Often described as the designer's designer, Yohji Yamamoto has been making waves on the international fashion circuit for more than 30 years: an important enough figure to warrant a major retrospective exhibition at the V&A in London, featuring more than 80 of Yamamoto's thought-provoking designs from the past three decades. A first for London, the show flows in and out of the main exhibition space, inviting visitors to draw comparison between Yamamoto's visionary and contemporary pieces and the museum's remarkable collection of historic tapestries, sculptures and paintings.
Now as much known for Y-3, his remarkable ongoing sportswear collaboration with Adidas, it was Yamamoto's laser-sharp cutting, pared-down styling and passion for predominately black Japanese workwear fabrics that caused a stir among fashion's cognoscenti when he stormed on to the Paris catwalk in 1981. His collections, which were launched in Japan in 1977, were uncompromisingly androgynous and austere at a time when the major fashion houses were promoting overtly feminine silhouettes in a riot of colour and print. For many in the audience, this seismic sartorial shift proved too much: WWD, the American fashion trade magazine, dismissively headlined its coverage of the debut Yamamoto collection: "Intellectual Bag Ladies."
There were, however, those who understood and appreciated that this was the start of a major new zeitgeist, embracing Yamamoto's challenging yet liberating designs. Here were clothes that adorned, swathed and nurtured the female form, rather than exposing and exaggerating it; clothes that were totally in tune with the evolving spirit of the time.
"The impact Yamamoto and his then-partner, Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons made is quite hard to imagine nowadays," comments Ligaya Salazar, the curator of the V&A retrospective. "The shapes he created, the amount of fabric he used, the colours; everything was new to the fashion world then."
Ultimately, Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons both defined the pioneeringly intellectual and creative approach to dressing that became synonymous with the 1980s and the 1990s and continues to be relevant and highly covetable today. Strong independent personalities such as Charlotte Rampling, Tilda Swindon and John Malkovich favour the architectural qualities of Yamamoto's clothing, while his cult Y-3 collection for Adidas attracts a younger fashion-savvy clientele, including the singer Cheryl Cole, the footballer Zinedine Zidane and the Glee actor Matthew Morrison.
"At this particular moment in time, I believe that Yamamoto's clothes are particularly interesting," points out Salazar. "As the consumption of fashion becomes faster and faster (and cheaper and cheaper), I think there simultaneously is a growing interest in things that are well-made and will last for more than a season."
It is a testament to Yamamoto's enduring silhouettes that there is such demand for his early pieces, which seldom come under the hammer. Kerry Taylor Auctions in London (www.kerrytaylorauctions.com) recently sold a rare wooden dress from his autumn/winter 1991 collection for £36,000 (Dh215,000)and the Passion for Fashion sale on March 17 included a black cutwork weave coat from Yamamoto's spring/summer 1983 collection, that was estimated at £800-£1,000 but fetched £4,600.
For Yamamoto, who prefers the term dressmaker over "designer", the fabric has always been the starting point to his designs. He works closely with Japanese fabric makers to create beautiful durable materials that stand the test of time, without kowtowing to trends. "From the beginning I wanted to protect the clothing itself from fashion and at the same time protect the woman's body from something, maybe from men's eyes or a cold wind," says Yamamoto. "I wanted people to keep on wearing my clothing for at least 10 years or more, so I requested the fabric makers to make a very strong, tough finish. It's very close to designing army clothing. One reason why young people love second-hand clothing is that it has a character, or it has a story already, or it has some human message. So I'm always close to second-hand clothing or army clothes."
With this in mind, Salazar explains: "One of the most important things about the exhibition is for people to get a real sense of Yamamoto's work. As the aspect central to his design is his custom-made fabric, it was also very important for people to be able to come up close to his work to see the textures and cuts. Showing menswear for the first time is very significant - both in terms of the visitor experience, as it offers them a more complete understanding of Yamamoto's work, and also in terms of London's own relationship with menswear."
In his recent autobiography, My Dear Bomb, published by Ludion, Yamamoto focuses on the creative time bomb ticking away inside his head via a collection of personal and exceedingly frank anecdotes, stories, illustrations and ditties. In one of the chapters Yamamoto muses: "When I am designing women's clothing, I always have a certain goal, or image or look in mind. I keep my eyes on it as I work, reaching out for it. With men's clothing, however, I have no male image on which to focus my gaze. I design instead from the opposite standpoint, one in which I am gazed upon. Another way to phrase it would be to say that I look at the world through the window of clothing." In the past, Yamamoto has been vociferous in his dislike of staged exhibitions and Salazar feels that they have successfully overcome this with an installation-based show and close collaboration. "The approach of this retrospective isn't purely about surveying his body of work, but about showing it in a challenging and interesting way: an encounter between Yohji Yamamoto and the V&A (and London). Over the past few years I have worked closely with Yohji Yamamoto through various means... and our exhibition and lighting designer, Masao Nihei, also spoke to him regularly to see how he felt about how things were progressing."
Yamamoto's advertising campaigns have always succinctly continued his fashion narrative and aesthetic vision and are the result of several long-term working relationships with leading industry creatives such as the art director Marc Ascoli, the fashion photographer Nick Knight and the graphic designer Peter Saville. Like his clothes, Yamamoto's imagery is timeless, aspirational and effortlessly memorable: the abstract image of a silhouetted young Naomi Campbell swathed in a brilliant red coat and the languid picture of Susie Bick wearing a damson jacket and brandishing a lit cigarette are both quintessentially Yamamoto. "We sought to transport the ideas and spirit of Yohji's work into the physical material of his communications," says Saville, who is also the graphic art director of the V&A exhibition. "It was a free brief to discover a shared perspective." Knight and Saville were commissioned to create the cutting-edge images for the exhibition poster and the cover of the show's catalogue, which boasts many of Yamamoto's haunting images, plus highly personal interviews with the designer, Salazar and several of Yamamoto's close associates. Destined to become collectors' items, limited-edition exhibition merchandise includes T-shirts depicting the designer's favourite items, from the military boots he's rarely seen without and the ubiquitous safety pins that feature in his collections, to his Rolls-Royce Corniche and faithful Belgian sheepdog, Duke.
Two other satellite exhibitions in London at the Wapping Projects are taking place in Bankside and Wapping: one focuses on Yamamoto's influential advertising photography; the other contains a sole exhibit of the extraordinary oversized Victoriana wedding dress from the spring/summer 1998 "wedding" collection, complete with a vast bamboo crinoline and full-blown hat.
Clearly Yamamoto is having a moment.
Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A Museum, London, runs until July 10 (www.vam.ac.uk). Yohji's Women and Making Waves are at The Wapping Project Bankside. Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, both until July 10 (www.thewappingproject.com).