Review of V&A Exhibit on Japanese Fashion Designer Yohji Yamamoto

12 Jul

The Yohji Yamamoto exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum from March 12 through July 10 chronicles the groundbreaking work of this Japanese designer. Along the right side of the exhibition room are catalogs and films of Yamamoto’s works through the years, while at the main center of the room are 60-plus of Yamamoto’s menswear and womenswear through the decades. It was amazing to see how he has evolved. Going into the exhibit I was optimistic, yet in the back of my mind having read texts on Yamamoto, I thought all of his pieces would be drab (a plethora of the color black), asymmetrical and deconstructed.

Four examples from the Yamamoto exhibit

          I was happily surprised. Most of all by a yellow strapless silk gown that stood out in the center of the white-floored room accompanied by an oversized coolie hat from his spring/summer 1997 collection. Then I was intrigued. I was further entertained by the tennis shoes he had designed for Adidas with their red blossoming rose pattern and the sleek brown and black leather laptop bags he had designed for Hermès. He is much more multifaceted than I initially imagined him to be.

          The exhibit started out with a little blurb about Yamamoto’s biography. He was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1943 to a mother who was a seamstress. He attained his law degree first, and then decided to go down the fashion path. He launched his first ready-to-wear line, Y’s, in 1972 and his first collection in 1977. Yamamoto eventually showed in Paris in 1981, the “it” place for designers, a place where they know if they can do well, then they have in fact made it in the business. In a 2006 article on postmodernism Mears writes:

The younger generation of Japanese designers follows the methodology of Kenzo and others, taking advantage of the French fashion system and ‘Paris’ as their symbolic capital which will eventually result in their economic capital … These designers share a lack of concern about satisfying the Japanese market, the critics or the public because acceptance in Paris will automatically bring acceptance elsewhere (Mears, 2006, p. 2).

Yamamoto’s silk yellow dress with coolie hat – spring/summer 1997

          Yamamoto enjoys karate and has worked in film and dance choreography as well. Moving to his designs, Yamamoto, in the 1980s when his designs went global, offered something entirely unique. While other designers were favoring masculine power dressing with its boxy, fitted silhouettes and enormous shoulder pads, Yamamoto went for oversized, loose clothing in a sort of androgynous look. He explored with new textiles such as felt, which the V&A exhibit shared a plenteous amount of. Looking through the exhibit it seems safe to say that Yamamoto favors the natural fabrics: wool (gabardine, boiled, felt), cotton, silk and satin, although he does dabble in neoprene, velvet, metal and plastic, too. He uses many unusual dying techniques like shibori-dyed silk. This is basically a form of Japanese dying technique that involves twisting, tying, compressing and stitching the fabric, much like tie dying in the United States. He also employs yuzen dying, the paste-resist dying method. Now, before seeing an entire collection of Yamamoto’s works with my own eyes and not just selected drab pieces, I could have easily agreed with critics harsh opinions of his work like Long’s (1982) quote:

Japanese fashion star Yohji Yamamoto is correct in his assessment of his own work. His designs are definitely ‘for the woman who stands alone.’ Who would want to be seen wit her? Yamamoto’s clothes would be most appropriate for someone perched on a broom (Mears, 2006, p. 3).

But, when I see a luxe green pleated peacoat from his autumn/winter 1986 collection or a playful, red asymmetric dress with a crinoline beneath it from his 1990 collection, I must disagree with her. Yamamoto might have been called “antifemale” but how is a crinoline or Madame Grès-inspired pleated gowns not traditionally feminine? The Yamamoto enlightened me as to what this designer is really all about. No, I personally would not like to wear each of the garments in my taste, yet his talent and innovation blew me away. He made a believer out of me.

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