Yohji Yamamoto sat folded in his under-the-roof office, the rain gushing down the window over our heads. I wanted to apologize for missing his show for the first time in more than three decades, because the grand Parisian building, opened up for Diane von Furstenberg to receive a Legion d’Honneur, was shuttered for those of us who wanted to slip out discreetly to see Yohji’s collection.
Looking back from the current worldwide situation, where fashionistas – like everyone else – are in fearful self-isolation to face off coronavirus, that fashion moment, less than a month earlier, feels unreal.
The designer, pictured in 2005
Now, this group of traveling fashion folk, never anywhere quite long enough to call it ‘home’, is condemned to stay in one place – joining, of course, so very many others whose lives have been disrupted.
I feel now that Yohji would have needed no explanation – even if our conversation had taken place during the current storm of illness that was already whirling though Italy.
Black as a color, Yohji Yamamoto’s Autumn / Winter 2020 show
His own life started with a Big Bang: the one that devastated Japan, ended the war and killed his father. Which is why his 2010 biography was called My Dear Bomb (Ludion Editions). But beyond the anger, the book explained, with exquisite grace, where to place a button hole – as well as the meaning of life and death.
I had come to see Yohji in Paris to look at the clothes of the new Autumn / Winter 2020 show – even though, as he immediately put it, “You are going to look at the clothing from the Yohji Paris office floor – compared to looking at the real fashion show, it is very different “.
Indeed. What had seemed startlingly historical when viewed in photographs of models who displayed low chests, their black dresses wrapped in criss-cross cords, came across in the showroom as 21st century. Hanging on racks examined by groups of buyers, the coats, tailored – yet with frills of prettiness – never seemed like costumes.
Frills of prettiness by Yohji Yamamoto, Autumn / Winter 2020
There were signs of artistry with fabric apparently washed with scarlet paint. The colors, as so often with Yohji, grew in clusters: blue and pink, dabbed by hand on black. Or lines wandering and twisting on black tailoring.
The effect was sensual, peaceful maybe?
That brought an immediate response from the designer. “I’m not peaceful – I’m just angry,” he announced, raising his head in its soft trilby hat.
“So was your show angry?” I asked.
“The message is anti-chic and the fashion is anti-ordinary and anti-boring,” he said. “I know I don’t change; at the beginning I was always angry, still angry, that is what makes my motivation power to create beauty. “
The messenger of ‘anti-chic’ at the end of his Autumn / Winter 2020 show
Later, when I looked through the showroom, filled with buyers, I understood immediately the concept of black as a color, whether its density was lightened by painterly splotches of purple and fire red, or with black and white stripes tumbling as an extended color. Then there was the black itself, which offered different shades according to the fabrics. The idea seemed to be to have elements of the historical, but also a bold, modern attitude, as in a curvy scarlet jacket controlling a wayward skirt.
At Yohji Yamamoto shop window, Tokyo
One striking effect was a downward fall of single white letters reading “ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT” and signed in his writing “Yohji Yamamoto”.
I mostly find Yohji’s collections peaceful and I asked him if that was just an illusion.
“An illusion – yes – sometimes I lose my anger, so sometimes I lose my power, the power to shout anti-something – and then it looks peaceful,” he said. “But this time the show was very angry, anti-today’s trend.”
Putting the finishing touches to the Autumn / Winter 2020 show
I tried to think of Yohji’s work in context: the early years in the 1980s when ‘the Japanese’ were seen as an entity – brands such as Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Yohji himself who eschewed the flashy glamor of the era and its adhesion to body shapes and power-woman shoulders.
Menswear, Autumn / Winter 2020
It took a while – as with ‘the Belgians’ – for fashion people to identify the Japanese designers as individuals. But Yohji’s first show at Paris Fashion Week in 1981 grew into a broad business, including menswear crowned by Y-3, a collaboration with Adidas in 2002. It became a major part of his business.
The Y-3 collaborative brand, Autumn / Winter 2020
Yohji currently has 40 stores worldwide under the name Yohji Yamamoto, 47 stores under ‘Y’s – including the powerful menswear. His daughter is part of the company – but his 20 year old son, raised in France, is not yet old enough to make the decision to join the company.
In spite of some financial bumps along the path, he has come a long way from watching his sempstress mother in his youth.
But the designer, now aged 76, is frustrated as well as sad at losing sparring partners – those one-time rivals who have faded or passed away.
“The fashion world has become so flat – everything looks the same” Yohji said. “It doesn’t matter how old I am – I needed my rear driver – Azzedine Alaïa or Karl [Lagerfeld] at Chanel. They all passed away. I feel so lonesome. It makes me angry so I started to fight with the history of fashion. So this time I was creating a talk with 20th century designers. “
A hallmark of the Yamamoto Yohji show, creative hair and makeup
“In my imagination is frankly bad vocabulary,” he continued “I’m saying in my mind” F -You! ’This is my theme – 20th century‘ F-You ’.”
I began to grasp Yohji’s state of mind: since those designers who were arch rivals to fight against had passed away, was he going back to fashion icons of an earlier era, such as Balenciaga?
“Balenciaga, Chanel, so many names – Madame Vionnet or Madame Elsa Schiaparelli,” said Yohji.
Experiments in black and color, Autumn / Winter 2020
So today’s designers who make a lot of noise, don’t necessarily offer Yohji anything
that’s worthwhile listening to?
“I don’t care – I’m just looking for my rival,” he said.
Part of the Yohji line of perfumes
Yohji had started our conversation by saying that he was angry. I know I asked him why.
“It’s very simple – I was born as a war child and in the first year of high school I read about how my father passed away in the war. It was 1944, just one year before it ended. He was 36 years old. A 36-year-old man was sent to war. America already had won everything. I know he’s on the boat, fishing boat, and it sunk.
Sneakers to covet from Y-3
“About ten or fifteen years ago I started feeling maybe my father was pushing my back,” Yohji went on. “At the same time I felt angry. My country and its people were stupid. Because America already had a very modern army. My father’s army, they were all killed and finally the American army bombed Hiroshima. I spent my young life with only my mother. I don’t have the meaning of family. “
Black with splotches of color, Autumn / Winter 2020
I wanted to turn our conversation back to fashion. Yohji had once said to me that he was always fascinated by seeing women from the back – departing. Was that still true?
“Please don’t leave! Don’t leave! That is the most important thing in my imagination, “Yohji replied. “Because I love women. Especially I love strong women. Independent women. “
The designer also loves handwork, and looking at strokes of paint colored on the clothes, I could see that some of this work was closer in spirit to couture, than to ready-to-wear.
Yohji Yamamoto concludes his menswear Autumn / Winter 2020 show
“I’m stupid,” said Yohji. “I’m still making clothing in my company. The staff – using their fingers. Other companies are using computers. I keep on doing everything by hand. And from hands like emotion, inspiration, sensitivity. I still believe in that. So until the I end, I will keep making everything by hand. “