Monday, 14 October 2013


One of the greatest things about Paris is that high fashion is omnipresent. From hidden bookshops brimming with archive style magazines and books through to high-end stores on every corner (don't worry, I can't afford to shop there either but the window displays are inspiration enough!), you are constantly exposed to style, fashion and fashion history. As you all know, Japanese designers have always fascinated me for their avant-garde conceptual designs as well as their rebellious garments imbued with social commentary, so I recently bought a book entitled "Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo", a book which has prompted this essay on the great Yamamoto himself. Kawakubo is more well-known and Miyake is distinct from the other two designers in that his work was advanced in a more technological sense as opposed to a social one (although his A-POC range was one exception), which is why it made sense to write about Yamamoto. I had seen his early work but heard little about the elusive designer, his background and the inspirations behind his collections, which is why this book was such a treasure to me. In this piece, I will explore the traditional Japanese concepts that have inspired Yamamoto's career, look at some of his greatest collections and also look at how he (alongside Kawakubo) managed to reverse Western ideals of beauty.

Scanned from 'Talking to Myself'

Wabi-sabi and Japanese views on deconstruction

To understand the principles of Yamamoto's earlier work, we have to first put it in the context of Japanese culture. For example, a lot of the designer's work is based around the design of the traditional Japanese kimono - not particularly in terms of an overall aesthetic, but more as a study of the space between the garment and the body. Yamamoto's earlier designs were criticised as they hit Paris at a time in which women were obsessed with highlighting their body. Couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaia had been the previous pioneers of high-fashion and they both specialised in sleek clothing which highlighted the female form, so by choosing to ignore this Yamamoto set himself apart immediately. He is often quoted as saying that he designed for women that were powerful in the sense that they didn't have to rely on their appearance or flaunt their femininity. Instead, they could take loose, draped garments and be confident enough to make them look as chic as a YSL gown. He also pushed against concepts of perfection, and this is because his work was based on the Japanese principle of 'wabi-sabi', a concept which believes that beauty lies in imperfection. This is why Yamamoto's garments were often criticised for looking 'unfinished', with random pockets and frayed seams left hanging. 

Yohji Yamamoto, S/S 2011
Yamamoto and Androgyny
Androgyny is a term which is thrown around loosely in fashion - YSL's 'Le Smoking' jacket, for example, is often pulled as one of the most recognisable examples of the concept. Yamamoto, however, used androgyny in a different, more interesting way. In a way his purpose was not to dress women as men, it was instead to blur the lines of gender completely. The argument that menswear is only 'menswear' because society says so is one that interested him, therefore he attempted to incorporate 'feminine' touches into his menswear collections and vice versa, creating a kind of gender neutrality. Because of this, the Yamamoto woman was both formidable yet elegant - dressed head-to-toe in black, usually in draped trousers, asymmetric shirts and exaggerated tuxedo jackets, the look was quirky, elegant and completely different to the women we were used to. Playing with proportions helped put the attention on the outfits themselves as opposed to the body that lay underneath, and women finally had the option to dress in something that didn't cling to their silhouette. 

Editorial taken from American Vogue
Menswear, on the other hand, became a lot more feminine. By dropping the seat of his trousers and working with lighter materials (cotton, chiffon), the rigid formula of what consisted of men's trousers was reworked and reinvented. The Western business suit was loosened, and Yamamoto presented his more relaxed interpretation of a Japanese businessman - still elegant, still in workwear but decidedly more relaxed. Drama was injected into the collections too; the combinationof Yamamoto's trademark monochrome colour palette teamed with floor-length coats and voluminous trousers (so voluminous that they occasionally looked more like skirts than trousers) created a signature aesthetic that was brand new to menswear.

Yohji Yamamoto Menswear, S/S 2012
The colour black

'Black is arrogant and modest at the same time'.

Yamamoto's love for the colour black is one that he is well-known for. There are many reasons for his refusal to use colour in his earlier collections, the first being that he wanted to make a statement and the colour black is both imposing and dramatic when teamed with a striking silhouette. Another reason is that executing a garment in black makes it almost timeless, much like the infamous 'Little Black Dresses' that both Chanel and Balenciaga became famous for. Yamamoto also noted on several occasions that he grew tired of colour very quickly, a statement which is reflected in fashion's tendency to hail one hue as 'the colour of the season' only for it to be unceremoniously dumped next season ('the new neon', for example, is being predicted as the biggest trend of S/S 2014). Surprisingly, one of the collections that started S/S 2014's 'new neon' trend was Yamamoto's - he has recently strayed away from entirely monochrome collections, an update of the way that he used to team an all-black outfit with bright red shoes, an injection of colour that made the black more prominent.