Who Is Yohji Yamamoto? The Japanese Designer’s History, Legacy & More | CoolJapan

Designer Yohji Yamamoto is an icon in Japanese luxury fashion. He’s known for his avant-garde designs that typically feature oversized silhouettes and monochromatic palettes, but he has also championed the beauty of androgynous dressing throughout his career. What inspired his works and how did he become the fashion icon that he is today?

Yohji Yamamoto

Yohji Yamamoto. (Masaki-H/CC BY-SA 2.0 WikiCommons)

Trading a law degree for a place in the world of fashion

Yohji Yamamoto, who concluded his studies in 1966, is a Keio University alumnus with a degree in law. Keio University, found in Tokyo, is known for its excellence in research, medicine, and top-level education.

However, it seems like his heart wasn’t really into law practice and he was more inspired by his widowed mother who was a dressmaker in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho, Tokyo’s amusement and entertainment district. He said, “I didn’t want to join the ordinary society,” and decided to help out in his mother’s shop instead.

He re-entered college with the encouragement of his mother and went to Bunka Fashion College. He graduated with a degree in fashion design in 1969. Some of Bunka Fashion College’s other famous alumni include Kenzo Takada (of fashion brand KENZO) and Junya Watanabe (protégé of Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo).

After Bunka, Yamamoto ended up pursuing an anonymous career in fashion, working back and forth Paris and Japan to further enhance his craft. By 1977, he started to market his label simply known as Y’s, which slowly but surely gained popularity among Japanese buyers.

In 1977, Yamamoto presented his first full collection in Tokyo under Y’s. This was followed by another showcase in Paris in 1981. Yamamoto’s genderfluid silhouettes which feature both masculine and feminine structures launched him further into popularity.

His partnership with Comme des Garcons founder Rei Kawakubo also introduced many interesting fashion pieces to the industry at the time, including the use of tattered fabric, clashing textures, and mismatched layers that deconstructed any ‘rules’ present in fashion during that era.

Yamamoto’s growing success led to the opening of his first international boutique in Paris in 1981. He also did a New York showcase a year after.

At present, his eponymous label Yohji Yamamoto and Y’s, which is considered a lower-priced version of his brand, are celebrated globally as high-fashion labels.

Yohji Yamamoto’s chosen design elements: layers, distress, and the power of ‘black’

Yamamoto’s pieces are often in black, a colour almost signature to his brand. He described the colour as “modest and arrogant at the same time.” He also called black “lazy and easy, yet mysterious.” For him, it gives an air of being unbothered and not wanting to bother other people in return. And, yes, these thoughts are reflected in Yamamoto’s designs, which often evoke a sense of effortlessness yet elegance that’s hard to grasp but is also very intriguing.

When it comes to his choice of maximalist silhouettes that are androgynous in nature, he said it is rooted in the simple desire to see women in men’s clothes. He described his clothes as a “coat guarding a home, hiding a woman’s body”, which was the opposite of the feminine silhouettes inspired by the West that Japanese women adopted in the 60s and 70s. As someone who witnessed the struggles of his widowed mother in Japan’s post-war era, his clothes also mimic an armour-like vibe that exudes both a sense of protection and comfort.

Another element often seen in his works are distressed patterns, which he described as “good” and “beautiful” despite being referred to by former fashion journalists as “dirty clothing”. His clothes are different from the clean and tailored looks many designers leaned towards and are reflective of his own history of finding success despite his non-luxurious background.

The legacy of ‘embracing imperfection’ and being an ‘industry rebel’

According to Olivier Saillard, a fashion historian and the former head of Musée Galliera in Paris, Yohji Yamamoto’s works disrupt what we know of as fashion and introduce pieces that “disconcert, puzzle, irritate, and disturb” because they are filled with imperfections we often don’t seek out. And yet, despite their obtrusive nature, these pieces are somewhat alluring.

Yamamoto finds symmetry and perfection unacceptable; he has successfully fought against them by being one of the most successful designers of the 20th century. Through disruptive and unconventional pieces, Yamamoto made holes, rips, tattered clothing, and androgynous silhouettes high-fashion, not just because they’re ‘trendy’ but because they are a statement that resonates through decades.

Despite the seemingly static direction of his style, however, Yamamoto is still able to innovate and remain relevant because he treats his label not just as a fashion brand but also as a creative avenue.

A Yohji Yamamoto design is an artistic experience that extends to his showcases, fashion spreads, and campaign materials. He’s always rebelling against the conventional in almost every manner, with every collection or runway show having some kind of bold statement.

If there’s something about Yohji Yamamoto’s works that can be equalled to his fashion legacy, it’s not just the artistry he puts into the fabric but rather the idea of embracing imperfection and the non-conventional and making it into something bigger than it is.