There are few names which immediately and at once conjure the history and status of Yohji Yamamoto. Born in 1943, during the height of the Second World War, he initially studied law at Japan's prestige Keio University, though he would not pursue this field after his degree, instead choosing to aid his mother in her dressmaking business. Acquiring a taste for fashion and tailoring, he returned to school, and in 1969, graduated Bunka Fashion College, one of the world's most prestigious fashion institutions. His first collection would debut three years later in 1972, with the launch of Y's, however, it would not be until five years after that in 1977 that he showed regularly. Yamamoto showed Y's locally in Japan for four years, to critical acclaim; it would be in 1981 that he would show his first show to the gold standard of Paris fashion week, simultaneously debuting a new line; Yohji Yamamoto.
The Thought of Yohji Yamamoto
However, what endures in Yamamoto's work is not pure aesthetics, or even the history. It is instead that Yamamoto is often credited with being one of the few artists in the world of fashion, with an intricate thought exhibited in his clothing, that transcends the idea of fashion as a product, and instead elevates it to a work of art. It is especially with the idea of originality that Yamamoto is concerned with. Originality in essence, originality in personality, in aesthetic, in trends, youth. His approach centres around an idea of individuality; something different. "Young people are not yet really having individuality or strong power,” says Yamamoto. “So I tell them, you can copy somebody who you like very much. Copy it and copy it until at the end of the copy you have found yourself." Contemporary philosophy has wrested with this issue as well - the issue of the copy. Where does originality of an image lay? The photographic negative of an image is the original, yet, simultaneously, it does not exist. The copy of this negative, it's developed form, is in a sense, the original. For clothing, it is similar in the case of the mass-market product. Where does originality begin? What is an original personality? Can popular personalities not be merely superimposed onto the masses, with such a personality (Or personalities) changing with fashion? One year it will be cool to be this way, and another year it will be cool to be the opposite. Adjust for the various subcultures and quirks of the population, and sell to them based on your will.
It provokes the question; is Yamamoto anti-fashion? Certainly he creates clothes and participates in the fashion system, but does he do so from above, or within?
Generally speaking, I am not interested in the future and don't believe in it. First, I guess it is true that I don't trust the future, but, more to the point, I don't even trust the "myself" of tomorrow, nor, for that matter, of the day after. Basically, all I know, and all I am capable of understanding, is the "me" that is here, now, the "me" that has dragged his past with him to this point.
Fashion has always concerned itself with the future. Of course with beauty of a sort, and commerce, but also with cyclicality. Fashion never ends, nor does it begin. For Yohji, there is a seasonality, and a cyclicality. He creates different designs, and participates in the "traditional" fashion shows every year. However, the point of reference is different. It is not a season, but an unfolding of himself into his work, displayed in bits and pieces for the runway.
Yamamoto's flagship Paris location
Yohji in the West
It is important to consider Yohji in the context of Japanese fashion versus Western fashion, both presently and historically. European and North American fashion in the 1970s and the 1980s was floundering. The 70s would see the rise of major fashion licensing, a trend which would continue into the 90s, and destroy brands such as Pierre Cardin, and almost do the same with YSL and Burberry. The brands had been established in the 1950s and 1960s, and then promptly turned into cash-cows. Cardin would become known more for his golf bags and cigarette cases than avant-garde dresses. It would not be until the 90s that many of these brand-inappropriate licenses were terminated. Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole cleaned up Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent's licenses, as did Sidney Toledano at Dior, who reduced that house's licenses from "300 to a handful." Burberry did not buy back it's AWOL Chinese licences until 2010, which cost them a reported 70 million pounds.
It is with this in mind that we consider the dominance of Japanese brands in the 1970s through until the 1990s. Richard Martin, former director of The Gallery at FIT, described the milieu which bore Yohji's entrance thusly:
In the final third of the [20th] century, Western fashion struggled to find a new sign system that recognized fashion as a quotidian phenomenon more than as a function of an elitist couture [...]. Asan intellectual system, Western dress yearned for a new universal. Why did Japanese designers offer the best new options from the 1970s to the 1990s? Japanese design offers the extant alternative that reconciles kimono ceremony and applied use for dress (formality and informality). The ethos of fashion in Japan, and especially the objectives of the new designers, did not functionally separate the best from the most basic in apparel. And Japan offered an aesthetic and practical possibility beyond conventional Western tailoring.
This is a sentiment echoed by the buyers at the famed Charivari Workshop, one of the first boutiques to stock brands such as Yamamoto's, alongside Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake in the United States. Yamamoto, though derided by European and American fashion media, was loved by buyers from his first showing in Paris. Yamamoto broke with the sexual obsession of designers of his time; though the fashion of the 1970s and especially the 1980s became increasingly anthropomorphized and sexual, Yamamoto shirked this entirely. His work did not become defined by an era, a fact which still shows today. The clothes of Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Balmain from such a period are immediately discernible as old. A cunning eye can pick apart the designs of European houses decade to decade, or even season to season. However, there is a timelessness with Yamamoto. Clothes from his first shows have lost none of their appeal; they will be in vogue perhaps forever.
Juliane Gruner & Guerrino Santulliana for Y-3 SS 2013
Yohji and adidas
It is with all this in mind that now we may consider Yohji's collaboration with adidas; the longest running collaboration between a high street retailer and a runway designer. In October of 2002, Yamamoto showed his Spring/Summer 2003 collection of Y-3, with "Y" standing for "Yohji" and "3" being representative of adidas' famous 3-stripe logo. The brand recently celebrated it's 15th year, and has become the standard for what is expected in long-running designer collaborations. However, the line is unique in other ways, and particularly personal for Yohji. It has always been an experiment for both Yamamoto and adidas, however, particularly for the former. He has always spoken on ideas of the future, and his distrust of it. All Yohji has designed for and from has been himself, however, it is with Y-3 that Yohji himself has said that "[we] gave a view to the future." The line has constantly pushed the boundaries for what sportswear can be on adidas' end, and what art can be on Yamamoto's. The line furthermore heals the divide in fashion between East and West, aforementioned by Richard Martin. “Adidas and I—we just like each other,” says Yamamoto. “Japanese and German people are intelligent sorts. Our working rhythm is the same. There is nothing that can’t be solved.” It is while doing this that Yamamoto realizes a tension between the world created by adidas and his own, one of ultimate function, the other of an intricate artistry. Old and new, fast and slow, utility and decadence; all these must be resolved for Y-3 to work, and all are through the technological advances of adidas, and the creative instincts of Yamamoto. “The sports world and its technology seek for necessity, practicality, or functionality while fashion is seeking the opposite,” he says. “Y-3 is a strong examination of the blend of sport and style and the tension caused by mixing tradition with all that is modern.”
Shop our Y-3 selection here, including pieces from James Harden.