Yamamoto's radical chic takes mantle left by Yves Saint Laurent

Yahji Yamamoto kicked off the Paris haute couture season last night, proving that, aged 58, his radical spirit is still very much intact.

The Japanese designer is usually a fixture at ready-to-wear shows, with some 80 others, in March and October. His decision to show as part of the more elitist haute couture season has caused ripples in an establishment that resists disruption as if its existence was at risk. Yamamoto's clothes after all, while hardly cheap and cheerful, are grounded in commercial reality.

Haute couture, conversely, is fashion's most extravagant loss leader: every garment is hand-sewn, sells for tens of thousands of pounds and only three or four versions of any design are made. There's no place for practicalities in this rarefied world where the price of clothes is as guarded as the names of clients and, whisper it, their plastic surgeons.

It is a measure of the stature of the designer, then, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his business this year, that the powers that be – and the American powers that be in particular – were in attendance none the less.

Yamamoto said his decision to change the date of his show was first made after a meeting with Yves Saint Laurent, who retired last season and is absent from the schedule for the first time in more than 40 years. They were introduced when both received a fashion award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York in 2001. Yamamoto was then invited to the master of French fashion's swan-song show last January.

"Before, I was thinking that Yves Saint Laurent had been working in a classic way," Yamamoto commented last week. "But it wasn't like that, he was working on the edge. I was moved by it. I was saying to myself, 'This is his last show and I have misunderstood him for more than 20 years. So he is leaving. And there is an empty space left. I can move in there'."

A case of rushing in where angels fear to tread? Perhaps not. Yamamoto is, after all, one of a small number of people who has changed our preconceptions of women's dress. When he first showed in Paris in the early Eighties, his audience was, quite simply, lost for words. This was a world in which frills, flounces, chintz and a proud-to-be-bourgeois interpretation of femininity reigned. Yamamoto's clothing – huge, dark asymmetric shapes in distressed fabrics and peppered with holes – was to change everything.

This was a designer who softly enveloped the female form as opposed to parading it for all to see. Yamamoto's models wore flat shoes – no one wore flat shoes at that time. If the establishment resisted – in his native Japan, women who wore Yamamoto were described as "the crows" – the intelligentsia was quick to embrace the designer who, most famously, gave fashion black as a colour not solely reserved for mourning.

Today, Yamamoto continues to push at the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable in clothing, earning his place in the fashion world as one of its great romantics, if always with a subversive twist. His recent show-stopping designs have included an overblown white wedding dress and a picture hat so huge it took six men to escort the model wearing it down the runway. More obviously functional is a collaboration with Adidas – Yamamoto is responsible for what are probably the world's first elegant trainers.

The show was followed by a party at the home of his friend and fellow designer Azzedine Alaia and the launch of his first book: Talking To Myself.

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