Yohji Yamamoto

The Y Factor

For most fashion designers attention-seeking is like breathing and the limelight is their oxygen. What makes Yohji Yamamoto so refreshing is that, after 30 years in a business renowned for its giant-sized egos, he remains one of fashion’s most elusive figures. Like the clothes he so artfully designs, he is at a distance from the mainstream, making him a somewhat mystical figure.

Meeting the reclusive designer is an experience. His Paris headquarters are housed in a five-storey building he owns in the 3rd arrondissement. Visitors must trail through various showrooms, sewing and cutting zones and a busy kitchen before arriving at Yamamoto’s private lair, on the top floor. The small space is warm and intimate with sloped ceilings, creaky wooden floors and a large window that floods the otherwise dark room with light.

The designer is sitting pensively at a table in the corner, dressed in a navy sweater and black trousers, with a cigarette almost burned down to the butt and dangling perilously from his fingers.

Yamamoto generally eschews interviews but today he is excited to talk about a Beijing project, in which he will direct and present a Y’s fashion show at a yet-to-be-revealed World Heritage site. He has designed a series of unique pieces for Thursday’s event that will later be auctioned to raise funds for the Yohji Yamamoto Fund for Peace, a new initiative that will sponsor a mainland designer to study fashion in Europe or Japan for two years.

“This year I have found more in me creatively – especially with this project,” says the 64-year-old, taking a long, slow draw from his cigarette. “There are a few reasons why I chose China [for the scholarship]. It’s a little complicated. Of course, I am going because I was invited to show my work as an artist. In Japan I am not treated as an artist because, in Japan, fashion is not treated as a form of culture. So this is going to be a message to Japan for them to start changing their view on fashion.

“The second reason is a bit different.

I was a war widow’s single son, so I became naturally, almost instinctively political. Japan and China’s relationship is very naive, complicated, difficult – we have to be very careful. If I can make sure the Yohji Yamamoto fund helps young Chinese students, that might be a small message and a way to help some young people find their future.”

Yamamoto also sees this era as one in which a generation of Asian artists can reach out to a receptive world. Asia’s booming economy is spawning a new wave of talent, both in fashion and art, and mentoring its members is a very personal and important part of his vision.

“It is vital Asians support one another. China has been the biggest production country for fashion for a long time. Now it’s changing – it’s going to be the biggest consuming country in the world. With that comes young talent, so I really want to share the emotions they can give the world.”

Although the designer has been based partly in Paris for the past 20 years, his roots are firmly planted in Asian soil. Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1943, Yamamoto was just two when his father was killed in the second world war, leaving his mother to find work as a seamstress. During his 20s, he enrolled at Keio University, in Tokyo, to study law, only to change his mind and pursue fashion at the city’s Bunka Fashion College in 1966.

After a two-year fashion scholarship in Paris, he returned to Tokyo where, in 1972, he launched the Y’s label, which was inspired by post-war Japanese blue-collar workers. His first show came in 1977 and by 1981 he was ready to move back to Paris. With compatriots Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garcons and his then partner, and Issey Miyake, Yamamoto headed for Coco Chanel’s home town.

“When I came to Paris and did such a small show, it was like a joke. There were so many people who came to see it at my office – the office elevator even stopped because there were so many of them,” he says with a laugh.

“To be honest, I wanted to come to Paris to open a small shop, not thinking I wanted to change the way people dressed or make a dramatic statement. But, at that moment, journalists and buyers wanted something new, so it just happened.”

The fashion cognoscenti, who were used to frills and frou-frou, were in for a big surprise when they saw Yamamoto’s oversized asymmetrical shapes paired with flat shoes, neither of which had appeared on the catwalk before. Not many understood the thinking behind the look, but what they did know was that the “traditional” notions of women’s fashion were being challenged in a new and exciting way.

“I wanted to create something totally different, so I didn’t study properly like a student. For example, an art student studies art by copying. Copying something is very important. If you keep on copying something, you naturally find your own sensitivity. But in my case I shut down all forms of information. I closed myself off. Because of that my work isn’t in the mainstream; it’s on the outside edge.

“After the show I got many criticisms from Japanese journalists – they’d ask me, ‘ Yohji, why are you making such dirty clothing?’ Then the Europeans referred to my clothing as too Japanese, which was a shock to me. Yes, I was born in Japan, but what they didn’t know was that I was born in the middle of ruins because it was totally bombed by the Americans. I grew up with nothing traditionally Japanese around me, so I have no sense of Japanese for myself.

“And you know what? To this day, after finishing a show, when a newspaper writes about me, they use ‘the Japanese’ or ‘Japanese designer’ to describe me. It more than bothers me. For example, in a piece about a designer from Belgium, they don’t write ‘the Belgian’.

You see?”

Despite the fact Yamamoto feels pigeonholed by the industry, there is no denying his work has influenced designers, young and old, European and Asian. Even still, the veteran says it took a while for him to absorb how much his work and aesthetic had changed the fashion world.

“The first time I was talked about in that way was by a young French journalist about 15 or 16 years ago. He said: ‘ Yohji, we grew up under the influence of you,’ and I was surprised; I couldn’t see it at the time. Now I go and have a rest at Les Deux Magots [a Paris cafe] and I watch people for an hour, and most of them are wearing black.

“It’s funny because when I did an interview with an American journalist, she asked me if I thought of myself as a successful designer. So I asked her, ‘For you, what is success? Money? Or respect?’ I feel I have enough success but Americans don’t treat me as successful because my creations don’t exist on the important floors of American department stores.”

Admittedly, Yamamoto’s work is not easily deciphered by the masses, which is probably why those who wear his designs come from creative arenas and include artists, architects and designers.

“Fashion is becoming ugly. Beautiful things are disappearing every day. It’s becoming more commercial and the continual tendency of fashion is [towards the] sexy and gorgeous – which I hate.

“I tell you, there are so many famous fashion maisons in the world, so many, but there are very few houses working with clothing. The others, they only want to make accessories and this is becoming a problem.

“Sometimes I’m optimistic, sometimes pessimistic about my future. My company is totally independent and private. It’s a miracle because we are not selling bags and accessories; we are concentrating on clothing and still existing. It’s very lucky. So I am thinking simply that I keep on designing clothing as long as my body reacts.”

That’s not to say Yamamoto’s creativity is limited to clothing. Over the years he has embarked on a succession of collaborations, including designing Y-3 shoes and bags with adidas and undertaking projects with jewellery brand Mikimoto and luggage label Mandarina Duck. These, he says, have been integral to bringing him back to the “street” and what people want, after spending so long creating expensive but beautiful clothes.

“When a fashion designer loses his connection with the street, you feel like you are not a living designer. If I felt I came too far from the street, and all the young people started calling me maestro or master, I [would] feel very lonely and isolated. A fashion designer has to live with the people. Otherwise, who are you designing for?”

New this autumn is a line of made-to-order bags for men and women, designed for Hermes by Yamamoto and available exclusively at five of the label’s boutiques globally. Also debuting, in September, is Coming Soon, a contemporary casual collection at affordable prices. Coming Soon marks a new era for the designer.

“Coming Soon is different because I am not touching it. It’s the very first time I won’t touch the design at all and it’s such a nice feeling. My right-hand designer is doing everything. Now that he is doing Coming Soon, maybe in two years I can start so-called ‘living soon’,” he says with a chuckle.

Another interesting development has been the launch of Limi Feu last year, a fashion label designed by his eldest daughter, Limi Yamomoto. “I actually pushed her to come to Paris,” says the proud father, “because in Japan we haven’t enough good critics or buyers. I wanted her to be in a more severe situation.

“She clearly has my DNA but she’s a woman, so what she’s doing is something I cannot ever make because she knows what it’s like to wear the clothes. Her skin makes her design something else. It’s totally different from a male designer’s [perspective].

“We’ll see if she eventually takes over, I really don’t know.”

Yamomoto is both pleased but concerned that Limi’s focus is on beautiful clothing, not the sexy wear currently so prominent in the industry. “She’s making real clothing. It’s good but, for business, it’s not so good.”

With the possibility that his daughter may continue his legacy, the designer is looking forward to spending more time enjoying other pursuits, such as writing (he wrote his memoirs a few years ago) and music.

“I was in a rock band 12 or 13 years ago and music is still a passion of mine, so I see myself devoting more time to it. For my private life, I need simple design: a small apartment with just one bed, a suitcase for travelling and my favourite books – that’s it.

“I don’t want any paintings or drawings around me; I just need music. It doesn’t simply inspire me, it makes me relax … makes me emotional – I connect to it. Painting or drawings bother me because when I was young I wanted to be a painter. That was my first dream, so actually I am living my second dream.”

As published in SCMP, April 20, 2008