PARIS, France — Yohji Yamamoto first emerged on the fashion scene in 1981, when he brought his revolutionary design sensibility to Paris from Tokyo, setting off what would become an aesthetic earthquake. Since then, the designer has become renowned for his avant-garde tailoring, featuring over-sized silhouettes and a restricted, dark palette.
The only son of a war widow, Yamamoto was born in Japan during the Second World War and grew up without any memories of his father, whom he lost when he was only one year old. He was raised singlehandedly by his mother and spent his childhood and early university career studying diligently to please her.
Yamamoto’s mother was a dressmaker who had a shop in in Kabukicho, an amusement and entertainment district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku. It was there that he came to work after graduating from the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo, a decision that initially angered his mother.
But Yamamoto had realised, “I didn’t want to join the ordinary society,” he says. “So I told my mother after graduation…I want to help you.”
Eventually, Yamamoto’s mother agreed to let him work at her shop, saying he could learn from the sewing assistants. At her request, he also enrolled at Bunka Fashion College, now famous for training designers including Kenzo Takada, Junya Watanabe and Yamamoto himself. At the time, however, “the Bunka dressmaking school was sort of for younger girls,” Yamamoto confesses. “It was like classes for preparation for getting married, flower arrangement, cooking and dressmaking.”
When he arrived at the school, Yamamoto says, he didn’t even know that the profession of fashion design existed. “I just wanted to study making clothes, cutting and sewing.”
The early days of Yamamoto’s career were not easy. After graduating from Bunka, he received a prize to go to Paris for a year. When the designer arrived in Paris, he found the era of haute couture — what he had studied — drawing to a close. “Saint Laurent had just started ready-to-wear,” he remembers. “The haute couture time was going to finish and a new movement of ready-to-wear had started.”
After repeatedly failing to persuade magazines to feature his designs, Yamamoto grew dejected, stopping drawing and taking up drinking and gambling instead. “I thought, ‘I have no talent,’” he says. Eventually, he says he realised he needed to leave before he destroyed himself, so he returned to Tokyo.
It was back in Japan that Yamamoto began to discover his true voice as a designer. “Helping my mother, the outfits and dresses that were ordered by so many women, they were all kind of tall-like, sexy, gorgeous, feminine — which I didn’t like too much,” he says. “During fittings on the customer’s body, and kneeling down and fixing the length, I was thinking, ‘I want to make some kind of mannish outfit for women.’”
Describing his preoccupation with asymmetry and monochromatic palettes, Yamamoto says: “In the city, [there are] so many fashions, so many colours, so many decorations, it looks very ugly. I felt I should not make people’s eyes disturbed by using horrible colours.” Instead, Yamamoto was fascinated by the way the cut or wash could make a piece of clothing charming, rather than using “sentimental colours.”
Yamamoto set up a small ready-to-wear company that slowly acquired buyers in all the major cities in Japan. This steady success turned his thoughts back to Paris, as he began to believe “maybe in Paris there is a very few number of people who will find my clothes interesting.” So, at the beginning of the 1980s, Yamamoto returned to the French capital — coincidentally opening his first small shop on the same day that fellow Japanese designer and former girlfriend Rei Kawakubo held her first show for Comme des Garçons.
Unwittingly, the pair created a fashion firestorm — their visions a far cry from the reigning trends at the time, led by the likes of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, who “looked like kings,” Yamamoto says.
“Mine and Comme des Garçons outfits were very far from their sense of beauty,” Yamamoto says. “For European people, our creations looked very dirty and ugly.” But while most of the media derided them — telling the pair to go back to Japan — the buyers, always looking for something new, Yamamoto explains, were enthralled.
Since then, Yamamoto developed a dedicated global following, and today his two main lines Yohji Yamamoto and Y’s are stocked in high-end department stores around the world. The designer is self-effacing about his success, however. “I was simply very lucky,” he says. “People were waiting for a new wind to blow… There were so many fashionable people who were tired with stereotypical fashions, colourful fashion, girlish fashion — they were waiting for something and it happened like this.”
In 2003, Yamamoto also pioneered another industry movement — the crossover of fashion and athleticwear — when he began his collaboration with Adidas, catering to a more mass-market consumer. After two decades of working in Paris, the designer felt he had moved too far away from the street. “I started feeling, who is wearing my creation? I can’t find the people who are wearing my outfits,” he says. For him, the Y-3 collaboration with Adidas was a way to experiment with the sneaker culture that was spreading from the United States and close the distance between him and his consumer.
But the designer’s career has not been without its difficulties. In 2009, his career hit its low point when — following the poor decision of his company’s then business managers— the brand found itself weighed down by debts of more than $65 million and was forced to declare bankruptcy. The designer, tired and angered by the situation, almost quit the industry for good. It was his daughter, Limi Feu, he says, who kept him going, reminding him of all the employees and workers who also relied on the brand.
“When I started thinking about them, I had to start it again. It was a very hard moment,” he admits. “But as soon as I made up my mind to do it again, I feel like I became twice as strong.”
Looking at today’s fashion industry, Yamamoto says design has become too mainstream, preoccupied with making money and selling accessories, rather than collections. “Clothing designers are decreasing,” he says.
For the young designers just starting out and searching for their own signature, Yamamoto urges them to forgo computers and the Internet. “If you want to create something you need real excitement and emotion, not superficial vision,” he says. Online, they can fall into the expansive digital vortex of images and quickly lose themselves.
“Young people are not yet really having individuality or strong power,” says Yamamoto. “So I tell them, you can copy somebody who you like very much. Copy it and copy it until at the end of the copy you have found yourself.”
Watch the full interview with Yohji Yamamoto above.