto’s ambivalence is rooted in his lack of interest in his own past, and that fashion is progressive, not regressive. But in the end Yamamoto agreed to participate in the retrospective because the idea is to situate him in the fashion history’s timeline, and not to entomb him.

What does a retrospective at the V&A mean to you?
Two sides of a coin – happy and worried!

by Peter Yeoh

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams