Arts & Culture: Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A

30 years after his Paris debut of a new androgynous aesthetic, Yohji Yamamoto is the subject of an exclusive exhibition at the V&A. The retrospective, designed by Yamamoto’s long-term collaborator Masao Nihei, profiles the Japanese designer’s career to date and is the first to include his menswear collections. An installation of 60 pieces makes up the main exhibition space, accompanied by a mixed-media timeline showing excerpts from his fashion shows, films and performances.

Since gaining international renown in the fashion world in the early eighties, Yamamoto has challenged and exposed traditional ideas about fashion. Yet his defiances of fashion trends and tropes are never haughty or inflated. If his decision to include not a single pair of trousers in his Autumn/Winter 2003 Menswear collection seems an obvious play on notions of gender and the relationship between the wearer and the clothing, consider the strength of his influence when you remember this was the year that David Beckham donned a kaftan.

One can see that an intrinsic interest in textiles has lain the foundations to his design approach. Shapes once dubbed ‘The Japanese Offensive!’ and ‘holocaust chic’ – bulky, misshapen coats in tweed and boiled wool – stand alongside sleek, angular dresses and trousers which are clearly odes to Schiaparelli and Chanel.

Several pieces in the exhibition are in black; a colour (or non-colour) which Yamamoto works with a lot and calls ‘modest and arrogant at the same time’. The mix of textures and shades reveals exquisite detail in an all-black piece. Yamamoto’s pieces are worn-in, sometimes distressed. One white dress is filthy around the hem, which if anything, adds to the texture that the designer so loves. When asked in a recent interview why he made ‘dirty’ clothing, he replied “dirty is good.

While some have suggested his over-sized designs are made for ‘real shapes’, I don’t think that is why he creates generous pieces. Yamamoto creates for the fabric; he piles on the textures and plumps out the shapes. Besides, if his homage to ‘the perfect silhouette’ (choreographer and muse Pina Bausch), a long, sleek and delicately draping sleeveless dress in his Spring/Summer 1992 collection tells us anything about his notion of ‘perfect’ bodies, then they are not ones made to fill out his designs. Yamamoto, on his homage to Bausch: ‘This is my idea for a woman’s body. I like the curve of a woman’s back. I always watch her silhouette in the streets’.

Yamamoto’s influence cuts through the very fabric of fashion. And fabric, as he says, ‘is everything’. My initial reaction to a pair of extremely stylish Japanese women fingering the lapel of one design (“are they supposed to be doing that?”) speaks volumes about Yamamoto’s appeal. It’s all in the fabric and the touch. You’re supposed to feel it.

The exhibition runs until Sunday (July 10), with accompanying displays at the Wapping Project sites at Bankside (March 11 to May 14) and Wapping (March 11 to July 10).

[Images from Now Here This: Timeout blog]


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