June 29, 2010

yohji...my love...

If Yamamoto loses 'it', where does 'it' go?
From the NY Times: Mr. Yamamoto's Blue Period

Veiled and distant and dour, Yohji Yamamoto is the cockeyed pessimist of fashion. Hunched over his dinner plate one winter evening in Florence, he is an enigmatic outsider surveying a roomful of strangers who, as it happens, have come to celebrate this man whom hardly anyone knows much about.

The dinner -- in honor of a retrospective of Yamamoto's work -- is being held in an unlikely setting, a gilded room in the Palazzo Vecchio, the most famous of the local Renaissance palaces, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and a Donatello sculpture of Judith lopping off the head of Holofernes. You might say that there is something slightly disembodied about Yamamoto as well, as he sits center stage in a room where the Florentines usually honor heads of state. Who are these dignitaries, he seems to be thinking, these functionaries and local nobilities, both minor and major, and what are they to me?
The crowd this evening is aware that the guest of honor, a small 61-year-old man with a tidy athlete's body and an oversize head fringed with scruffy long hair, is a legend. They are also conscious of the fact that he is the subject of an unprecedented exhibit across the Arno River at the Pitti Palace, in which garments from a long career are arranged -- in what curators pretentiously term ''interventions'' -- throughout a series of galleries filled with academic marbles, Italian naturalist pictures and a lot of Napoleonic bric-a-brac.

But that is probably all they know about Yamamoto, whose work is frequently characterized in terms of genius and who occupies a central role in a design lineage as long as it is surprisingly robust. Look around the fashion landscape, and you will find it populated by Yohji disciples, and not just among the ranks of art dealers and architects for whom his clothes have long been a default uniform.

In the three decades since Yamamoto came on the scene, his once radical ideas have excited colleagues as diverse as Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and Martin Margiela. His odd shapes and skewed proportions have informed an entire generation of Belgians and lately seem to be turning up everywhere, thematically threaded through collections
as unalike as those of Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada and even highly praised newcomers like the American Jasmin Shokrian, who was not even a decade old when Yamamoto first showed in Paris. ''Right now there's a big Yohji influence,'' Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, said recently before the start of a D&G show filled with retreads of the late-punk 80's. ''A big feeling for this intellectual girl. No more names, no more logos. It's a good mood to revisit, I think.''

It is not just the nutty precincts of the fashion cognoscenti that have felt Yamamoto's influence, however. With his Y-3 line of sportswear, produced in collaboration with Adidas, Yamamoto has introduced new generations to his austere notions about how people look and move and understand themselves in clothes. He is, as Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York, suggested, ''probably the only designer you could name who has 60-year-olds who think he's incredible and 17-year-olds who think he's way cool.''

Yet none of this seems to matter to Yamamoto at the moment. In truth, he tends to cringe at the fuss. ''I always hated the idea of retrospectives,'' he said to a reporter, speaking so quietly, he might as well have been talking to himself. ''A retrospective, to me, is just proof of all your mistakes.''

But that is not always the case. Like authorized biographies, retrospectives of living designers can be historical fictions. A blockbuster devoted to the work of a certain European innovator some years back rejiggered the canon so aggressively that whole segments of history were rewritten and ''period'' clothes invented, literally, from whole cloth. But that's not the case in this show -- titled ''Correspondences'' -- nor is it likely to be so at an even more ambitious one set to open next month at a branch of the Louvre. That's because everything you need to know about Yohji Yamamoto happens to be there in the clothes. His analytical intelligence, for instance, is made obvious by his sculptural interrogation of form. His innate rebelliousness is made obvious in his ruthless dissections of sartorial conventions. His stitching and draping and frank affection for craft can be read as homage to his mother, a self-employed seamstress who raised her son alone in postwar Japan.

It may be hard to recall a time when the eye of fashion was not yet trained to see a garment that was both monastic in its severity and fantastically sexy at the same time. It is even more difficult to remember the stir the designer produced in the early 80's when he showed austere weeds on models with cropped hair and little makeup at a time when other designers were pushing stilettos, lacquered leather and power shoulders -- a silhouette so bulked on steroids it left women looking like Mexican wrestlers in drag.

''For me it was an emotional shock when I first saw Yohji and Comme des Garcons,'' said Carla Sozzani, the proprietor of 10 Corso Como in Milan, surely among the most influential clothing stores in the world. ''At that moment, everything was all Mugler and Montana, kind of big shoulders and a lot of makeup and high heels, so Yohji's clothes were like a revolution. Long and with flat shoes and no makeup, but always incredibly feminine, always revealing a part of the body by leaving it uncovered -- the shoulders, the back, the neck.''

Probably the least often remarked upon aspect of Yamamoto's work is his rhapsodic attention to the feminine form. And that, too, has something to say about a designer. In a field dominated by men with a sexual preference for other men, Yamamoto never made a secret of his devout attachment to women. (Note the past tense.)

Talking on another afternoon in January, in the galleries of the Pitti Palace, the designer claimed glumly to have left this side of his life behind. ''I am losing my emotion for women,'' he said. Visible behind his shoulder was a gray Tuscan sky that drained the color from the amber hills and gold stones of Florence, just as vitality itself seemed to have leached out of Yamamoto's voice. ''When I was young enough, I was always missing some girl,'' he said. ''Now I feel that this is over. This is it.''

Was it all the valedictory hoopla that weighed on him? The inevitable sense of finality built into such a career-capping event? ''Actually, he always goes through creative depressions and questions a lot in his life,'' Sozzani said. And so, when the designer remarked that ''I really cannot be optimistic at all about the future,'' it seemed worth remembering that his immediate future is committed and assured.

''Seeing all these things from the past is hard,'' Yamamoto said, with the shrug that is one of his defining gestures. ''It's like having the emotions of the time come back and climb onto my shoulders.''

Emotion is always a loaded notion in fashion, never more so than now, when designers are less concerned with the content of their designs than with the legibility of their global-marketing images. Oddly enough, there is something uplifting in Yamamoto's melancholy, an antidote to the sunny prospects that marketers assure us will always be ours. His questioning can be read in its own way as hopeful: questions, after all, imply duration and a future. But don't mention this to a man who claims that his greatest ambition was to ''become nobody.'' And do not point out the obvious, that at becoming a nobody Yohji Yamamoto was a flop.

It seems clear now that it had to turn out that way; after all, the history of postwar Japan is a parable of national reconstruction through personal sacrifice. Yet Yamamoto doesn't neatly fit the psychic pattern. In fact, he dismisses his nationality as happenstance. ''Why am I Japanese, why?'' he asked. ''I never caused it. There was never any choice. I just happened to be born in Tokyo.''

And he happened, too, to be born in 1943 and raised there by a single mother widowed after his father was killed in the war. ''When I think of my father,'' Yamamoto once wrote, ''I realize that the war is still raging inside me.'' When he thinks of his mother, on the other hand, the image of chaste maternal sacrifice is twinned with another, more vivid one, that of the prostitutes who populated his down-and-out neighborhood. ''They wore high heels and strong lipstick,'' he said. ''They looked very wild, wild and scary and not very natural.''

Yamamoto's earliest years were spent at a school run by French Jesuits, and perhaps it was there that he formed some of his ideas about silhouette and volume, as well as his personal taste for outfitting himself in a uniform that looks like nothing so much as a priest's soutane. Later on he studied for a law degree at Keio University and, depending on whom you ask, either completed his degree or ditched the law to take up life as a dropout fond of guitars, martial arts and whiskey, living in a room in his mother's house.

Eventually Yamamoto decided to attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. His goal, he said, was not to produce fashion in any conventional sense but to work in the back of his mother's shop, which he did for four years, making clothes for ''fat women who expected to have their figures solved.'' And then, in a blur of activity in the late 70's, Yamamoto conjured a successful collection of so-called baggy tentwear; was offered his own corner in the Seibu department store; met the designer Rei Kawakubo, another pillar of postwar Japanese fashion, and became her lover; and left for Paris carrying the designs derided by the local press as the ''crow look.''

As one of the first foreigners of any nationality invited to exhibit on the French ready-to-wear calendar, Yamamoto showed a collection that unhinged a fashion world glutted with power suits and pouf skirts. And soon enough -- to use a canned formulation from fashion fairy tales -- he also persuaded that world that there was incomparable femininity and beauty to be found in the raiment of crows.

Were the odds long? They were. Was it likely that an obscure and eccentrically gifted Tokyo outsider given to making gnomic statements like ''The essence of a woman is in her joints'' would one day develop a reputation as a master of late-20th-century design? It was not.

Had it ever occurred to Yamamoto in those early days, he was asked, that he would one day preside over an international empire, with shops in New York, London and Paris and 120 stores in Japan? No, he said quietly, it never had.

''The paradox of my life is that I am pushed all the time to speak or explain or talk about women, colors, clothes, the world,'' Yamamoto said, wrapping his black coat tight against the chill. ''This is all very strange for me,'' he added, the accolades, the retrospectives, the people sitting alongside him in Renaissance rooms and scribbling down his utterances on pads. ''Essentially, I am a very lazy person,'' he said. ''All I ever really wanted to do in my life was to spend each day quietly in the studio making clothes.''

Guy Trebay is a fashion reporter for The Times.