Yohji Yamamoto’s “Intellectual Fashion”

Yamamoto Spring ‘98 © Monica Feudi

In 1981, Yohji Yamamoto was part of a small group of Japanese designers who defied traditional modes of fashion by introducing androgynous frocks to the runways of Paris. This “intellectual fashion,” as it was called, replaced frills, bows and silks with sober materials and experimental cutting and draping, much of which shared a base of Japanese industrial uniforms. A graduate of the famed Bunka Gakuen college in Tokyo in 1969, Yohji launched a label called “Y’s” in 1972.

His first fashion show hit the catwalks of Tokyo in 1977, followed by Paris four years later. Initially rejected by the French press for its pauper look, by the mid-1980s Yamamoto was hailed as one of the modern-day geniuses responsible for changing the course of fashion. Now through August 28, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile is hosting a retrospective look at this master entitled, “Juste des Vêtements” (Just Clothes).

“For years, I rejected the idea of a retrospective look at my work,” says Yohji Yamamoto in a statement released to the press. “It’s as though I were putting past mistakes in front of my eyes. All I ever wanted to do was to must make clothes here and now. That’s all.” If his early collections produced a sensation of newness by their apparent and poetic pauperism, Yohji succeeded, little by little, in constructing and maintaining a tight link between the notion of deconstruction that characterized his fashion and a sophistication that placed him on the same level as the great couturiers. In an easy and subtle way, he knew how to express himself with total modernity in a starkly different manner that was nonetheless similar to Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior or Coco Chanel.

On the first floor, the museum is transformed into a site that evokes Yohji’s studio in Tokyo – complete with bolts of fabric, slopers and paper patterns. Within the first atelier are muslin patterns, which serve as documents for clothing construction in the realization of a collection. In another setting, the visitor is transported into an environment where the creation begins with a flurry of ideas all crystallized in pen and ink on paper. You have the feeling of the designer working into the wee hours of the night with drawings falling onto the floor. Nearby, in another “room,” a wall of clothes, some of which come from the museum’s permanent collection, serves as a library of inspiration. This floor ends with a room full of monitors where, on view, are videos of Yohji’s fashion shows retracing his world famous collections over the years.

Upstairs, 80 highly significant works by Yohji – dresses, coats and accessories – are presented on mannequins grouped in subtle or bright color categories. In a scenography designed by Masao Nihei, a close collaborator, the clothes on display have been chosen to contrast with the pure lines of the decor. Against a white background, with stripes of bright fluorescent lights – the viewer can take an up close and personal look at the garment details.

Certain garments are behind glass, others are within the public’s reach… and touch. Whether or not some of them will be eventually altered by curious hands reaching out to flip over a panel or feel the texture of the fabric, is all the same to the designer. In 2003 at the Hara Museum in Tokyo, he decided to show a few of his clothes in a garden. Subjected to successive climatic changes: rain, sun, wind, they looked better than ever for (natural) wear. However, he that masters so well cut and conception also appears to be, at times, negligent when it comes to archiving them.

What’s important is the evolution of a man who started with streamlined references to worker’s uniforms and has in recent collection, paid homage to other design talents. Since 1995, Yohji has constantly made clear references to great masters of the 20th century in his work. His 1996 ready to wear collection included oversized “Chanel” suits with limp tweeds, as a tribute to the great Mademoiselle. In 1991, his soft red crepe dresses cut on the bias recalled the work of Madame Vionnet. The curve of the shoulders, the arch of the back and the jackets rivaled those of Cristobal Balenciaga. From time to time, tuxedos mark his collection, signifying his admiration for Yves Saint Laurent as well as the influence fashion photography has on his own collections. Most recently, the pleats made famous by Madame Gres were the subject of another collection.

As a professional, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the “backstage” installation on the first floor of this exhibition. Nondescript bolts of plain fabric, sketches and press kits strewn on the floor, or even numbered chairs featured in a presentation-like setting, contribute nothing to the show. On the other hand, once again, the opportunity to see, touch and examine a few of Yamamoto’s greatest works up close, is a rare thrill that few fashionistas will be able to pass up.

Yohji Yamamoto, to Aug 28, 2005, 11am to 6pm (Sat & Sun 10 am to 6pm, closed Mon), Musée de la Mode et du Textile, 107-111 rue de Rivoli, 1er, M° Palais-Royal, tel: 01 44 55 57 50, 6E/4..50E