'My anger': Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto opens up about losing his father and his rage at fashion’s frivolities

The Japanese design master Yohji Yamamoto has always challenged accepted notions of fashion. Now, in a rare interview, he reveals to Susannah Frankel the personal traumas that have attuned his unique sensibility – and the stoicism that helped him bounce back from the edge

Happy birthday, Yohji Yamamoto. In the black box of a space that is the fashion designer's ultra-chic Paris HQ, celebrations are well under way. The man himself, also dressed in black and, specifically, tailored trousers, leather jacket and fedora, stands quietly – almost shyly – to one side as his president, one Mr Shohei Otsuka, bestows not-so-shy gifts on his colleague and friend. There's a pair of oversized vintage Levi Strauss jeans, two "ugly" and certainly, given the monochromatic setting, luridly colourful and equally large T-shirts, a birthday cake iced in a shade that might not unreasonably be described as venom green, and a fringed leather whip. Much hilarity ensues when Mr Yamamoto demonstrates the potential ferocity of the latter – he's holding it, his team is quick to point out, upside down.

Yohji – in fashion circles both the man and the label he founded are known this way – is 68. For more than a quarter of a century he has quietly but consistently challenged the fashion establishment and, it almost goes without saying, perceived notions of beauty. In the early days, even in his native Japan, the women who wore the dark and distressed shapes pioneered by the designer were labelled "the crows". More ' recently, a softer and unashamedly romantic aesthetic has come to the fore, loved by the sartorially discerning male or female who has little time for bourgeois notions of status-dressing and the more typically ostentatious display of power and wealth that goes hand in hand with that.

It's been quite a time. Over the past 12 months in particular, the designer has had to recover from what he describes as "the accident". Put more bluntly, this time last year, Yohji Yamamoto Inc was rescued from bankruptcy at the eleventh hour by Japanese private-equity fund Integral Corp, which has since set about partnering and restructuring the business. "I've had my company for over 30 years and I consider myself a designer first," Yamamoto 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 many of the bad things didn't reach my ears."

Perhaps in a bid to find some sort of peace – and reach a certain understanding of such a turn of events – the designer turned to writing. My Dear Bomb, published this month, may be a predictably opaque title but it is a far from typical fashion tome. There's nothing much big, glossy or coffee-table-friendly about this. Instead, it is a cleverly constructed, highly poetic and tantalisingly elliptical read.

Upstairs in his attic office, there appears to be some confusion as to exactly who was responsible for the words involved – and there are many of these which, again, sets the project apart. Yamamoto claims that his book was written by Ai Mitsuda, a Japanese-born writer who, in turn, says that she merely talked to the designer and transcribed his musings. They had coffee, she says. "Long coffee." The chances are, the end result is a combination of the two. Part biography, part fiction and with more than a little of the designer's own philosophical meandering thrown in for good measure, this is not only lovely to read and to look at – at the back of the book is a selection of highly personal and, in some cases, hitherto unpublished images – but also, in its own way, surprisingly open, even transparent.

Consider, for example, the preface, which takes the form of an interchange of letters between Yamamoto and his good friend Wim Wenders. In 1989, Wenders shot a documentary about the designer – Notebook on Cities and Clothes – which, until this new publication, shed more light on the mystery that has long surrounded him than anything that came before it. "Dear Yohji," writes Wenders now, "I write to you today after having read in the press about the financial trouble your companies have encountered... I was very troubled to hear that you lost ownership of your firm..." "I did lose ownership," Yamamoto replies in a second missive published alongside, "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."

Today he says: "I thought I could answer many kinds of question with those letters. I thought maybe people would want to ask me about the accident but not feel able to. I wanted to answer frankly."

Yohji Yamamoto was born in Shinjuku Prefecture, in "the burnt-out plain that was Tokyo" in 1943. His mother was a seamstress; his father was drafted and killed in the Second World War. "He went against his will," Yamamoto says in the Wenders film. "When I think of my father, I realise that the war is still raging inside me." This is a recurring image in the book and the thinking behind the "bomb" of the title, too, by all accounts – it symbolises Yamamoto's anger, Mitsuda says, and is "dear" because it remains the driving force behind his desire to create. "While I was an infant, he [my father] was conscripted and served, and his remains were never returned to us. Buried in his empty grave is the Leica camera he so adored," recalls Yamamoto in his book.

"It's fate," he says today. "I was born the only son of a war widow and my anger started from that moment. When I was three years old, four years old, I knew already that life must be very tough. I had to fight. I had to protect my mother." ' Today, the good lady in question must be overwhelmingly proud – his twice-yearly women's and men's presentations in Paris are among the grandest on the schedule, after all. In Japan, meanwhile, and any "accident" aside, the name Yohji Yamamoto has near-legendary connotations. This season, and perhaps to celebrate the new-found lease of life the man and his company are enjoying, she travelled from Tokyo and took her place – a tiny figure clad head to toe in black – front row for the unveiling of his spring/summer women's main line.

After completing a law degree at Keio University, Yamamoto worked for her dressmaking business before setting up as a designer in his own right. There, "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."

He did just that, coming to international prominence in 1981 when, with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, he was invited to show in Paris by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. "When I travelled to Paris, in 1981, I had no intention of opposing the status quo," Yamamoto states in the book. "I released a line that just felt right to me, and the reaction split neatly into those who approved and those who did not. I took it all in my stride."

It is the stuff of fashion folklore that at least some of the main players in this chintz-filled world were somewhat rattled by the predominantly black, oversized silhouette peppered with holes that Yamamoto appeared to favour. Neither was this designer simply proposing that women wear such a look for six months, say. Instead, he was endeavouring to change fashion's perception of femininity entirely, to fly in the face of the accepted jolie madame mindset and offer a solution to dress that was discreetly erotic more than overtly sexual, that concerned itself, first and foremost, with the relationship between garment and wearer and was aimed squarely at those who dressed to please no one but themselves.

Based, in the first instance, on a Japanese men's workwear aesthetic, and, Yamamoto has said, the photographs of August Sander, if his designs shocked and even outraged in the first instance, it wasn't long before that changed. "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 a matter of course, imported feminine clothing, and I simply detested that fact." His mother's widow's weeds also, surely, provided at least some of the inspiration for his designs. "She wore nothing but black mourning clothes and I would watch as the hem of her skirt fluttered."

Throughout the late 1980s and indeed 1990s, the well-heeled with more than a passing interest in design wore Yohji Yamamato, adopting it in much the same way as they did matt-black furniture and Apple Macs as alternative fashion statements. In 9 1/2 Weeks Mickey Rourke takes Kim Basinger to the ' thoroughly intimidating Yamamoto boutique in New York, where he buys her the most beautiful – and suitably fierce – black tailored Yohji jacket, pencil skirt and mannish white shirt. Architects, film directors and ad agency creatives wore Yohji and still do. Even by designer fashion standards, it is expensive. But it is also entirely individual and highly complex. Shop here and be sure that the relationship between the collar of your garment and its shoulder, or the proportion of a jacket and how it relates to a skirt, has been studied endlessly. Still, for the most part, black – the designer has always said that this, the quintessential fashion non-colour, focuses the attention on cut – this is fashion as object of beauty and, in this, it remains unsurpassed. Yamamoto has only minimal interest in whimsical surface decoration and indeed the accessories that tend to drive the fashion industry: only a relatively small number of bags and wallets ever go into production; footwear is predominantly functional and, invariably, flat.

"My understanding is that the word 'accessory' can also mean 'an accomplice in crime'. The implication makes me hate accessories even more. I wonder how in the world people can bear to have those things around their necks and on their wrists; the reasons for it evade me." Yohji Yamamoto lives and works in Tokyo, he has a daughter – Limi Feu, who has her own fashion line – and two sons. As well as designing clothes, he is a respected musician.

So what went wrong? "At least partly, it is my fault. I wasn't able to change the world. And maybe I became a little ' lazy, lazy about my customer, like a film director who is getting old and doesn't see the faces in his audience any more. I always said that I didn't care about the market but I should have kept on top of the way it was changing. 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 makes merchandise, TV makes fashion and has such power. People who are maybe not so intelligent are changing the world and I am very angry about that."

Yamamoto may not have changed the world but he has certainly transformed the way many people look. His influence is everywhere and will be duly celebrated in a retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum next spring. "I think the most important thing is that I have to continue to do the same thing," he says, "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."

'My Dear Bomb' by Yohji Yamamoto and Ai Mitsuda is published by Ludion, priced £25. The first major retrospective of Yamamoto's work opens at the V&A Museum (Cromwell Road, London SW7, vam.ac.uk) on 12 March 2011

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