The Japan News Even at the age of 72, fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto continues to surprise, just as he shocked the Western fashion world when he made his Paris debut in 1981 with oversized, partly frayed black clothes. As 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of his first encounter with Paris — the city he describes as his femme fatale — the perpetual fashion rebel spoke about his feelings for the city, the fashion world and his homeland.
Q: I heard most of your clothes are made in Japan.
Yohji Yamamoto: Yes. Fabric made in Japan and fabric, let’s say, made in France, have completely different “faces,” although they’re supposed to be the same. They bear different moods, and mood is very important for fashion, because mood is mode. I believe fashion is the last manual industry on Earth. And craft workers in other countries can’t beat Japanese craft workers. Overseas buyers request we stick to “made-in-Japan.”
There is nothing like the skilled fingertips of Japanese craft workers and their strong pursuit of quality. Their fingertips are culture, and the small and mid-sized firms of those craft workers support today’s Japan. But if our firm closed, those craft workers would disappear from the country because the Japanese government doesn’t expect anything from the textile industry and doesn’t know what’s going on.
Japan has become a developed country thanks to the economic advancement that happened by chance. Because that development has begun to crumble, it’s about time to think about what Japan should be proud of. And I propose utilizing our delicate sensibility and craftsmanship, which can only be nurtured in this island country within the Far East region.
Q: But since your Paris debut in 1981, your main stage has been in that city.
A: This is what’s sad about Japan, that if you are Japanese and want recognition in any occupation related to beauty, such as in architecture, then you have to first be appreciated in Europe. Japanese traditionally don’t view Japanese artists based on their own judgments.
Unlike Japan, France has a traditional cultural policy of aggressively accepting young talent — not only those in the fashion world — and supporting them. This is why success in Paris means success across the world, without question.
Q: How did you feel about the Paris attacks in November?
A: I thought a lot about the Paris attacks. The city had many first- or second-generation immigrants from France’s former colonies when I began getting to know it. Today’s children and grandchildren of those immigrants cannot find jobs when they grow up.
Having visited Paris for years, I realized at some point that France is a class society. Paris and France are a bit different: France is very conservative on the whole, while Paris is a progressive-minded city with a lot of foreigners. Since I noticed these aspects, I’ve had very ambivalent feelings toward Paris.
Q: How did you first meet your “femme fatale?”
A: I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. The first time I visited Paris was in 1965, when I traveled the whole of Europe for three months with a friend. We were university juniors. After a stay in northern Europe, where I felt as if I was walking through pristine woods, with many trees and tall people, we entered Paris by train. Just as I got off, I was surrounded by the smell of cigarettes, noise, dust and the voices of men shouting at each other. And the mixture of these four things was so good. I thought this is where people live, and somehow I felt that I had “come home.” It was also like an initiation through which I felt somewhere deep in my heart that I’d be back.
Q: Do you mean as a designer?
A: No, not at all. I didn’t even know there was such an occupation as a fashion designer at that time, and it took a while before I started to think I wanted to be one. What I’ve recently realized is that I wasn’t behind that at all — there was always a force pushing me forward.
I tell people that I have two femme fatales: Paris, and my mother. My mother was a war widow who worked so hard to raise me on her own. She waited for my father for nearly a decade but finally decided to hold a funeral. I heard relatives quarreling at the funeral and thought, “I hate adults.” Also, when my mother opened a [Western-style] dressmaking shop in Tokyo, banks didn’t let her borrow money because she was a woman. Those two instances made me totally hate adults. I decided never to grow into an adult, and never live with prudence but stay rebellious and immoral.
I knew my mother, as an independent woman, went through many hardships to raise me, so I was determined to stay a good boy until I entered university. When I entered Keio University, I thought I had acted as a good boy long enough to repay my mother. Therefore, I didn’t look for jobs in my junior and senior years, but asked my mother to let me work in her shop. I needed a moratorium. My mother got angry, but accepted me in the end and had me attend Bunka Fashion College to learn the basics of dressmaking.
Q: In 1969 you won the So-en Fashion Award, a prestigious accolade for a young dressmaker.
A: Elder students at the college advised me to enter design contests, such as for children’s clothes, saying that I could earn prize money if I made it into the top three. And it wasn’t hard to make the top three in those contests. The most prestigious among them at that time was the So-en Fashion Award, and I simply wanted to win the top prize. When I won, Mr. Nobuo Nakamura, who designed dresses for members of the Imperial family, praised me to the skies — making me believe that I would be a great fashion designer.
Q: Did you have the confidence to succeed when you made your Paris debut?
A: I didn’t even plan to hold a show. Because Japanese journalists criticized me so harshly, asking, “Why do you make such ugly clothes — clothes that look like dirty rags?” while praising the fashions in Paris and Milan, I decided to open a small store in Paris in the hope that there might be people interested in my clothes there. Just as the impressionist painters are said to have been greatly influenced by Japan’s ukiyo-e prints, I knew through my own experience that people in Paris understand Japan’s unique sense, including “wabi-sabi” [an appreciation of spareness and simplicity], sometimes better than Japanese do. I must say they overestimate it in some cases, though.
So, I held a small show simply to celebrate the opening of my store, while Ms. Rei Kawakubo [the designer of Comme des Garcons] happened to hold her first one at a hotel. Together, we caused a fuss, with the media saying a great movement had come from Japan. I remember a French paper severely attacked us, while another highly praised us. I love pros and cons!
Q: You are called a master worldwide. What motivates you to keep fighting?
A: A clear trend of the last decade has been sexy fashion, which says it’s better when women show more. This makes me work harder. Don’t they know that women look sexier when they hide more, because this makes us imagine what’s hidden under the clothes?
Also, because I’ve seen the world through my mother’s eyes as a child, I hate clothes that make women look like dolls for men. But what I have tried to change has already been done by Chanel, who freed women from the corset, for example. Most experiments that I thought were my unique ideas had been done by her, such as making sports clothing. I still look for challenges that Chanel didn’t attempt, and I can keep creating clothes because it’s so hard to find the answers. Every time a fashion week ends, I feel, “Oh no, I forgot to do this” or “I failed to deliver this message clearly enough.”
Q: It must be hard to keep standing on the world stage.
A: Yes, it is. After fashion week, you can’t move forward unless you reject what you have just done. It is a piercing experience, four times a year. This may sound strange, but I feel that repeatedly facing an ordeal and challenge, which is followed by a slight sense of accomplishment, is what keeps me going. And also the paradox, that I reject my fashion with my fashion, might be alluring.
Q: Do you try to change public tastes?
A: I say mainstream fashion is for those who have no doubts. I have no intention to change them. The people I work for are those who have doubts and walk on side streets. I want to walk with them and keep creating clothes that convince them.
I believe the job of creators is to stay outside the mainstream and to speak against what people say is currently beautiful or good. By stating opposite opinions, we ultimately contribute to society.
When I received the Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres [Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters] in 2011, I thought it was being suggested that I retire. But the only thing I can’t imagine is life after retirement. I feel most energetic when I’m creating clothes for a fashion week, especially when I baste stitch.
Q: What would you suggest to young people who want to climb on to the world stage?
A: I say, “Don’t look at things on computers.” People today can find and see things around the world on computers. They just click, see everything on-screen and think they now know it, which is a great misunderstanding. Truly great things can only be understood when you are actually there, to see how it is displayed or what surrounds it, and to directly smell and feel it. You need to walk around the world with your own feet, to actually touch great things and sharpen your sensibilities. People are not that unique when they are 20 or so, unless they are real geniuses.
It’s a bit embarrassing, but I say this earnestly: Live your life a little more seriously. If you seriously tackle the jobs you’re given right now, you’ll find something. And I add that the government should more seriously support those who live that way.
Yamamoto was born in 1943 in Tokyo. After graduating from Keio University, he studied at Bunka Fashion College, and then established Y’s Company Ltd. in 1972. He first presented his Yohji Yamamoto brand in Paris in 1981. Yamamoto presents his collections mainly in Paris, and also designed costumes in various fields, including for the films of Takeshi Kitano and German director Wim Wenders, for operas by Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival, and dance performances choreographed by Pina Bausch at Tanztheater Wuppertal in Germany. In 2004, Yamamoto received the Japanese government’s Medal with Purple Ribbon. The French government awarded him the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1994; and the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres — the highest decoration in arts and culture in the country — in 2011.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Mai Niimi on Dec. 18.