Master Class: Yohji Yamamoto
Master Class: Yohji Yamamoto
- Words Jian DeLeon
- Date May 3, 2016
Batman's origin story is subject to retcons over the years in order to keep the character relatively young. But the nuts and bolts are always the same: One night, after a movie (usually depicted as a Zorro film), Dr. Thomas Wayne and his wife, Martha, are gunned down by a mugger during a robbery gone awry. Their son, Bruce Wayne, copes with this personal tragedy by dedicating his life to pushing himself to intellectual and physical perfection, ensuring that crime will never happen again in his beloved Gotham City.
Yohji Yamamoto is driven by a similar personal tragedy. Born in Tokyo's Shinjuku Prefecture in 1943, his father, Fumio, was drafted to fight against the Allies in World War II. Though the specific details are unclear, his death notification said he died fighting in the mountainous Philippine region of Baguio. In the aftermath, Yamamoto's mother, Fumi, attended Japan's prestigious Bunka Fashion College, whose graduates include Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and Nigo, and became a dressmaker.
At 12 years old, Fumi Yamamoto enrolled her son at the distinguished French catholic school, Ecole de L'Etoile du Matin (School of the Morning Star). There, a young Yohji met Goi Hayashi, his future business partner. He felt like an outcast at the school, whose student population was teeming with the offspring of rich families. According to a 1982 profile, the first encounter between Yohji and Goi Hayashi occurred when the latter threw a rock at him.
By 1966, Yohji Yamamoto had graduated from Keio University with a degree in law, but instead of pursuing a career as a lawyer, he decided to follow in his mother's footsteps. So with her "reluctant blessing," he enrolled at Bunka, graduating in 1968 and winning the esteemed So-En Fashion Award his senior year. The long-running contest is sponsored by So-En, the first Japanese fashion magazine, which was actually started at Bunka in 1936.
After spending an uneventful year in Paris, Yamamoto returned to Tokyo, but it wasn't until 1972 that he believed he was ready to finally start his own fashion line. The first person he tapped for help was his mother. Those early years were an uphill battle, but by 1977, Yamamoto got his big break thanks to his collection shown at Tokyo's Bell Commons, receiving acclaim from both press and retailers. It's reported that the designer burst into tears after the show.
I love women and I love the way clothes are both functional and beautiful on their bodies. This is what inspires me.
Things only improved from there and by 1982 the label was making around $15 million a year. What set Yamamoto's collections apart was his prescient vision for the blurring of the lines between men's and women's clothing, not only playing with ideals of beauty and tension between the East and West, but the very power dynamics conveyed by what we put on our bodies.
"I love women and I love the way clothes are both functional and beautiful on their bodies. This is what inspires me. But the clothes must work and, in the beginning at least, they took their inspiration from the kind of uniform of male dressing," Yamamoto said to The Wall Street Journal in 2013. "I believe that seeing the world through a woman's eyes was my destiny and enabled me to do what I do."
Yamamoto has expressed that, at its core, men and women want to "look sexy" when they get dressed. Sex and power have always been intertwined, and his clothes accentuate the tension between those ideas. In his 2010 biography with Ai Matsuda, My Dear Bomb, Yamamoto traces the history of upscale men's clothes to London's Savile Row.
"That is where a true gentleman's appearance was decided, emerging from their common sense aesthetic," he writes. "The authority of that aesthetic is buttressed by the hegemony of Europe, and we simply must acknowledge that fact when we discuss men's fashion. The question we need to ask is, 'How do we break loose of those conventions?'"
Indeed, Yamamoto claims that the Western ideals of proportions and beauty have "poisoned our sensibilities," saying that Japanese culture has historically found something seductive about the nape of the neck or the curves of the back. Yamamoto expresses his predilection for the “sweeping curve from the ribcage" from the waist to the hips. "It is the most subtle line, curving like a serpent," he writes.
In 1989, German filmmaker Wim Wenders was tasked by the Centre du Georges Pompidou to create a documentary on Yamamoto, and the resulting Notebook On Cities and Clothes finds Wenders evolving from an anti-fashion stance into understanding the complex relationship between clothes, designers and identity.
"Maybe fashion and cinema have something in common," posits Wenders in the film's opening. He's right. There is perhaps no other movie moment that perfectly summarizes the sexually powerful, pseudo-masculine appeal of Yamamoto's clothes quite like a scene in the erotic thriller 9 1/2 Weeks in which Kim Basinger, riding crop in hand, does a striptease in a Yamamoto-designed white shirt and coordinating pinstripe pencil skirt and jacket.
Yamamoto's collections are characterized by conflict and darkness. Not just in his predominantly black clothes, but the multitudes they contain: the way they hide and complement the body, and somehow speak to the past, present and future. They are equal parts artifact and time machine. Wenders notices this when he describes the existential experience of wearing a Yohji Yamamoto shirt and a jacket he bought.
"I felt protected like a knight in his armor...The label said 'Yohji Yamamoto,' who was he? What secret had he discovered?" asks Wenders. "With this shirt and this jacket it was different—from the beginning they were new and old at the same time. In the mirror I saw me of course, only better.”
Yamamoto, who once described his clothing as armor that protects you from unwelcome eyes, approaches fashion the same way Bruce Wayne approaches crime fighting. It's a long-term form of catharsis guided by the notion of violent altruism. Granted, Batman's violence is more literal and Yamamoto's is more metaphysical, but both have come up with unique coping mechanisms for their respective inner turmoil.
"When I think of my father, I realize that the war is still raging inside me," admits Yamamoto in the film.
In the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman tips off Commissioner Jim Gordon to his secret identity by alluding to the notion that clothes can be as protective as a masked vigilante's high-tech armor.
"A hero can be anyone," he tells Gordon. "Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended."