Paris France Yohji Yamamoto first appeared on the fashion scene in 1981, when he brought his revolutionary sense of design to Paris from Tokyo, causing an earthquake that would become an aesthetic. Since then, the designer has become famous for his groundbreaking tailoring, featuring oversized silhouettes and a darker restrained palette.
Yamamoto, the only son of a war widow, was born in Japan during World War II and grew up without any memories of his father, who he lost when he was just a year old. He was raised by his mother alone and spent his childhood and early college career studying hard to please her.
Yamamoto’s mother was a seamstress and owned a shop in Kabukicho, a recreation and entertainment district in Shinjuku, Tokyo. There he came to work after graduating from the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo, a decision that initially angered his mother.
But Yamamoto realized, “I didn’t want to join normal society,” he says. “So I told my mother after graduation… I want to help you.”
Eventually, Yamamoto’s mother agreed to let him work in her shop, saying he could learn from sewing assistants. At her request, he also attended Bunka College of Fashion, which is now famous for training designers including Kenzo Takada, Juna Watanabe, and Yamamoto himself. At the time, however, “Bunka sewing school was kind of a little girl’s school,” Yamamoto admits. “It was like marriage preparation, flower arranging, cooking, and sewing classes.”
Yamamoto says that when he got to school, he didn’t even know that a modeling profession existed. “I just wanted to study making clothes, cutting and knitting.”
The early days of Yamamoto’s career weren’t easy. After graduating from Ponca, he received an award to go to Paris for a year. When the designer arrived in Paris, he found the era of haute couture – what he had studied – coming to an end. “Saint Laurent was just starting to wear ready-made clothes,” he recalls. “The time for haute couture was coming to an end and a new ready-to-wear movement started.”
After repeatedly failing to persuade magazines to display his designs, Yamamoto became depressed, and stopped painting, drinking alcohol, and gambling instead. He says, “I thought, ‘I don’t have talent.'” In the end, he says he realized he needed to leave before he destroyed himself, so he went back to Tokyo.
Yamamoto returned to Japan where he began to discover his true voice as a designer. “My mom’s help, the clothes and dresses so many women ordered, they were all semi-tall, sexy, gorgeous, feminine—which I didn’t like very much,” he says. Fitting on the client’s body, kneeling and setting the height, I was thinking, ‘I want to make some kind of menswear for women. “
Yamamoto describes his preoccupation with contrast and monochrome paintings: “In the city, [there are] Too many costumes, too many colours, too many decorations, looks so ugly. I felt I shouldn’t bother people’s eyes by using horrible colors.” Instead, Yamamoto was fascinated by the way cutting or washing could make a piece of clothing charming, rather than using “emotional colors.”
Yamamoto set up a small ready-to-wear company that slowly gained buyers in all major cities of Japan. This steady success brought his thoughts back to Paris, where he began to believe “Maybe in Paris there are too few people who would find my clothes interesting.” So, at the beginning of the 80s, Yamamoto returned to the French capital – he accidentally opened his first small store on the same day that Japanese designer and ex-girlfriend Rei Kawakubo held her first show of Comme des Garçons.
Inadvertently, the couple created a fashion firestorm—their vision was a far cry from the trends of the time, led by the likes of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, who “like royalty,” says Yamamoto.
“The clothes of Mine and Comme des Garçons were very far from their sense of beauty,” Yamamoto says. “To Europeans, our creations looked very dirty and ugly.” But while most of the media derided them — telling the couple to return to Japan — the buyers, who are always looking for something new, Yamamoto explains, were intrigued.
Since then, Yamamoto has developed a dedicated global following, and today his Yohji Yamamoto and Y flagship lines are stocked in department stores around the world. However, the designer ignores his success. “I was very lucky,” he says. “People were waiting for a new wind to blow… There were many modern people who were tired of stereotypical and colorful costumes…