Yohji Yamamoto, the Japanese Designer Who Redefined Avant-Garde Fashion

Greta Samuel / © Culture Trip
Greta Samuel / © Culture Trip
Photo of Sarah Leigh Bannerman
Fashion Editor23 October 2018

Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto is famed for putting an androgynous, directional spin on traditionally feminine avant-garde designs, and pioneering the fashion-meets-sportswear aesthetic. This is how Yamamoto’s signature dark designs and draped tailoring have impacted how we dress today.

When Yohji Yamamoto first burst onto the fashion scene with the launch of his label in 1981, he introduced a dark approach to luxury womenswear that shook the industry. Famed for his androgynous avant-garde collections, his work and its global success set the premise for a generation of innovative East Asian creatives in a world previously governed by a Western aesthetic.

Yamamoto honed his craft at famous Japanese design school Bunka Fashion College and, upon graduating, was awarded a year’s placement in Paris by his university. But the city’s most famous couture houses were branching into ready-to-wear collections at the time – an art form that Yamamoto had not practised – so it was not until returning to Japan that Yamamoto established a clear direction for his brand. He showed his first collection in Tokyo in 1977.

Yamamoto at his SS19 show, Paris Fashion Week, September 2018 | © REX/Shutterstock

Yamamoto’s signature aesthetic, which hinged on all-black, body-engulfing designs, put a new spin on tailoring and stood out among the cinched waists, shoulder pads and bold block colours that ruled the 1980s fashion scene. In an era of rainbow brights, a dark colour palette had the shock factor.

“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “Black is easy and lazy but mysterious … But above all black says this: ‘I don’t bother you. Don’t bother me.’”

It’s a look that remains at the core of Yamamoto’s collections today, along with a sense of timelessness. “His garments are designed to last beyond seasons, and there’s a continued idea of concealing rather than revealing the body,” says Ligaya Salazar, the curator behind the V&A Museum’s 2011 retrospective and celebration of Yamamoto’s work. “He starts every design with fabric as opposed to silhouette. It’s a typically Japanese approach.”

A look from Yohji Yamamoto's Fall 1981 ready-to-wear collection | © John Bright/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

In 1981, Yamamoto took his label from Tokyo back to Paris, where it remains to this day. It is a fitting home, considering the label’s focus on craftsmanship, couture-like detailing and exceptional quality for both its women’s and men’s collections. “Yamamoto took a totally different approach to every other designer in Paris in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Salazar. “It offered the industry a release from what was typically considered to be ‘high fashion’.”

When he opened his first Parisian store in 1981, it coincided with the first Paris Fashion Week runway presentation from fellow Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. Her label, Comme des Garçons, placed similar focus on the imperfect and championed asymmetric cuts. Together the designers brought something totally unexpected to the French capital and put a distinctive spin on haute-couture techniques.

Yohji Yamamoto's SS19 runway show, Paris Fashion Week, September 2018 | © SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

“This is [one of] the final industries that is finished by hand, which I like,” Yamamoto once told The Business of Fashion. “I’m still focused on how to cut and how to make movement beautiful. It’s very important to me that the design of all my clothes is done in this way.”

This dedication to detail is a trait that can be seen not just in Yamamoto’s namesake label, but in his sports-inspired label Y-3, too. When he famously collaborated with German fitness giant Adidas in 2003, he created a new menswear label that pioneered the fusion of fashion and technology and introduced sports-luxe style to the world. It was a totally new kind of design for Yamamoto.

Y-3 now boasts standalone stores all over the world, and is stocked at online retail giants Farfetch and Mr Porter. “It’s the perfect blend of style and function, and, as one of the first cult sportswear lines on the market, it elevated streetwear style while contributing to the rise in sneaker popularity,” says contemporary buyer at Mr Porter, George Archer.

Black remains integral to the SS19 women's collection, which debuted at Paris Fashion Week, September 2018 | © Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

As advancements in technology continue, Yamamoto’s celebration of innovative sportswear does also. Archer believes the increasingly casual approach to menswear dressing is partially down to the Y-3 label. “It provides men with an opportunity to play with shape and movement,” he says. “His layering pieces, long hem lines and dark colours are consistent across seasons and are easy to wear.”

The world is waiting for Yamamoto’s next big idea, and the ways in which it will influence runways, high streets and wardrobes all over the globe.

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