Yohji, as we have always referred to him, has become synonymous with an unconventional approach to fashion, one that usually involves the skillful use of the color black and extreme proportions, while also managing to inspire emotion. His new retrospective at the Victoria & Albert museum in London—which I barely made it to following a highly eventful Fashion Week in Paris—marks nearly 40 years since Yohji set up his first women’s ready-to-wear label, Y’s, in 1972, and 30 years since he launched his Yohji Yamamoto label in Paris. At the heart of the groundbreaking designer’s work, and reflected in the show, is his deep interest in textiles. “Fabric,” he said, “is everything.”
Yohji became internationally renowned in the early ’80s for challenging the prevailing notions of fashion at the time. Generally concealing rather than revealing the female form, he designed garments that were oversized, raw, unfinished and imperfect, while exploring gender dress codes. He made use of masculine fabrics and used atypical materials, such as neoprene. This exhibition is also the first to include his menswear, first launched in Paris in 1984. A multimedia timeline, meanwhile, reveals his wider creative output. Noticeably, the selection of clothes here are very colorful, despite the impression that Yohji clothes are all black. Pieces are effectively and carefully curated not chronologically, but in small groups, like gatherings of like-minded individuals.
In Yohji’s hands, color and textile are used very intentionally, either in huge washes of solid red in a sleeveless, pleated dress in homage to Madame Grès or in a red asymmetric dress with crinoline. Within a completely black, layered chiffon strapless dress, there is a small tuft of yellow chiffon that bursts out of a seam. He also makes unconventional use of shibori (a Japanese dyeing technique similar to tie-dye) in a pair of kimono-style dresses.
The back is an erogenous zone for Yohji, the exit being as memorable as the entrance. One of my personal Yohji favorites is a long black dress with an integrated sequined purse in the back. And for me, the perfect balance of masculine and feminine is in a black oversized jacket with kimono sleeves worn under a structured caged corset with a long skirt. And how could one forget how the audience gasped at the impact made by that black jacket and trousers worn with the black silk polka-dot top and rotating layered skirt?
“With my eyes to the past I walk backwards into the future,” Yohji has aptly said. Just as his textiles are always in relation to form, so his forms are inspired by the past as much as the future. There are dresses that pay beautiful homage to Madame Grès, Christian Dior and Balenciaga while remaining firmly unconventional and Yohji in nature. Such a magnificent chameleon of form and style is he that it’s a wonder someone hasn’t raised his name as a worthy successor to John Galliano at Dior. It is, after all, the ultimate rebels and true innovators like Yohji who realize, “You will only be able to oppose something, and to find something of your own, after traveling the long road of tradition.”