Fashion: Altared states

In the Eighties, Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto changed the face of fashion when he took black and flat shoes to Paris. Two decades have done nothing to dampen his fire - demonstrated this season by a collection of wedding dresses and widow's weeds. Susannah Frankel unpicks his genius
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INTERVIEWING YOHJI Yamamoto is nothing if not a challenge. One is reluctant to resort to the "inscrutable" stereotype, but where Yamamoto is concerned it can only be a matter of time. Ask him to describe his Spring/Summer collection, for example.

"Like a pendulum," he muses. "Real clothes and costume, yesterday and today. With my two hands, I have mixed the ridiculousness and absurdity of costume and the boringness of real clothes, like creating the salad dressing for nouvelle cuisine."

Then try gauging exactly why he chose to base his show, from start to finish, on the bride and the widow. "To wear a wedding dress means at least a kind of success, the unification and combination of men and women. This is what's called happiness, in terms of the symbolism of the ritual of the human body."

Mmm. And the widow part of the equation? "You wouldn't become a widow if you didn't marry," declares Yamamoto. True, yes, though hardly very revealing. But then, fashion has come to expect this kind of statement from the world's most enigmatic and aloof designer.

Mention the name Yohji Yamamoto to anyone remotely interested in fashion and you are likely to provoke a unique response. "Yohji" is far more than a fashion designer, opine those who know about such things: he is a poet. Yohji doesn't make dresses, others declare, he creates works of art. Add to this the fact that Yamamoto is given to impromptu live guitar performances to suitably bewildered audiences in downbeat Tokyo watering holes, and you begin to get the picture. Among other accolades, Yohji Yamamoto is also the Leonard Cohen of fashion.

Despite adversity, however, the world keeps trying to unravel the mystery that is Yamamoto. In 1990, director Wim Wenders spent 80 minutes attempting to do so in his seminal documentary about the designer, Notebook On Cities And Clothes. "What secret has he discovered, this Yamamoto?" the star-struck director wondered. "What does he know about me? About everybody?" Suffice to say that, by the end, we aren't any the wiser.

Yohji Yamamoto was born in Tokyo in 1943. His mother was a seamstress; his father was drafted, and killed in the Second World War. "He went against his will," says Yohji. "When I think of my father, I realise that the war is still raging inside me."

After completing a law degree at Keio University, Yamamoto Junior switched to fashion, working with his mother until, in the late Sixties, he set up as a designer in his own right. In the early Eighties, Yamamoto emerged on the international fashion circuit - one of the first ever overseas- based designers invited to show in Paris. Up to this point, no one in this chintz-and-taffeta-filled world knew anything about Japanese fashion. Black wasn't even a colour.

Yamamoto's first show changed this forever. A dour army of grim-faced models, their hair shorn, their faces painted white, marched down the catwalk to the thud of an amplified electronic heartbeat. Their clothes - huge, dark, asymmetric shapes reminiscent of origami rather than couture, in distressed fabrics or peppered with holes - were a million miles away from anything the audience, comprising the world's most feted fashion commentators, had ever dreamt of. To make matters worse, the models' shoes were flat (no one did flat shoes), rustic even. The fashion cognoscenti were lost for words, so much so that architectural critics were turned to for points of reference.

And it was architects - along with artists, writers and anyone who was anyone in creative circles - who wore Yohji. His clothes were too "difficult" for fashion editors and models. Almost 20 years on, people still talk about Yamamoto as if he were some sort of mystic - a true artist, unlike any other fashion designer.

His continued reluctance to expound on his work aside, Yohji Yamamoto, now accepted by the fashion establishment, is almost unanimously revered as one of the greats - if not the greatest designer of them all. It is not uncommon these days for his audience (admittedly one prone to extreme bouts of over-emotion) to be moved to tears by the sheer beauty of it all.

What's more, Yamamoto now, just like any other designer, produces more affordable clothing lines, accessories and even a lucrative fragrance, although it seems that - in the case of the last in particular - the designer has been bullied into it by more mundane and financially motivated parties.

When I interviewed Yamamoto around the time the fragrance was launched I enquired whether he had been inspired by any other great fragrances. Yamamoto appeared - quite alarmingly - almost to wince in pain.

"I don't really like perfume," he answered abruptly. This really wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't been asked by an over-anxious press officer to concentrate on that rather than the clothes.

His unwillingness to market himself is not the only thing that sets Yamamoto apart from his contemporaries. To say he is aesthetically sensitive would be an understatement. Take his reaction to high heels or - the horror - heavy make-up.

"Where I was born," Yamamoto told me, speaking so quietly that I had to strain to hear him, "there were very many prostitutes. And they were wearing high heels and strong lipstick. And really, I was afraid. I was scared. Because they looked very, very wild. Wild and scary. Not natural. And after I became a designer, I still have the same reaction to high heels and strong lipstick. I get scared."

These days, though, despite any underlying fears, whatever Yamamoto touches leads to hyperbole. Jewel-coloured devore evening dresses - sent out two years ago - were pretty and feminine but resolutely modern; attaching Belle Epoque-inspired gowns to the body by knotted coils of silk brought them up to date with a bang. Last season, Yamamoto took onlookers' breath away when he sent out Jodie Kidd in a wedding dress so overblown that it threatened to take the three front rows with it as she swept down the catwalk. (Needless to say, we would all have gone willingly.) In fact, the dress was so well received that, this season, Yamamoto has expanded on the theme.

To the dulcet tones of the Wedding March - straining from what sounded like an unusually dilapidated piano - one model after another emerged in the type of unashamedly romantic gown that, at first sight, wouldn't look out of place in a lavish costume drama. The designer is fascinated, he explains, by the fact that even the most modern and minimally dressed women can't help but resort to fantasy and, more significantly, tradition, when it comes to their own weddings. Yamamoto is catering to the dreams of the most contemporary brides.

There were fluid white trouser suits (the widow's version in inky black); floor-sweeping skirts which, when removed, revealed slim, knee-length versions beneath (just in case our heroine finds herself running for a bus, say). The most dramatic wedding dress in the show had zips sewn into it which, when opened, displayed a pair of ivory pumps, a slightly dishevelled picture hat and a modern bouquet (is it a dress or a suitcase?). Yamamoto's juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern had never before seemed so accomplished. It was the show of the Paris season.

I ask the designer whether he approves of the institution of marriage. "The old meaning lies in the conventional unwritten rules which relieve people around you. The new meaning is to submit and announce to the person in charge of the family register that a man and woman will be together and to acquire the nation's approval and permission."

Yes, yes, but do you approve of marriage as an institution, Mr Yamamoto? "Can you approve of this?" ponders Yohji. "I'm an Asian and was not brought up through the culture of Christianity, so I may be misinterpreted or misunderstood."

Misinterpreted and misunderstood, perhaps, although one would hope not as often as he used to be. For while Yamamoto's words may continue to perplex, his clothes speak volumes. !