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How Yohji Yamamoto Uses Wabi-Sabi to Make Perfect Clothing

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I have contemplated for a long time about the type of fashion that I would like to make. The exotic, garish and conceptual clothing of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Rei Kawakubo was what first drew me into the exciting world of fashion. But as my understanding of the medium, the industry and myself grew, the detached nature of that type of clothing became more and more apparent as I became more interested in the happenings of the real world and less the escapism of fashion. Not to say that certain designers such as McQueen did not successfully portray both reality and fantasy, but his clothes still felt detached from the everyday person. The way I currently see it, I think that it is more significant to try to change the perspective of the average close-minded person than to impress and appeal to the stranger individuals of society. I think that the weirdos have enough alcoves in fashion and beyond with the help of the internet to escape to at this point. But I think that the internet has had an opposing effect on the average person, creating a homogenised mass of consumers. In turn, I’ve concluded that I want to create more typical ‘commercial’ clothing with subtle provocations to make the average person think twice but not feel immediately turned off. So how do you create typical clothes that challenge and change the perspective of the typical person? And as with most of my pontifications, I’m mostly talking about menswear. As with most of life’s big questions, plenty of answers have been given, we only need to look to the past.

This is going to come off uninformed at first, but one answer to the question goes by the name Yohji Yamamoto. Yes, the Yohji Yamamoto that has for so long been attached by the hip to a past lover of his, the avant-garde Rei Kawakubo. Their connection makes perfect sense, both designers came to Paris (separately) in 1981 to show a side of womenswear that was at odds with what was prized in Europe at the time. In an interview with Yamamoto in 1983, he recalled, ‘When I started designing, I wanted to make men’s clothes for women’. The British fashion photographer Nick Knight recalled what first struck him about Yamamoto when they met in 1986. ‘I felt he was so revolutionary because his clothes were about a woman’s emotions, her intellect, and her thoughts, not about her shoulders, her bust, hips, bottom, or legs, Yohji’s fashion is deeply poetic and his were the first clothes that said a woman’s beauty and her strength is her mind, not her sexuality. That was new, and for me, extremely refreshing.’ And the same could more or less be said about Rei Kawakubo.

But both artists have had lengthy enough careers to have been able to clearly distinguish themselves from each other and so they have. I think a good place to start to back up my statement regarding Yamamoto creating elevated commercial attire (in a positive rather than mocking tone) is by observing how the Japanese designers differed in their design philosophies. A lot has been said over the decades about both brands, they’ve been contrasted as competitors and compared as allies. Both designers and brands are similar and different in many ways but for the sake of brevity, the inextricable link between Yamamoto and Kawakubo started to sever in 1997 when the designers chose alternate routes to explore with their design. Kawakubo came out with her now infamous Lumps and Bumps collection, denoting a more conceptual way of thinking through the medium of fashion. While Yohji stuck to challenging his own personal beliefs of fashion and would go on to release a streak of hit collections opening up to a more sensual side of femininity that he previously entirely rejected. While both artists have vast archives of avant-garde work, I find Kawakubo’s more experimentally stimulating. However, I find Yamamoto’s overall approach more diverse and therefore engaging which brings me over to his side if it was a contest.

Yohji Yamamoto FW98
Comme des Garcons SS97

Moving into the 2000s both designers felt a sense of urgency to commercialise. So in 2002, CDG PLAY, unfortunately, showed its eyes for the first time and has since become the most universally identifiable symbol of the Comme des Garcons label. I’ve always despised CDG PLAY’s uninspired take on everyday basics but I understand its purpose as a necessary evil to fund everything else CDG. After all, it was Yohji Yamamoto’s label that had to be saved from bankruptcy in 2009 and not Comme des Garcons. But the formation of CDG PLAY felt like the brand was commercialising solely for the sake of making more money which is disappointing coming from such a creative figurehead.

I much preferred Yamamoto’s approach and motivation behind commercialising. In 2003, Yohji Yamamoto initiated a joint venture with Adidas called Y-3 which has lived on ever since. From an interview regarding Y-3, ‘The partnership began when Yamamoto began to feel the limitations of his area of fashion, and that his Paris collections were too far removed from the reality of how clothes were worn on the streets (a mentality it seems people are still catching up with). “I became very confined,” he says. “So I made a phone call directly to Adidas.”

‘Where his own brand label has its roots in tailoring, Y-3 has always been about creating something new, a new synergy between high fashion and high tech, a new fusion of sportswear with Yamamoto’s own silhouettes.’

While CDG PLAY felt like the fashion equivalent of selling out, Yamamoto took a holistic approach in trying to reach more people and introduce them to new ideas with Y-3. I think it’s fair to say that those interested in Y-3 have a higher chance of becoming interested in Yohji Yamamoto than those interested in CDG PLAY becoming interested in any of the other CDG lines.

Looking at both brands today, it’s my opinion that Rei Kawakubo has somewhat stagnated with her output. Although I think that I understand her goals (I did a video about it), I find myself revisiting Yohji Yamamoto’s collections each season and feeling refreshed with what I see in contrast to Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons output. (Junya has been on fire recently though) After revisiting a myriad of Yamamoto’s past collections, it’s been a pleasure to watch his steady evolution into the clothing that he releases today. Each collection is still as specially crafted as they have been since the start, he has never faltered from his morals regarding fashion. From the beginning, Yamamoto demonstrated a drive to create in his own manner, for people that thought differently, that were not entirely jaded with the world around them, only mostly jaded. And in Yamamoto they saw a kind of contradictory hope, considering his clothes were very dark and esoteric.

‘When I started designing clothes 12 years ago, I knew there were two ways, the first is to work with formal, classical shapes. The other way is to be very casual. That’s what I decided on, but I wanted a new kind of casual sportswear that could have the same status as formal clothing.’

His womenswear was radical for its time, and today it has its place as a genre of fashion that he helped pioneer. But his menswear did not start with the same trailblazing nature, because of the limitations of menswear that still ring true to a lesser but ever-present extent today. If you go back and look at Yamamoto’s older menswear collections, they are not as outwardly radical as his women’s but they still contain distinct elements of a unique identity tying them to Yamamoto.

Yohji Yamamoto Homme FW91 (Archivings.net)

While refamiliarising myself with his work, I was reminded of the quintessential Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, which is heavily present in Yamamoto’s clothing and an element that is common among many brands that I adore today such as Kiko Kostadinov or John Alexander Skelton. So I took time to refamiliarise myself with the concept. I read Leonard Koren’s 1994 book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, possibly the most concise manual and metaphysical description that you’ll find about the topic. Yamamoto has spoken about the concept before in relation to his clothing, ‘I have no desire to make the perfect garment. If one seeks perfection, one should enter the world of Haute Couture. The real thrill lies rather pursuing the art of wabi-sabi, the attempt to grab the tale of a slippery living, that brings a serene melancholy.’ Yamamoto’s clothing also evokes another Japanese concept ‘ma’ which he explains,’ I like to leave a notion of blank space- what we call ‘ma’ in Japanese. I think it is the space that gives my clothes the Zen feeling.’

The notion of Wabi-Sabi and in turn ma is hard to pin down, but I’ll try my best to talk about Wabi-Sabi and specifically how I find it to apply to Yamamoto’s clothing. Stereotypical ideas of the aesthetic describe it as rough and rustic, utilising humble natural materials that emphasise imperfection. This isn’t inaccurate but leaves out so much nuance that makes Wabi-Sabi such a meaningful idea to me. Wabi-Sabi involves a certain appreciation of the current moment. It is primarily expressed in the private domain that romanticises the order and structure of nature. All art lends itself to this Wabi-Sabi principle, only the owner of a garment or painting or cup truly gets to appreciate all of the little details about it. An outsider observing a garment in an everyday setting views it as the sum of its parts rather than appreciating the embellishments and small shapes which create the final product. Yamamoto pieces may appear overly drapey and formless at first, but the intricacies required to achieve such a look are numerous and delicate. Everyone who loves clothes knows the power of witnessing them in real life rather than through a screen and in that moment of experiencing do you feel Wabi-Sabi. “Greatness” exists in the overlooked and inconspicuous features that only stand out to the eye of certain individuals, and Yamamoto’s clothing is full of inconspicuous features.

I remember watching a video from Bliss Foster where he is puzzled by the enigmatic nature of Yamamoto’s clothing, but I think an answer can be found in the foundations of Wabi-Sabi which is comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction, in contrast to an aesthetic like modernism which is intolerant of such principles. Is there a reason as to why the grain of a tree’s bark moves in a certain direction? Sometimes the purpose of a feature is merely a result of the environment, the features it’s connected to or what it has been exposed to. The flow and connection of Yamamoto’s garments exhibit senseless yet visually meaningful connections.

From the 1983 interview, ‘So I use fabrics that are heavy-duty, like army fabrics, or just look heavy-duty, to give the kimono shape a new energy.’ We see how Yamamoto utilises rugged, foundational fabrics to make up most of his clothing, even the formal pieces. He’s always been interested in the overlap of formal and casual clothing and so uses less precious materials to combine elements of casual clothing into formal clothing. These less precious materials welcome more damage and wear which in turn creates texture and character. Wabi-Sabi welcomes degradation and attrition as it comes because in Wabi-Sabi there is no perfection, no end goal or final product. Everything according to Wabi-Sabi is either devolving towards or evolving from nothingness. This is why I appreciate aged clothes because every mark has had a natural means of getting there to make up the final garment. Think about this, when is the most valuable moment of an item, the moment that you acquire it brand new? or the last moment you have it before you never see it again? Such as before you have to throw it away because it can’t be used anymore, or when you just happen to lose it. Both experiences are the most profound because those are the moments in which that item came into and left your possession from nothingness.

From analysing Yamamoto’s clothing and coming to this connection, as I mentioned before I spotted Wabi-Sabi elements of Yamamoto in many brands that I like. John Alexander Skelton embraces a more western approach with Wabi-Sabi heavily imbued in the final look of his clothing. Kiko Kostadinov displays similar elements with his fabric choice and decision of starting from scratch each season. I’ve always preferred subtle changes on relatively basic garments because there’s really so much you can do to a garment to make it more personal than having to make it an entirely avant-garde piece.

Kiko Kostadinov SS23
John Alexander Skelton SS24

While Yamamoto has many of these pieces in his archive which have their place, I think it’s his more wearable items that stand stronger. Throughout his lengthy career, he has done everything because he lets his mind wander and imbues everything with this Wabi-Sabi spirit that makes clothing timeless and ties it all together. Because it’s a timeless aesthetic that can be interpreted in many ways. I could go on but I think I’ve said what I wanted to about his actual clothing. I interpret Yamamoto’s clothing as a very honest expression of Wabi-Sabi. He was one of the first to look for a deeper philosophy in clothing than surface-level expression. He creates intimate personal experiences and I encourage you to find them in your own life with the little things that you come across.

Back to the initial question of this video, just to answer it in case I haven’t been clear. How do you create typical clothes that challenge and change the perspective of the typical person? In the way that Yohji Yamamoto does. With small details that a person may not be able to digest all at once. With fabrics that wear down over time to create a unique surface profile. With silhouettes that require a closer inspection to get a clear image. With clothing that takes time to understand and connect with. I’m sure everyone has certain items that just mean so much more to them than to others, and as it rips and tears, that item only grows in value to you as it loses value to the rest of the world. But Wabi-Sabi isn’t about the rest of the world, it’s only about you. Given that humans are so self-centred, this selfish notion should work well in appealing to most people.

I can’t end this article without talking about the state of Yohji Yamamoto as a designer today. GQ released a puff piece on Yamamoto a few months ago titled,’ Can Yohji Yamamoto Save Fashion From Itself?’ Whatever that means. The article was a stark reminder of how he is the last of his kind. He expressed, ‘I need competitors, and year by year, I’m losing my competitors. They’re disappearing, because of age. Since I lost Mr. Kenzo, Mr. Issey, I feel very alone, this lonesome feeling, you cannot imagine. I feel so isolated.’

Although I am excited about the future regarding fashion, I wanted to write this article to look back and show my appreciation before it’s too late. What Yamamoto has always stood for is a genuine, explorative perspective that will be hard to rediscover on such a grand scale as he did. Not only did he create his own aesthetic but introduced a new philosophical perspective into clothing design, which is harder to do as time goes on. Yamamoto went on to talk about trends in our modern day, ‘Casual fashion became like garbage in the world. There are so many cheap, wasting fashions. Young people look so ugly.’ ‘Don’t copy your friend, don’t be one of a group. Be yourself. Stay a little bit monotone – walk on our side of the street, don’t walk the mainstream of fashion. You’ll be polluted by trends.’ I think if more people listened to the masters who come from humble and authentic beginnings, we could reach our goals with what we want in fashion for the better of the people who make up the industry. Thanks for reading and watch out for a full article I have to come dedicated to the topic of Wabi-Sabi if you would like to hear more about it from my perspective.

Michael.

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