Yohji Yamamoto, the Master of Defiant Dressing

Yohji Yamamoto has devoted his fashion career of over 40 years to perfecting an anti-establishment stance. Ideas such as “anti-trend” and “anti-fashion” are common themes in the Japanese designer’s shows. His defiance can be traced back to his debut presentation in Paris in 1981: At a time when European womenswear designers prescribed cuts creating slim illusions or accentuating bodily curves, Yamamoto obscured the woman’s body with dark fabric draped and shaped in a manner that defied the prevailing visual norms in fashion. And everything he has since created has continued in this vein — to stay separate from fashion’s ideals.

He became known as a member of a select group of Japanese designers who made a splash in the West during a Eurocentric time in fashion, such as the late Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo. And yet his work was vastly different in its tangible manifestations.

"In the past, I used to draw designs, but it became difficult to capture them in a picture as the images were changing by the minute," says Yamamoto.
"In the past, I used to draw designs, but it became difficult to capture them in a picture as the images were changing by the minute," says Yamamoto.

Yamamoto was born in 1943 in Tokyo, Japan. His earliest exposure to fashion was through his mother, who was a dressmaker in the city. He went to Keio University and graduated with a law degree in 1966, but decided he wanted to pursue fashion. This was met with resistance from his mother, who eventually allowed him to help out at her store, where he learnt how to sew from his mother’s assistants. Later, he graduated from Bunka Fashion College (which also counts Kenzo Takada and Junya Watanabe as alumni) and won a scholarship to go on a year-long exchange in Paris. This culminated in Yamamoto presenting his first collection in Tokyo in 1977.

Despite having grown up with a parent who opposed his decision to work in fashion, Yamamoto encouraged his daughter, Limi, to become a fashion designer. “But I still wonder if that was the right choice for her as her parent,” he says. “The moment you decide to become something, to make a living at any job or with any form of expression, it’s like you’ve got one foot in hell.” He concedes that he had not known, even for himself, that fashion was the right path toward success. In 2000, Limi started Limi Feu, a sub label of the Yohji Yamamoto brand. Her designs echo Yamamoto’s dark symbolism, using draping and asymmetry that go against womenswear conventions. “I said to my daughter when she made her debut, ‘Welcome to hell,’” Yamamoto says.

Every new Yohji Yamamoto collection begins with a meeting involving atelier staff, in which the designer communicates the images he has in his mind through words and materials.
Every new Yohji Yamamoto collection begins with a meeting involving atelier staff, in which the designer communicates the images he has in his mind through words and materials.

Under his eponymous brand, Yamamoto also has other diffusion sub labels. Among them, the main lines Yohji Yamamoto and Y’s are best known and boast a cult following, while Y-3, an ongoing collaborative line with the athletic giant Adidas, is lauded for being an early exemplification of a high fashion designer bringing his otherwise exclusive work to a wider audience through an everyday brand. Y-3 was born out of Yamamoto’s spontaneous decision to contact Adidas, initially for permission to use the ubiquitous three-stripe motif in his Fall/Winter 2000/01 collection. Although Yamamoto was sure Adidas would decline, the brand acceded to his request. Following a successful collaboration, a long-term partnership was officialised, with Yamamoto as creative director of Y-3 under Adidas’s sports style division. The hybrid label lives on, regularly producing sporty streetwear-infused clothing and inspiring countless other high-meets-low fashion collaborations now common in the industry.

The moment you decide to become something, to make a living at any job or with any form of expression, it’s like you’ve got one foot in hell.

Yamamoto has also ventured into costume design. Beginning in the realm of opera, he first made costumes for overseas productions — the Lyon National Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” in 1990, the Wagner Opera’s “Tristan and Isolde” in 1993 — and, later, back in Japan for the Kanagawa Art Festival Opera’s “Susanoo” in 1994 and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Life” in 1999. He naturally transitioned into costuming for films and worked with the filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, designing the wardrobes for Kitano’s works such as “Brother” (2000) and “Dolls” (2002). To the question of whether designing for fashion and designing for the cinema are different for him, Yamamoto explains, “There were characters with different personalities in the films, so it didn’t matter if they all wore Yohji Yamamoto-style clothes. In fact, it’s superfluous to have a design that stands out in a movie, so it was difficult for me to do the complete opposite to what I usually did in design.”

Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat and pants. Right: Yohji Yamamoto coat, shirt, pants and shoes.
Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat and pants. Right: Yohji Yamamoto coat, shirt, pants and shoes.

“I’ve never made clothes for a specific person before,” Yamamoto declares, a statement evident in his dissociative work that has departed from mainstream sensibilities, defying the aesthetics and politics of every era he has played a part in. Most designers and major fashion houses constantly adapt to consumers’ tastes and the times, even as they seem to advocate counterculture with narratives of fighting back against traditionally held notions about race, gender and identity, so their missions somehow still retain a mainstream flavour. Yamamoto has carved out a space with his own vision since the beginning, and his originality has given him an influence that is still strong and relevant today.

The core of this influence resides in Yamamoto’s design, best understood in the way it finds complexity through technique. Cuts and embellishments appear chaotic but, on close scrutiny, are actually intelligent and detailed. His masterful draping and experimental proportions undermine strict binaries — feminine or masculine, beautiful or ugly, elegant or unkempt — entrenched in fashions of the West. And with one eye on these technical aspects, the other examines ideas prominent in each era’s discourse. His latest menswear collection for Spring/Summer ’21 — dominated by loose suiting and military tunics; dark colours accented by some bright red and white; post-apocalyptic prints and slogans — was about “entrusting the warriors who take the fight to this chaotic world with the future.” Eyeball buttons on tunics that brush the knee are Yamamoto’s way of saying that “I am observing what is happening in the world and the future,” while the slogan he hand-painted — “The earth was blueish” — alludes to climate change, environmental degradation and Covid-19, devastating effects of the human ego.

Yohji Yamamoto coat.
Yohji Yamamoto coat.

Though the world has changed, especially this year, Yamamoto hasn’t altered his penchant for satire or his mode of operation. By confronting human suffering and fragility, the designer stays relevant, as he has been throughout the years — a tidy feat considering the turnovers at most top fashion houses.

Successful artists live to tell a story, a critical moment in their careers that would inspire many others to do art, as if it is the universe’s way of ensuring that this demanding human pursuit lives on. The 77-year-old designer remembers an instant early in his career, a season in New York after one in Paris, when in the midst of his presentation the power went out and darkness engulfed the venue. “The photographers made a lot of flashes and created a lot of light, and the guests in the audience stomped their feet and played the rhythm [in place of] the music,” he recalls. “I was very impressed.” Yamamoto had come into fashion in the ’80s as a complete rebel; his designs and his Asian identity were far from what people were used to. But he has found success in keeping with the times while holding a pure timelessness constant, persisting in his revered construction of intelligent clothing for thinking people.

Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat, pants and shoes. Right: Yohji Yamamoto coat, shirt, pants and shoes.
Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat, pants and shoes. Right: Yohji Yamamoto coat, shirt, pants and shoes.

Yamamoto’s all-encompassing influence extends beyond the fact that he has dressed people for decades in defiant clothing. His ability to shape lives has given rise to a community of men who not only dress but also groom themselves like he does. He points to growing up in the post-war period as responsible for his small stature, but his image is distinct, assertive. He is instantly recognisable by the shoulder length hair, now greying, that flanks the sides of his face in an upward and outward curl, the black hat, and the black, loose but never ill-fitted tailoring. Though the designer often talks about an anger with the state of society at every turn and translates that into his work on the runway, his narrow but pensive eyes, a prominent nose and scholarly beard convey the kind of serenity one sees in the distinguished, learned men who appear in ancient Chinese paintings.

“I am a lazy person, so I thought that wearing the same items, like my uniform, would allow me to wake up in the morning and only think about work right away,” he says. “I suppose that’s why I kept wearing the same items and as a result they became part of my life.” The idea of a uniform to cut down on decision fatigue is shared by industry titans, paralleled by Mark Zuckerberg in grey T-shirts and pants and Barack Obama in grey or blue suits — the concept of routine is like a marker of success. I ask how he feels about having individuals across different cultures emulate his look. In turn he asks, laughing, “Are you going to imitate me?”

Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat, jacket, T-shirt, pants and shoes. Right: Yohji Yamamoto jacket and pants.
Left: Yohji Yamamoto coat, jacket, T-shirt, pants and shoes. Right: Yohji Yamamoto jacket and pants.

In 2000, Yamamoto told Suzy Menkes at The New York Times that he had vaguely considered exploring other art forms, such as writing. But he also expressed that he couldn’t imagine retiring from fashion. Twenty years on, Yamamoto tells me that nothing has changed. He is going strong in the industry, and his words to Menkes in 2011 still resonate today: “With my eyes turned to the past, I walk backwards into the future.”

Yohji Yamamoto on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue.
Yohji Yamamoto on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue.
Photographs by Takay
Styled by Tsuyoshi Noguchi
Hair by Taku and Yuta Kitamura at Cutters