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Yohji Yamamoto: 'My desire was to make sportswear chic'

Yohji Yamamoto pioneered designer and sports-label collaborations. As his Y-3 line for Adidas notches up a decade, he talks to Rebecca Gonsalves
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Current fashion may owe more than a tip of the hat to sportswear, but the two design disciplines have not always had such a symbiotic relationship. When Yohji Yamamoto first began designing a collection for Adidas in 2002, the collaboration was a pioneering one, presaging as it did the current blurring of boundaries. A decade since the release of the first collection, Y-3 celebrates the marriage of Yamamoto's avant-garde genius and the innovation of Adidas.

“We opened a new market segment, a niche for others to follow,” says Yamamoto. “And even now after all this time, there is an even greater demand for a modern interpretation of sportswear. Y-3 is unique in the market and not comparable to any other brand or design cooperation. It is a strong examination on the blend of sport and style,” he continues, “and the tension caused by mixing tradition with all that is modern, creating a unique contemporary feeling.” Perhaps one reason the pairing is so successful is the freedom to experiment that Yamamoto has been given – such as his reinterpretation of the Adidas three stripe motif that has been emblazoned in varying widths on sleeves, trouser legs, pleated skirts and more. “I always like to play with an ironic take on logos in the Y-3 collection,” he says.

“My desire was, and still is, to make sportswear elegant and chic. The collaboration with Adidas is not only important in my creative experience: it gave life to something entirely new. It's like a child born of two parents with an incredibly different DNA. The result is remarkably interesting. There is no interference between my Yohji Yamamoto collection and Y-3… a totally free creative process, the two worlds are parallel.” Yohji Yamamoto was born in Tokyo in 1943. “I was born in the ruin,” he says in the 2011 documentary Yohji Yamamoto: This Is My Dream, which followed the production of a Y-3 collection. “I had no memory about Japanese culture because those things were all destroyed. So maybe this is my root, the ruined Tokyo.” In 1969, Yamamoto graduated from Bunkafukuso Gakuin school of fashion in Tokyo, establishing Y's Company Ltd in 1972 before presenting his first eponymous collection in 1981 in Paris. In 2002, continuing a collaboration that had begun with the designer creating a sell-out limited edition line of trainers, Yamamoto was appointed creative director of Y-3 which made its debut in Paris in October of that year, to immediate acclaim.

In 2004, the brand opened its first in-store boutique in Taipei, Taiwan and in the same year created the first Y-3 campaign with British photographer Matt Jones, whose illustrious footsteps have been followed by Mario Sorrenti, Alasdair McLellan and, for the current season, Belgian photographer Pierre Debusschere.

For spring/summer 13, Yamamoto commissioned bright, graphic prints from Chikami Hayashi, the imperial print maker to the Japanese royal family, who designed the hibiscus prints of the first collection, but Yamamoto said this was about “walking backward into the future” and imaging the next decade rather than getting caught up in the past.

“Y-3 brings high-end fashion to the forefront of modern street style and hopefully lets customers look chic and cool,” explains Yamamoto of the balance between form and function that is an innate consideration when designing the line. “It balances fashion's elegance with sports comfort and functionality, attempting to reduce excess, while fashion is seeking the opposite. There are many meetings to develop the collection together but our working rhythm is the same.

“Adidas and I – we're just like each other. Japanese and German people are intelligent sorts. Based on this common character, we have mutual respect: there is nothing that can't be solved. Y-3 naturally developed and grew the way children develop and grow. More things were added to the collection, accessories, hats footballs… It's an exchange between different cultures, different ideas and most of all it is teamwork.”

The brand continues to develop under Yamamoto's leadership, with a debut men's fragrance and sunglasses in collaboration with Linda Farrow new for this 10 year anniversary season.

“Fashion always relates to current influences,” explains Yamamoto of the way that he has changed the direction of travel for many in his industry. “Sports influence became stronger and stronger in the past. We live in a sports and body conscious age – with Y-3 we gave a view to the future. Adidas is a very personal inspiration to me. It has enriched my creative life. I became free: in my mainline there are many boundaries and rules, but in Y-3 I work without any taboos.

“I don't design for a specific type of people,” says the designer. “I hope people wearing my clothing are people who are happy to try fashion and follow their feelings.

“It's not necessary to study who and how to wear my clothing. Just follow your own instinct,” he says.