From fashion designer to victim: Yamamoto files for bankruptcy

Japanese label blames recession for sales slump after amassing debts of £42m

The recession claimed another fashion victim yesterday as Yohji Yamamoto, the cult Japanese house, announced it was filing for bankruptcy.

With debts of about ¥6bn (£42m), the company blamed slow sales and a decrease in demand during a time of general economic slowdown. "I concentrated too hard on making clothes and left too much responsibility on higher management," the crestfallen designer told a press conference in Tokyo yesterday, only a week after he had presented his spring/summer 2010 collection to fashion press and buyers in Paris.

"But my biggest obligation is to keep making world-beating products. I'll continue to do that until the business is wound up."

The label, founded in 1972, will continue trading internationally for the time being. But Yamamoto is the latest company to suffer in a string of bankruptcy claims in Japan, where high-end fashion retail is being squeezed by a boom in budget clothing.

This week, Versace announced that it was liquidating its operations in the country, 30 years after opening its first shop there. And last year, Louis Vuitton scrapped plans for a 12-floor megastore in Ginza, Tokyo's busiest and most ex-clusive shopping district.

While the homegrown budget brand Uniqlo chalked up a record year, Yama-moto has seen its market shrink.

"The company has also suffered because of the fall in consumption and excess levels of debt," a statement released said. The company also blamed the strength of the Yen for its plight.

Yamamoto, who turned 66 last week, first arrived on the international fashion circuit in 1981. Along with Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, he spearheaded the avant garde movement then emerging from Japan.

His label is known for its unstructured and deconstructed tailoring, inspired by traditional Japanese men's workwear, and for its plain collections solely in black, which earned the moniker "Hiroshima chic" within the fashion industry.

Such was the enormity of Yamamoto's and Kawakubo's colour choice, when other brands were firmly focussed on bright shades and conspicuous status, that the women who bought and wore their pieces were known as "the crows" in Japan.

Often described as "intelligent clothes", Yamamoto attracts intellectual customers who appreciate the hidden complexities of his work. Such complexities and studied simplicity do not come cheap, of course, and the label's higher prices may have contributed to its insolvency.

Pieces are masculine in shape, often intended to conceal the feminine form in vast swathes of gabardine or loose weave cotton and muslin.

The look is tricky to pull off for most, and one that is jarring – and consciously so – in comparison with the current trend for a slim-line, body-conscious silhouette. Yamamoto once told The Independent that he was "scared" of women in high heels and red lipstick; his clothes are a more understated take on female power dressing, favoured by the likes of Tilda Swinton and the architect Zaha Hadid.

The company's decline could be attributed to the vogue for "it" pieces, recognisable status buys that were big business before the economy plunged. Although fashion now favours a more inconspicuous look, Yamamoto's clothes are almost too quiet; and his trademark "peasant shoes" don't have a matching price-tag.

The announcement comes after the French couture house Christian Lacroix went into administration in May. Yohji faces a similar problem: while he has diversified by taking on a number of collaborations, including a range for Adidas (which will continue), a lack of diversification into lucrative cosmetics and fragrance has contributed to his decline. Lacroix and Yamamoto embodied their brands and ploughed their creative visions into them, but did little to expand commercially. Sheikh Hassan Ben Ali al-Naimi , from the United Arab Emirates offered to take a majority share in Lacroix this week, which would push the designer into a minority shareholding; whether Yamamoto will seek a similar solution remains to be seen.

His focus on clothing may be artistically noble, and his fans as dedicated as any collectors, but fashion is a strange discipline and even the most avant garde of its number still need to make big money.