Fabric and form: Yamamoto retrospective opens in London

A major exhibition of work by Yohji Yamamoto, one of the world's most influential fashion designers, opens in London Saturday with a showcase of his innovative use of fabric and form.

The retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum traces three decades of work by the Japanese designer and highlights the timeless appeal of his clothes, his use of space around the body and his fascination with textiles.

"He really is in love with designing, and you can see it in his work," curator Ligaya Salazar told AFP. "He disregards trends - he designs for life."

While many of the dresses are in Yamamoto's signature black, the exhibition features blazes of colour such as a yellow strapless silk dress with matching oversized hat, or a red asymmetric dress in wool felt with a crinoline skirt.

It is the first such exhibition that includes menswear, and a man's brown suit with metal flower brooches worn by Vivienne Westwood at his 1998 show are one of several that nod to the way he plays with gender in his designs.

There are more than 80 garments in the exhibition, arranged around the room to allow visitors to walk in between them and get a close look at the fabric.

"Central to Yohji Yamamoto's work are the textiles," Salazar said, noting that the fabrics are made in Kyoto to his exact specifications.

He works with his team "to come up with the exact relationship between the warp and the weft and to get the right thickness - he starts with an idea of the fabric and then that creates a story of the collection".

The outfits are informally grouped to display key attributes of the designer's work since he graduated from Keio University in Tokyo in 1966.

One is his fascination with women's backs, highlighted in a 1995 grey jacket with a protruding section resembling a bustle, or a black dress from 2001 with a low cut-out back and a black sequinned bag incorporated into the fabric.

"He thinks it's the most beautiful part of the women's body and a lot of his clothes, he starts designing from the back," Salazar said.

Another key trend in his clothes, which was quite shocking when his creations first appeared on the Paris catwalks 30 years ago, is Yamamoto's sense that they should leave space for the body to move.

"He tries not to force a proscribed shape onto the woman's body. They're all very airy, they allow for different female body shapes," Salazar said.

A simple off-white long, floating dress inspired by German choreographer Pina Bausch was one example, as were a grouping of white felt pieces which appear almost as statues.

These white dresses were shown separately from the main exhibition, dotted around the museum's permanent displays.

In the same way, three mannequins wearing coats in red carded wool were displayed alongside medieval tapestries, picking up the colour of the faded hunting scenes on the walls.

Yamamoto gets much of his inspiration from techniques of the past, and incorporates "shibori" into his clothes, an extremely expensive form of tie-dying which was used on a 1995 black kimono-styled dress with a white and purple dyed section, and "yuzen" hand-dying, used for multi-coloured motifs.

The designer also pays homage to past couturiers. He evokes Balenciaga, with a black ruffled cape and silk dress from 1999, and Dior, with a houndstooth check jacket with puffed lower sleeves from 2003.

Two other events are being run in London to coincide with the V and A show: a display of photographs entitled "Yohji's Women", and "Yohji Making Waves", an installation of an oversized silk wedding dress with bamboo crinoline.

"Yohji Yamamoto" at the V and A runs from March 12 to July 10, 2011.