“I never followed the rules of fashion. I always found short cuts, and paths that I created especially for myself. I wanted to oppose the system of trends and propose something new. When everyone says that something is beautiful, I don't like it.”
Born into wartime Tokyo in 1943, he first studied law at the prestigious Keio University, but opted instead to go to work for his mother, a dressmaker who had a shop in in Kabukicho, an amusement and entertainment district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku. Yamamoto realised, “I didn’t want to join the ordinary society,” he says. “So I told my mother after graduation…I want to help you.” At her request, he also enrolled at Bunka Fashion College, now famous for training designers including Kenzo Takada, Junya Watanabe and Yamamoto himself.
The early days of Yamamoto’s career were not easy. After graduating from Bunka, he received a prize to go to Paris for a year. When the designer arrived in Paris, he found the era of haute couture — what he had studied — going to close its doors to new designers. “Saint Laurent had just started ready-to-wear,” he remembers. “The haute couture time was going to finish and a new movement of ready-to-wear had started.”
Disappointed by this change in fashion industry and after repeatedly failing to persuade fashion magazines to feature his designs, Yamamoto grew dejected, stopping drawing and starting drinking and gambling instead. “I thought, ‘I have no talent’”and after this short period of insecurity and depression, the newly born designer realised he needed to leave before destroying himself, so he returned to his hometown, Tokyo.
In 1972, finding his lost courage, he marketed his new designs under the label Y’s. In 1977, he presented his Y’s collection for the first time in Tokyo, but it’s nine years later that Yohji Yamamoto emerged on the international fashion scene. In 1981 he brought his revolutionary design sensibility to Paris from Tokyo, setting off what would become an aesthetic earthquake. Since then, the designer has become renowned for his avant-garde tailoring, featuring over-sized silhouettes and a restricted, dark and almost black palette.
Yamamoto has always described his relationship with fashion as one built around a kind of tension that's noticeable in his clothes, where freedom of ideas and new designs and restrictions such as commerce rules, reactions, and deadlines, are in a constant tug-of-war. Since then, Yamamoto developed a dedicated global following, and today his two main lines Yohji Yamamoto and Y’s are stocked in high-end department stores around the world.
New chapters: at the end of the 1980s, Yamamoto took up karate lessons, eventually earning his black belt and embarking on a kind of sporting life that would undoubtedly change his point of view in fashion design. In 2002, Yamamoto began collaborating with Adidas on Y-3, a line of sneakers, exercise clothes, and other active-minded pieces that applied the high-fashion sharpness of his main line to sportswear. Yamamoto about considering Fashion as an Art: “I’ve always been very careful with the word "art". What is art? Something that can pierce your heart and change your life? It is a precious word, it is dangerous to use it inappropriately. If fashion was art, it would not be in fashion.”
Indirectly, Y-3 also paved the way for other “athleisure” brand collaborations (as well as the advent of the designer sneaker), and helped establish a strong and solid traveled bridge between the runways and the street. This crossover of fashion and athleticwear has been a profound increase in the speed with which the ideas and attributes of high fashion wend their way into how people dress in their daily lives.
Looking at today’s fashion industry, Yamamoto says design has become too mainstream, worried with making money and selling accessories, rather than collections. “Clothing designers are decreasing,” he says. “The new generation does not have time to breathe. They should stop watching their screens. They think about the world through their computers, but they do not know. For me there is no fight. I never found someone at my level. I have no rival. In any case, not yet.”
For the young designers just starting out and searching for their own signature, Yamamoto urges them to forgot computers and Internet. “If you want to create something you need real excitement and emotion, not superficial vision,” he says. Online, they can fall into the expansive digital vortex of images and quickly lose themselves. “Do you ever plan to stop one day? I can not imagine myself retired. It must be so boring. I also think it's hard to imagine my brand without me. I think Yohji Yamamoto will die with Yohji Yamamoto.”