His dark materials: The genius of Yohji Yamamoto

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Other fashion designers may command more headlines, but not many can boast a 30-year career to match that of Yohji Yamamoto. As three exhibitions celebrating his understated but always influential clothes open, it's time to treasure this quiet genius, says Susannah Frankel

Fashion can hardly be said to be enjoying a moment of dignity. The formerly staid – and proudly elitist – twice-yearly ready-to-wear collections are, today, more of a circus than ever before. More designers, more collections and, of course, ever more merchandise is flooding a market that might not unreasonably be described as having reached breaking point some time ago. But still, it keeps coming.

The financial crisis of 2008 did little to dent any bravado. If anything, it only served to up the ante. The visionary likes of Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquiere, the creative lead at Balenciaga, all continue to change direction at lightning speed, daring the rest of the world to catch up with them as they overturn one season's look and replace it with another, brave, new vision. Given the endless blogging, tweeting and live-streaming of shows, budget priced, high-street copies of any designer original are available almost as soon as the last model steps off the runway.

And then, of course, there is the scandal around and sacking of Dior couturier, John Galliano, to consider. A soaring fashion talent and debatably the industry's greatest showman, he has fallen apart at the seams in full view of a world that pores over – and feels the need to comment on – his every fragile move. It serves as a warning, if ever any were needed, that things may require reining in just a little. We are all only human, after all.

Amidst all the chaos, one man stands out, both for the conviction with which he has upheld his vision since his career started and for the sheer poetic value of his thoughtfully beautiful clothes. Yohji Yamamoto – he's always known, simply and indeed affectionately as just Yohji – is a wise and gentle soul, and one who has ridden the waves of many a storm, both personally and professionally, but his output is just as pioneering and lovely as ever.

This designer, who showed his autumn/winter 2011 collection in Paris last Friday evening, continues to work predominantly in black – he says that the non-colour emphasises the highly complex and considered proportion and cut of his clothes. His designs are still, for the most part, oversized – gently enveloping the female form in particular as opposed to exposing it. He is interested in asymmetry, finding beauty in imperfection as opposed to high-shine glamour. He always has been. In his native Japan, wabi-sabi is a world view that represents an acceptance of transience, celebrating the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It seems safe to assume that Yohji Yamamoto has been deeply affected by such a way of thinking.

"I think perfection is ugly," he once said. "Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see the scars, failure, disorder, distortion. If I can feel those things in work by others, then I like them. Perfection is a kind of order, like overall harmony and so on. They are things someone forces onto something. A free human being doesn't desire such things."

This month, London recognises the designer's enormous contribution to contemporary fashion and the modern wardrobe, with no fewer than three exhibitions of his work. The Victoria & Albert Museum is staging a retrospective conceived as a series of site-specific installations and housing more than 60 of his most ground-breaking designs. The Wapping Project is unveiling "Making Waves", an installation of the designer's celebrated, oversized white, silk wedding dress complete with bamboo crinoline – it first came down the catwalk more than ten years ago, threatening to sweep up the entire audience, such was the scale of its skirts. At Wapping Bankside, meanwhile, "Yohji's Women" features interpretations of his designs by seven of the biggest photographers in international fashion, going back all the way to the early 1980s when he first emerged on to the Paris scene. The photographersNick Knight, Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Peter Lindbergh, Craig McDean, Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi and Max Vadukul all share with Yamamoto a far broader and more profound take on the fashion universe than the need to study a high heel or heavily logo-ed handbag merely for the sake of it.

Yohji Yamamoto first showed in the French fashion capital with his then partner, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, in 1981. The army of grim-faced models he sent down his catwalk, their hair shorn, their faces painted white, was to change the face of fashion forever. In place of the requisite throbbing show soundtrack came an amplified electronic heartbeat. Instead of the classic, bourgeois, hourglass silhouette, huge, dark and distressed designs were the order of the day. And models' shoes were flat – even rustic. "By dressing women in low heels," Yohji would say much later, "I give them a different way of walking, feeling and presenting themselves".

The then establishment didn't react well – even in Japan, women who wore Yohji were labelled "the crows". Struggling to find the vocabulary to describe this subversive new aesthetic, they named it "Hiroshima chic". It's small wonder that Yamamoto still shrinks from the press. Interviews with the designer are rare. The so-called intelligentsia, however, was quick to embrace his designs right from the start. Artists, architects, writers and everyone who was anyone in the media wore them and it wasn't long before the label became a by-word for reassuringly obscure and impenetrable style. In Yamamoto's clothing, design knowledgeable men and women found an alternative to the more obviously status-driven looks of Jean-Paul Gaultier or Claude Montana, to name just two. The very power of his aesthetic sprang from its apparent understatement: deliberately aged, raw around the edges, downbeat and devoid of any extraneous surface embellishment, it immediately identified any wearer as a member of an exclusive – and, it has to be said, privileged – tribe.

On the odd occasion that Yamamoto does grant journalists access, he is unlikely ever to play the conventional game. The first time we met, in 1996, on the eve of the launch of his first scent, we sat round a table in Blake's Hotel, surrounded by Yohji's black-clad entourage, including Irene Silvagni, the silver-haired, former French Vogue editor who wrote the foreword to the catalogue that accompanies the V&A show and still works with the designer, and no less than four more formally attired executives from Puig, the company responsible for the fragrance in question. What, I wondered, was Yohji's favourite perfume. An innocent enough opener. The designer paused for what seemed like an eternity, looked me straight in the eye and, said, quietly but firmly: "I hate perfume." The main event duly canned, Yohji told me that he'd grown up in a district of Tokyo famous for prostitution and that with their talon heels, short skirts and high heels, such women "scared" him. "Really, I was afraid." He said that he was the son of a war widow – I knew that already having watched his friend Wim Wenders'1989 documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes. "He went against his will," Yamamoto tells Wenders. "When I think of my father, I realise that the war is still raging inside me."

His mother, meanwhile, made huge sacrifices to send her son to school and then university. He worked for her dress-making business before starting up on his own and watching her inspired him, he says, to make clothes that women could move easily in, clothes for independent, free-spirited beings, never trophy girlfriends, mistresses or wives.

We've met on several occasions since that time and I've been lucky enough to see many of his shows. The spring/summer 2000 collection of wedding dresses and widows weeds – everything from beautiful bouncing tiered gowns to an apparently simple black trouser suit save with open seams – reduced an entire audience to tears. Yohji deconstructed the Chanel suit, re-invented diaphanous florals in a manner that caused even the most committed minimalist's heart to beat faster. He gave the world fisherman knit ball-gowns, gabardine overalls, fur trimmed velvet coats worthy of an avant-garde snow queen. And much more.

Five months ago now, and before the publication of a book My Dear Bomb, part fiction, part biography/autobiography, I interviewed him in Paris on 3 October, and the celebratory occasion of his 68th birthday. Yohji was in that city to put on his show – he travels there from his Tokyo office and home four times each year – his first since "the accident" as he put it, obliquely enough. In October 2009 he was rescued from bankruptcy at the eleventh hour by the Japanese private equity fund Integral Corp, which has since set about partnering and restructuring his business. "I've had my company for over 30 years and I consider myself a designer first," he told Women's Wear Daily at the time. "I think one reason the company has come to this is that I left too much to others. I was told about the positive things but the bad things didn't reach my ears."

The motivation behind the volume in question appears to have been an attempt to find peace on the designer's part. A remarkably open and unassuming affair – it's a small black paperback with only the odd illustration – it has about as much in common with the glossy coffee table-sized fashion tome as Yohji's clothes do with the rest of that world's.

The preface takes the form of an exchange of letters between the designer and the aforementioned Wenders. "Dear Yohji," the latter writes. "I write to you today after having read in the press about the financial troubles your companies have encountered... I was very troubled to hear that you lost ownership of your firm..." "I did lose ownership," Yamamoto replies, "but on the other hand, I feel like I've been relieved of a heavy burden. There won't be any family battles over money issues involving the inheritance or the stock. Physically, too, I feel 10 times better than I did last year. I consider this turning point the beginning of my final chapter."

Yohji Yamamoto was born in Shinjuku Prefecture, Tokyo, in 1943. His father was drafted and killed in the Second World War. "While I was an infant, he was conscripted and served, and his remains were never returned to us. Buried in his empty grave is the Leica camera he so adored." After completing a law degree at Keio University, Yamamoto worked for his mother before starting up his own company. "I grumbled silently to myself about the impossibility of reproducing the magazine look. I hated it. Intensifying my annoyance was the fact that the shop was in the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku, a place overflowing with women whose job it was to titillate male customers. They had shaped my image of womanhood since childhood and I was therefore determined at all costs to avoid creating the cute, doll-like women that some men so adore."

Instead, Yohji's work was inspired by Japanese workwear and the photographs of August Sander. "When I began to make clothing, my single thought was to have women wear what was thought of as men's clothing. In those days, Japanese women wore, as matter of course, imported feminine clothing, and I simply detested that fact." His mother's own wardrobe also played its part. "She wore nothing but black mourning clothes and I would watch as the hem of her skirt fluttered."

It is 30 years since Yohji Yamamoto burst onto the international fashion circuit and he has well and truly fulfilled his aim. Relieved, by the recent turn of events, from the pressures of running a business he is free to work on his collections – in his spare time he smokes like a trooper, is partial to whisky and is a respected musician/songwriter. He has, in the past, provided the live guitar soundtrack to his own show.

And what does this eminent designer think of the fashion industry as it is now? "I always said I didn't care about the market but I should have kept on top of the way it was changing," he says. "I felt that beautiful things were disappearing every day. My friends are wearing bad clothes because they are nicely advertised and driven by the power of money. Money makes money, advertising make merchandise, TV makes fashion and has such power."

Yamamoto has a daughter – Limi Feu, who has her own fashion line – and two sons. His work continues to drive him, however.

"I think the most important thing is that I have to continue to do the same thing, to send out the same message, to remind people that I am still here. Then people who are not so enamoured by the market might think, Yohji always does something creative, he doesn't follow fashion or the trends, he has never followed fashion or the trends. Maybe I can be like that. Maybe that's enough. To keep on going by myself, for myself and hope that makes a difference to the people who doubt."

He says he wishes he had worked harder to change the world but it's safe to say that, over the past three decades, he has altered its appearance at least in part. And anyone with more than a passing interest in fashion must surely acknowledge the passion, strength and humanity of both this exceptional man and his clothes.

Yohji Yamamoto, Victoria & Albert Museum, Making Waves, Wapping Project, Yohji's Women, Wapping Bankside, all from 12 March.

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