YOHJI YAMAMOTO

Interview and photo portrait by Filep Motwary

The legendary, and legendarily private, Yohji Yamamoto has recently surprised his fans by publishing a biography. It was co-written by a longtime Yamamoto collaborator, Ai Mitsuda; spanning memoir, fiction and philosophy, it is both more abstract and more deeply personal than a traditional biography.

This March, meanwhile, the V&A in London will pay homage to Yamamoto with a full-blown retrospective. It is, of course, no traditional exhibition, but a series of site-specific installations that lead visitors around the V&A and raise questions about process and permanence. With Yamamoto, the journey is, as ever, the destination.

Motwary:

What made you decide to share the most intimate parts of your life and career with the world?

Yamamoto:

It is not literally a biography. It is a mix of novel, documentary, essay, confession and lying. It’s more about direct emotion than historical information. A Belgian publisher, Ludion, contacted us to make a book. But it was also a coincidence. I was looking for something. After the terrible events last year, which also touched my company, I became stronger and I thought that I could do much more than fashion. To create clothes, I need emotion.

Motwary:

You don’t see this book as an epilogue, I’m sure.

Yamamoto:

It is the beginning of a new chapter. I hate the retrospective attitude. I am always standing here and now. It all came together very spontaneously. We had casual conversations, four or five times, sometimes a short one over a cup of coffee, sometime a long one for over eight hours. I spoke and she wrote.I decided to write with a co-author because I don’t have the time to write myself. Writing requires a great deal of time and concentration. Also, I cannot often find the words that express my true feelings;I only find it in someone else’s words that are inspiring or that share the same vocabulary. The Japanese writer Ango Sakaguchi, and his essays A Discourse on Decadence (Zoku darakuron) and A Personal View of Japanese Culture (Nihon bunka shikan), is one.

Motwary:

You called your book My Dear Bomb. Why?

Yamamoto:

My feelings are always ambivalent – towards life, time and women. Fundamentally, it is my way of being. I have had a constant magma inside me for a long time. I was the only son of a war widow. The fundamental inequality… the bomb can signify many things, depending on the moment. Sometimes anger, sometimes resignation, sometimes resentment…One day, I found an essay in a newspaper about the work of Sakaguchi. This inspired me and I started to read his complete works. The passage that struck me the most is in his essay A Discourse on Decadence, from 1946. I felt a huge resonance between Ango’s words and my own feelings.The anger, the resignation, the resentment… I had been keeping them deep in my heart since I was three or four. It tells the story of an encounter of two souls, a soul of solitude and a soul of decadence, who are always close to the fundamental sadness, the inequalities and the injustices of human existence, and to the doubt of existence itself, which accompanies one all one’s life. I felt as if all of a sudden, Sakaguchi’s words pulled up a bomb from deep within my heart – My Dear Bomb – and put it right in front of my eyes. Here is the passage, from Part III, A Discourse on Decadence:

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Though I call for Japan’s fall into decadence, I mean precisely the opposite. Today Japan and its modes of thought have sunk deep into a great decadence, and we must twist free of the so-called “wholesome morals”, sharped as they are by the idiosyncratic cerebral machinations left over from the feudal era. We must then stand naked on the cast plains of truth. It is by falling away from the “wholesome morals” that we must recover our true humanity. We must peel off the many kimonos that disguise our true nature – the emperor system, the bushido code of the samurai, the spirit of austerity, the naked, we must set off once again – this time as true human beings. Otherwise, will we not simply revert to a nation like that of old, a nation based on deceptions? Let us first strip ourselves naked, discard the taboos that bind us, and seek our true voice. May widows find love again – and plunge into hell because of it! May repatriated soldiers set up shop in the black market! Decadence itself is a bad thing, of course, but how are we to grasp the truth about ourselves if we do not put something on the line? To offer only superficial niceties and expect to be rewarded with truth is unreasonable. We must risk our very own flesh and blood; we must be willing to wail for truth. When a fall into decadence is called for, let us fall straight and let us fall hard. Let all morals dissipate, let confusion reign. Let the blood flow, let the poison course through our veins. Only after we have first passed through the gates of hell might we claw our way into the heavens. With every fingernail, every toenail, covered in blood and torn from its place, we will inch our way towards the heavens. Is there any other way?Decadence is, in and of itself, always a trifling, undesirable thing, but it does exhibit in an irrefutable manner a great truth about the human condition: each of us is alone.In other words, to be decadent is, always, to stand alone, to be abandoned by others, to be forsaken by parents. To be decadent is to accept a destiny where we have no choice but to stand on our own two feet. Being good puts us in a conformable position, one that allows us to rest easy in the empty values and conventions shared by our families and the human race. It allows us to surrender ourselves, body and soul, to the social system and go to our graves peacefully. But he who pursues decadence is inevitably cast out of this circle to walk the desolate plains alone. Evil is a petty pursuit, but the solitude it brings is a path leading to the gods. The following lines express precisely the same idea: “The good person attains birth in the Pure Land; how much more so the evil one.” We see it again in Jesus as he prostrated himself at the feet of prostitutes. This act of respect was surely an acknowledgment of the fact that these women, too, travelled the desolate plain alone. Though there are thousands – no, millions – whose decadence did not deliver them to heaven and left them instead wandering forlornly in hell, this does not change the fact that it is this road alone that may lead to salvation.Alas, herein lies the sad truth of human nature. Indeed, sad though it may be, this fact of human nature will until the end of time remain impervious to changes in social structures and political systems.

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[from Literary Mischief: Sakaguchi Ango, Culture, and the War; trans. James Dorsey

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Motwary:

So has looking back to your past been an emotional experience?

Yamamoto:

I hate looking back. That is why most of this book is not about the past, but about now.

Motwary:

For me, your work is about the embrace of the human body, but not in a body-conscious way. How would you describe your clothes?

Yamamoto:

Your question already answers itself. If I have to say something about my work, it is that I have always been provocative and anti-mode. I prefer being out of fashion, away from trends.

Motwary:

The V&A is presenting a major exhibition of your work. What does the exhibition do for a visitor?Yamamoto:I really don’t know. I hope that young people, and not only art-school students, are going to visit it.

Motwary:

What will they see?

Yamamoto:

They will find that I am a genius.

Motwary:

What is the process of developing a collection like for you?

Yamamoto:

The only thing I do differently from other designers of today is that I’m always thinking that after I show my collection, I want to sell it too. So it’s not only promotion.

Motwary:

Your shows are so intimate, but in the past, the way you presented your clothes was a bit more theatrical. Why?

Yamamoto:

In the past, I was always following a feeling that was against fashion or trend. Clearly, I was always against common sense. My tendency is always against, against, against.

Motwary:

Do you feel menswear is going through an interesting period?

Yamamoto:

Do you think so? For me, it looks like the menswear market is down and flat. My men’s line has always been for men who do not wear a tie – businessmen.

Motwary:

Is the Yohji man connected with the martial arts, like you are with karate?

Yamamoto:

Imagine you are a 70-year-old man and you get a threat from a young man at the corner of the metro station. Are you going to give him your wallet? Men should be men forever.

Motwary:

What do you admire in a man?

Yamamoto:

I love men who keep a child’s mind no matter how old they are.

Motwary:

Are you a dreamer?

Yamamoto:

I am a natural-born optimist.

Motwary:

What is your greatest achievement so far?

Yamamoto:

The changes in the fashion industry, I feel that they’re my fault. I cannot change the world. I’ve been a little lazy… I should have known a little more about the market. It’s like a film director getting old; he cannot see his audience any more. All I can do is keep sending the same message: I’m here, I don’t want to go downmarket. I am an animal making clothes. My body reacts when I see the clothes.

Motwary:

You have served fashion for four decades. How do you see it evolving in the future?

Yamamoto:

Selecting one outfit means seducing your life. Looking at the fashion market over that time, it looks so flat.

Motwary:

What have been the most defining – and difficult – moments of your career?

Yamamoto:

When I was nearly 50 years old, after almost10 years in Paris, people started calling me a “master”. At that moment, I was like a lost child. That was a very tough moment.

Motwary:

Why has your label become so successful?

Yamamoto:

I do not push my customers to be perfectly fashionable. This is very important. The success of fashion comes from both creator and customer.

Motwary:

What inspired your men’s collection for summer 2011?

Yamamoto:

One of the inspirations came from traditional European textiles. Wallpaper, decoration and embroidery… and 18th-century menswear’s gloriously dressy past. I find current fashion is too American. It’s T-shirts and shorts all the time. I think we need some proper elegance to enhance the atmosphere a bit.

Motwary:

What other forms of creation interest you?

Yamamoto:

Painting. I had some training as a painter when I was young. Painting has two meanings. One: no deadline, and two: I can do it by myself, no need for anyone else. Finally, I can take all the responsibility. For a fashion business, what we call a “company” is very far from that, and I don’t want to be a slave to la mode. The rhythm of the fashion schedule is a jail.

Motwary:

Who are your favorite artists?

Yamamoto:

Wim Wenders, Bob Dylan, Pina Bausch, August Sanders, Man Ray, Bartabas, Takeshi Kitano, Ango Sakaguchi, Heiner Müller, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Klimt.

Motwary:

How can art be linked to fashion?

Yamamoto:

As I say in my book: “Fashion among all the arts expresses the most delicate elements of sensibility. I have no stomach for fads like the art complex that was recently so popular. Museums are even worse. No designer really wants his clothes displayed in one. They are where fashion goes to die. It is the same with retrospectives – I will have no part of them, either.”

Motwary:

You once said, “If you are not waking up what’s asleep, you might as well stay on the beaten path.”

Yamamoto:

“To achieve anti-fashion through fashion”: this is the core of my creative attitude. In the late 1990s, when I had a lot of offers to be the designer at haute couture maisons, frankly, I had no interest in it. To say it again, I was the only son of a war widow. This fundamental inequality is the universal law. I also write about this in my book: “A persimmon tree bears persimmons. Not all among them will grow and ripen. Some are damned, existing only to nourish the blessed, chosen persimmons. Such is the universal rhythm that controls us all, each and every thing in the universe.” And I always feel sympathy with the outsiders. Again from my book: “To rebel against the world’s various authorities, systems and regimes is to assume consistently the position of a minority. Somewhere along the line my sympathies were drawn to these minorities, those people on the side of resistance. These marginalised individuals did not choose the conditions into which they were born; they live trapped in the most basic human inequities and they face injustices that cannot be rationalised. When we forget that these conditions exist, we will be unable to touch people’s souls in our attempts to create the novel and unique. People will remain unmoved.”

Motwary:

What else can we expect from Yohji Yamamoto in 2011?

Yamamoto:

Will I be there in 2011? Let’s hope!

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My Dear Bomb by Yohji Yamamoto is published by Ludion and out now.

ludion.be

Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 12 March-10 July.

vam.ac.uk

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Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 03, March 2011.

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SHORT BIO
Yōji Yamamoto (山本 耀司, Yamamoto Yōji, born 1943) is an award winning and influential Japanese fashion designer based in Tokyo and Paris. He is considered to be a master tailor, alongside those such as Madeleine Vionnet and is known for his avant-garde tailoring featuring Japanese design aesthetics.  His more prestigious awards for his contributions to fashion include Chevalier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon, the Ordre national du Mérite, the Royal Designer for Industry and the Master of Design award by Fashion Group International.