A history of the fashion press would emphasize those moments when journalists get lyrical, voicing their enthusiasms in memorable expressions that, sometimes, come to designate historic collections. It would highlight inflection points that gave rise to heated critical commentary. One such moment was the clothing revolution instigated by the Japanese designers upon their arrival in Paris in the early 1980s. The 1983 spring-summer collections of Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) and Yohji Yamamoto unsettled the fashion press. From what some called ‘rags that survived an atomic explosion’, a deliberate ‘poor look’ came to the fore. In a daily paper whose stock-in-trade is the description of haute couture evening wear, one could read this: ‘Raw talent (truly ‘raw’) in the service of clothes that disconcert, puzzle, irritate and disturb, because they are made for mutant women, not women like you or me. This is fashion from another world, namely the Japan that makes strict ‘miserabilism’ a new luxury. Forget that dresses, as a matter of course, have shoulders, seams, a waist, hips—here they have nothing of that, they ignore the tenets of Western clothes. But they influence all today’s fashion. Elegance has packed its bags. Even in Japan—or especially in Japan.’
Japanese designers created modernity with the help of holes and frayed edges. They banished the sacrosanct seam—rolled or appliquéd—taught in Western schools and ateliers, and left it unfinished. The unfinished, as difficult to master as the highly (excessively?) finished, is design. For the FW 1982-83 season, Yohji Yamamoto cultivated his provocations and limited them to cleverly ripped cottons out of which ample, gathered clothes were cut. Holes suddenly looked like ornaments. Is not lace made of filled and empty space? ‘After astonishment comes the time for reflection and seduction’: 1983 was the year of the Japanese. Yohji Yamamoto, who recognizes perfection in symmetry, is horrified by it and opts instead for ‘organized disequilibrium’. He now ranks among the creators of twentieth-century modernity.
This collection, important in the creative itinerary of Yohji Yamamoto, is known first and foremost for its black coats with a red tulle bustle. Immortalized by the photographer Nick Knight (under the artistic direction of Marc Ascoli), the graphic coats also testify to the visual enterprise the Japanese designers inaugurated upon their arrival in Paris.
Invitation cards, collection catalogues, brochures—all abandoned official advertising formats in favour of a clearer statement of artistic intention. Spurred on by their example, fashion photographers now found it sufficient to convey the spirit of the clothing, even if that meant leaving out of the image the item of clothing itself.
Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo marked not only contemporary fashion but also the direction of photography. Their influence even extended to the boutiques, prompting a rethink of function and practice. The clothes, displayed in an interior characterized by clean lines, were more often laid flat than on hangers, and generated a synergy of form that magnified the impact of the display. If one sometimes hesitates to push open the door of these precursor gallery-boutiques, the clothing itself must not intimidate. Yohji Yamamoto, who has mastered the tailor’s art like no other, Rei Kawakubo, whose way with scissors needs no further praise, have gotten rid of the instruments of their scandal: the holes, the rags and tatters, the rips and tears. The FW 1986-87 show was an exercise in recomposition. Yamamoto ornamented trousers by folding flannel into handkerchief-style pocket flaps. He cut on the bias to create asymmetrical basques, white on black. On the heads of the models he placed hats with chin straps, on the hips ivory frock coats, jackets in toned-down acid-drop colours, and on the thighs skirts of chiffon and transparent tulle.
Overlong catwalks could do no damage to these horsewomen without horses. Like an ink drawing, a sketch embellished with red chalk, the black coats with red tulle bustle—one more example of Yamamoto’s technicity—moved through the hall with the fluidity and charm of a calligraphic line.
Yohji Yamamoto has been designing clothes since the 1970s. He presented his first collection in Tokyo in 1977, and his first Paris collection in 1981. His arrival in the French capital, at the same time as Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), marked a turning point in contemporary fashion. The Japanese have deconstructed vast swathes of Western dress. They cut holes, fray, proclaim the reign of the unfinished, and bathe in black a fragmented wardrobe that some consider akin to the ‘poor look’. A little more than ten years after the jolt of his early shows, Yohji Yamamoto has imagined a serene collection that is no less decisive in defining his work. Salle des Arts, Cour carrée du Louvre, a battalion of models with wild hair walk the runway in sneakers. To the perfection that he finds inhuman and frightening, Yamamoto prefers the asymmetry that evokes disequilibrium and draws attention to the birth of movement. The first part of the show was made up of knotted silhouettes: at the neckline on a red dress, on the side on a black shirt, the knot structured, displaced and harmonized the relations between forms.
Ample skirts advanced in their fullness, white lace illuminated models who looked like first communicants. Yamamoto’s palette, long reduced to black and white (he says he doesn’t want to distract with color), now included a particular red. To pay homage to Madeleine Vionnet, ‘the architect of couture’ of the 1920s and 30s, he cut simple-looking dresses in red crepe and chiffon. She who invented the bias cut technique is also at the origin of handkerchief dresses of disarming simplicity. Some of them seem to have directly inspired Yamamoto. By clearly showing his sources (he is one of the first to pay homage to the great names of fashion via quotations and technically mastered designs), he avoided needless repetition and reconstitution. Yamamoto, who does not draw but cuts directly into the cloth, designs dresses that are at once simple and complex, as obvious as a tee-shirt and more chic than a starchy haute couture evening dress. Red treated as source of light, the crepe ribbed, folded and tucked, the mastered cut—all confer a modernity to undatable dresses.
On red-letter days, certain Sundays, or when it is very hot, Kyoto slips into nonchalance and sways to the soft folds of the kimonos out and about. It is not an indulgence in exotic dress, but rather a tradition kept alive by both old and young. This long garment cut from a single piece of cloth is to Japan what the suit is to Savile Row. Not many Japanese designers are willing to confront the reality of the kimono and to reinvent it, since it tends to box them in geographically. The idea of tracing the contours of a stylistic identity through an ethnic garment has been cleverly rejected by all those designers who, though hailing from the Japanese school, had no desire to flatter musty folklore. Yohji Yamamoto, until the FW 1994-95 season, was among these. A little more than ten years after his first Paris collections, he renounced this rejection of the kimono and made Japan’s national dress the heart of his show, presenting casually elegant coats and loungewear pyjamas.
Under the dome of the Sorbonne, the collection drew on Japanese tradition, integrating it as only a virtuoso of cut and style can do. The coats, cut flat, negligently fall down to the floor or slide along the nape of the neck, the prime locus of Japanese eroticism. Crossed skirts add a feeling of serenity. Four layered coats in jersey of subtle colors, still others in ink color opening onto graceful crinoline ‘skeletons’, are the standard-bearers of a fragile, perfect collection. The hand, from the sketch to the cut, seems hardly to have left the clothing; the fingers that tucked the fabric seem to have let it go just a moment ago. Yohji Yamamoto has said he aims to leave space between the cloth and the skin. If that’s what’s in the air, never has it been so caressed.
The FW 1995-96 collection ushered in a four-year period of creativity and grace in Yohji Yamamoto’s career. From this collection (unofficially called ‘fin de siècle’ because it pays homage to the final years of the nineteenth century) to the SS 1999 show that featured bridal gowns transformed into graceful day dresses, Yohji Yamamoto refined and expressed what is most subtle in himself. And to start, his tastes and his influences that would serve as themes for his shows of those years. His SS 1997 show, ‘Homage to the Classics Revisited’, was an occasion for him to see how he measures up to the suits of Mademoiselle Chanel, archetypes of modernity that he would destructure. The SS 1998 collection, ‘Lartigues’, with its cloud hats and draped dresses that Madeleine Vionnet would not have renounced, was a further development of the lyricism, now more poetic than ever, that inheres in his designs. Yamamoto embraces the history of Western dress and dissolves it in a personal, singular style. The majestic dresses that closed the FW 1995-96 show thus echo the bar suits of Monsieur Dior, of which Yamamoto gives a long, relaxed and infinitely nonchalant version.
His revisited skirts seem to be reborn from the house of Worth, that English dressmaker who invented haute couture at the end of the nineteenth century. The jackets, cut like the short, flared-sleeve cape of the nineteenth century known as a ‘visite’, have lost their stiffness. They fall easily over the arms, better than a stole. Yamamoto is a diabolical but beneficent surgeon who jabs a period with his contemporary syringe, injects into its fibres a different decade, then has fun with the result. Coats of boiled wool and oxblood felt, others in a loose knit, stand out for their nobility and sculptural quality.
Elsewhere, frock coats in workaday gabardine take themselves for evening dresses, keeping only the sumptuous, lightened volume. Let there be no misunderstanding: Yamamoto is not a forensic scientist like some of his contemporaries. When he auscultates fashion and its history, he shows himself to be an acupuncturist. His collection is an antidote to the excesses of the period.
The success of a collection can be measured, in part, by the number of articles devoted to the clothes in question. Media coverage develops reputation and promotes sales. When one leafs through the big spiral notebooks containing photographs of Yohji Yamamoto’s FW 1996-97 collection, one is filled with enthusiasm at the volume of interest certain designs have aroused. Next to each photo is a list of the magazines that have published the pictured silhouette—American Vogue, British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The Face, Dazed & Confused, ID, The Times, etc. French or international, they opted for the pieces worn by Kirsten Owen, Shalom Harlow and Jodie Kidd.
After the wool outfits that fall in an avalanche from the shoulders…
… came the felt coats in ochre, black and white, and red…
… followed by long dresses also cut from felt. Tucked, ribbed or simply folded according to the designer’s sketches, these materials give a still more concise and explicit relief to the designs. Yamamoto excels in the art of layering volumes that imprison the bust and unfurl over the hips using only, it seems, two or three darts to achieve that effect. The combination of clean lines and felt material leads to a sartorial harmony that turns the dresses and coats into archetypes.
As if out of some futurist artist’s fashion utopia, clothing of a disconcerting simplicity, in grey or black, always in this woolly fabric, slowly but surely goes straight to the point, whispering: ‘For he who knows how to hear, a few words are enough’.
The SS 1997 season saw two collections that would become veritable sources of expression for all of fashion, namely those of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. Kawakubo redefined the body by adding organic protrusions and, in so doing, invented a sartorial language for the future. Taking the opposite approach, Yamamoto revisited with a fresh eye the classics of twentieth-century fashion. Under the dome of the Sorbonne, in a clever, virtuostic show, he played off the past. He did not ‘pull Chanel to pieces’, as certain critics said; instead, he stripped down the famous suit, refusing to be overcome by overbearing admiration for la Grande Mademoiselle whose conception of the body was very different from his own. Adopting this stance, he proceeded to modernize the Chanel archetypes, and did so in a manner altogether different from the way Karl Lagerfeld, artistic director of the house, did. The braided tweed suits in the Chanel style were cut so that they fray, and were worn loosely, one size too big, making for a different, less rigid allure. They came in all lengths and proportions; the models wore them with flat shoes, another touch of urban modernity.
The collection continued with echoes of 1950s suits, jackets and frock coats.
One was reminded of Jacques Fath and even more of Christian Dior, but also of Balenciaga, who Yamamoto gently caricatured through his divinely soft basques and hats.
These emblems of fashion did not eclipse his own. A series of transparent white and black garments abandoned the sacred canvas stiffening so dear to Paris couture.
At the very moment when, for better or for worse, major fashion houses were appointing new designers, Yohji Yamamoto responded with an investigation of fashion heritage that commanded respect.
Yohji Yamamoto’s work falls into three periods. The first, from 1983 to 1994, is characterized by the color black and by deconstruction, specifically, the determination, shared with Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), to deconstruct Western fashion. The second begins in 1994 and is expressed in the FW 1994-95 show, where Yamamoto began a reconciliation with traditional Japanese clothes, in particular the kimono, a garment for which he developed new designs. In the third period, starting in 1997, he differentiates himself definitively from Rei Kawakubo, who chooses to deepen her radical vision of fashion. Here, he won praise for his homages to French couture, a discipline to which only he and Azzedine Alaïa can measure up. This exercise in design drawing on a Parisian heritage rich in archetypes found expression in a sensuality and a femininity in his clothes, veritable odes to the female body that he no longer combats but accompanies.
His new reading of fashion and the atypical mellowness of his designs culminated in the SS 1998 collection. Each look distilled a melancholy straight out of a Lartigues photograph. Black trousers with suspenders and striped top transformed the models into garçonnes.
The long skirts of mercerized cotton treated like taffeta could fully rival with the bias-cut dresses that Madeleine Vionnet knotted on Sonia, her favourite model. The monk shoes, the silk jackets divided in two and strapped together directly against the skin reinforce the general feeling of fragility that imbued the show. The dresses in black crepe draped around the body without any trace of scissor cuts amazed with their precision. Topped off with white cloud hats, the delicate dresses resembled each other but, in what seemed like sublime improvisation, distinguished themselves by their details. ‘French fashion has its masters: the Japanese.’
‘Yohji the enchanter’, ‘Yamamoto in a state of grace’—everywhere, there was only praise for the presentation that closed a week of fashion shows in Paris. In the Espace Moulin-Rouge, to enthusiastic applause, occasional tears and a prolonged ovation, Yohji Yamamoto’s virtuoso exercise in style captivated the guests. To Mendelssohn’s resounding ‘Wedding March’, he celebrated marriage in black and white.
The entire collection was organized around this conventional theme that closes every haute couture show. From these solemn gowns that usually end up alone in the box they came in, Yamamoto’s inspiration gave birth to a quietly brilliant wardrobe.
The models seemed to float on the white runway, assistants scurried like ball boys to pick up bits of clothes, accessories, or even the clothes themselves that would fall to the floor as the models walked the catwalk.
Having paid homage in recent collections to his influences—Chanel, Vionnet, Dior—Yohji Yamamoto freed himself from them this time. As the models each took their turn, they would unfix their crinolines and let them fall to reveal the black sheath dress underneath. An off-white overcoat became a long ball gown that Charles Frederick Worth himself might have imagined. Yamamoto made of the past a series of playful looks and so avoided the pitfall of the academic inventory. He literally designed an undressing where baptism, wedding and funeral clothes took on a contemporary nobility. Refined outfits that refused reconstitution in favor of poetic allusion played the role of chrysalids.
Old-fashioned accessories (gloves, parasols, hat-veils, bustles) vanished into the zippered pockets of a layered dress while one by one, summarizing the essential, the show-closing model let fall the layers of her gown.
Once in a while a collection comes round that restores one’s faith in fashion. Yohji Yamamoto’s SS 1999 show was one of them. It was perhaps the most beautiful collection of his career, since it exhibited not only his syntax but also the sensuality that was missing from his early work.
Nearly twenty years after their arrival in Paris, at a time when fashion was in a rather sorry state, the Japanese designers alone have proven their creative independence and kept their eye fixed on the future.
At the foot of the monumental staircase of the Opera Garnier in Paris, Yohji Yamamoto chose to present his magnificent ready-to-wear collection during haute couture week. He wanted out of the crowded RTW calendar and to show in silence, to a smaller audience, a RTW collection that exhibits artisanal excellence. The blue overalls that echoed Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1939 bomb shelter suits admirably stood up to the dresses, consisting sometimes of nothing more than a collar stretched to a skirt. He who has always striven to share the taste for the modest peasants photographed by August Sander and their clothes that convey attention and daily care now methodically composed a series of calibrated silhouettes.
Following the blue overalls came military inspirations treated with equable femininity.
Then onto the pale oak parquet came the ravishing cocktail and evening dresses. Yohji Yamamoto maintains a fascination for couturières like Madeleine Vionnet (who he quoted in his SS 1992 collection) and Mademoiselle Chanel (SS 1997). His talent for construction and deconstruction is such that the homages he paid them were brilliant.
Their influence, like that more generally of the golden years of 1950s French haute couture, could be seen in the cocktail dresses or the longer dresses that resemble Indian-ink sketches. This effect flows from the broken asymmetrical décolletés that diminish the bust and shoulders and extends to the skirts, making for timeless fashion symbols. Calmly continuing a dialogue between traditional Japanese clothes and Western fashion, Yohji Yamamoto succeeded in designing an allure that excels in harmony and balance, proving, if proof were still needed, that he is one of the greatest tailors of his generation. For some, this show, presented at the very moment when haute couture came to an end at Yves Saint Laurent, is a visiting card inscribed with the absence of some and the presence of others.
Silence burns along the edge of my breath, the gleam of metal in your eyes reflects it: Down the Avenue de l’Opéra, through folds of night stitched together by electric light, we walk as if we were meant to be. Marietta, in this relentless Haussmannian order, the quiet dissymmetry of your dress moves me; in this static Apollonian perfection, the flow of your silhouette inspires me. It’s because of me, you said, this experiment with a Japanese dressmaker; it’s because of me your wardrobe no longer reflects the person you feel yourself to be.
Look! Swaying to your walk, the dynamic imbalance of black drapes its spartan elegance around your body. Slung over your shoulder, the flowing lines of your beggar’s bag are a mise en abîme of your body. Who is the man who thus imbues form with emotion, shape with idea? Strawberry red are your lips, strawberry red your ankle boots; side-swept is your hair, sheer its flaxen fall. Are you happy with the self your new dress brings to the surface, are you happy with this possibility of who you can be? Your soft boots are silent on the tarmac, no click-clack measures your stride. Now, as we wait at the intersection, what is it that sets our interlocked hands swinging? Can ideas ever be as palpable as pirouettes, mental images as immediate as movement? May dance rescue us when ideas deplete the world, may we seek refuge in the erotics of knowledge!
Onward! Look how your boots sculpt your movement, see how each step you take renews a moment of being! Behind you, your coat, your cloak, your cape—what is it?—catches the breeze. Paradox and contradiction, question answering question, the work only valid through the life it conveys: That is the message your movement relays. Who is the man who so artfully investigates your moving body, who is the man who so sensually envelopes your intimacy? Yamamoto. Yohji Yamamoto.
Irregularity, asymmetry and imperfection were important elements in traditional Japanese aesthetic philosophy. The aesthetic and conceptual meaning of the ‘rips’ in Kawakubo’s sweater differs significantly from the political and satiric meaning of the ripped and over-sized ‘poor look’ that simultaneously emerged as an element of London street style, which Vivienne Westwood made famous. Japanese designers like Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were drawing on an entirely different tradition when they experimented with cutting asymmetrically so that, say, one side of a jacket would be longer or wider than the other.
The new Japanese clothes also tended to be oversized and loose; to a hostile viewer, big and bulky. For several years, the Japanese conception of the relationship between body and clothes puzzled and annoyed many westerners; French designer Sonia Rykiel speculated that the Japanese must be ‘afraid of the body.’ In fact, they had a very different conception of sexiness. As Kawakubo told Vogue, ‘I do not find clothes that reveal the body attractive.’
By the end of the decade many people would have agreed with Vogue’s Charlotte DuCann, that avant-garde Japanese fashion was ‘the supreme modern style, the style that yanked fashion from its seventies nostalgia right into the monochrome eighties. No other country has single-handedly caused quite so much outrage and adulation in such a short time as Japan.’ Within half a decade the Japanese had succeeded in radically revising contemporary perceptions of fit and proportion, and in inaugurating the reign of black.
Earlier ideas about bohemian black and rebellious black were particularly influential, and looked back to 1950s beatniks and bikers. Black was once again ‘hip’ and ‘cool.’ ‘It’s a very peculiar sensitivity that artists seem to have about black,’ declared Rags as early as 1970. ‘Black just doesn’t pick up vibes and doesn’t send out any; it’s very protective.’ Within a few years, purple tie-dyed velvets would be traded in for studded black leather.
The popularity of black in the 1980s was overdetermined. The Japanese made the color avant garde again. They, in turn, were followed by young European designers like the Belgian Anne Demeulemeister, whose use of black evoked the ‘decadent’ poets of the nineteenth century. (In 1990 she was quoted as saying that she could not imagine a poet in any color other than black.)
Yves Saint Laurent
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