Yohji Yamamoto – An Interview with


On April 12, 2016 & posted in Editor's picks, Exclusive, Fashion, Interview, Print

© Shuzo Sato, Portrait of Yoh ji Yamamoto by Shuzo Sato


– By Ryan Yoon and Henry He Shuen Hsiao 


The life and career of Yohji Yamamoto is scandal free and on paper, unexciting. Still, he has managed to shake the fashion world and continue to run counter to expectations with surprising and beautiful pieces. As an artist first, and designer second, he is also a family man with deep interests in traditions and how they can be applied to the modern aesthetic of fashion. Through a patchwork of interviews, Yamamoto is explored as a father figure who preaches what no parent would, that is to run counter to culture and to cultivate emotions of all kinds so that hey won’t overpower and overwhelm. Yet, there is no loss of respect for history. How has Yamamoto’s vision sustained as long as his career?

© Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, “Yohji Yamamoto at work”, 2015


Designer, poet, radical, philosopher; above all else, Yohji Yamamoto is a father. His daughter, Limi Yamamoto, started out cutting patterns for her father and became a fashion designer as organically as a seed turns into a tree. When asked about what the differences are between her and her father, she said, “That is an easy question. He is a man and I am a woman.” For Limi, age doesn’t separate them from each other. Generational differences exist between them, of course, but not when it comes to ideas. Not when it comes to clothes.

It would be too hasty to say that fashion is in their blood. Yamamoto’s mother was a seamstress in Tokyo at a time when Japan was still freshly and deeply wounded from the war. He worked for her, but it wasn’t an obvious or an immediately welcomed choice. He seemed to go to law school only so he can drop out of it. His mother sighed and allowed him to work with her on the condition that he went to fashion school.

Yamamoto was essentially preparing himself for a quiet life. He had aims, but he was so remote to what he has actually done. A small store and some recognition in his community would have more than sufficed. He chose to work in fashion but in a sense, did not have much of a say as to what kind of life he would eventually have. He still speaks as if he wasn’t famous. He’s a quiet person who only uses a few words in conversations. He is a person who does not mind going unnoticed. It wouldn’t be his loss if he did.

Portrait of Yohji Yamamoto and Limi Yamamoto by TanYuan


“She wanted to beat me,” Yamamoto said, “which I like.” His smile is full of heart and wistful when he thinks about his daughter. He uses words like “playful” and phrases like “a new wind” to describe her. Like any parent, he worries about his daughter and is sad about the modern circumstances she and the rest of her generation have to deal with; for Yamamoto there doesn’t seem to be space for creative, art-heavy clothing in the market today in contrast to the decades in which Yamamoto and the band of Japanese fashion designers flourished and prospered.

However, not everyone agreed with Yamamoto’s vision. A review for Le Figaro in 1982 read that his clothes were “for the end of the world that looks as if they have been bombed to shreds.”


Then again, one could interpret that review as positive or even accurate. The world was changing aesthetically, but for philosophical reasons. Existentialism spread throughout Europe and changed faith, ethics, and humanism. To raise the question of what it means to exist and how ascribe meaning onto the world compelled Simone de Beauvoir to conclude that no one is born a woman, but rather becomes one.

Yamamoto’s clothes challenge how people make their aesthetic choices and form their idea of beauty based on gender. The layering of the generous amount of soft fabric he uses hides features unique to women. The thought is hiding and playing around with the shape of a woman and exposing other parts of her body accents her femininity.

His vision is largely grounded with traditional Japanese dress. The kimono, for example, influenced Yamamoto to include wide sleeves and an almost horizontal presentation, a radical change from emphasizing the natural verticality of the human figure. He is much more interested in women’s clothing than men’s because of shape. He described a women’s figure as a desert, a dynamic form that changes whimsically, gently, and entirely, like wind blowing over a landscape of sand.

© Image Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, 2015


He made black chic. Solid blacks distinguished him and the Japanese brand of fashion when he was still starting off. Some called it sleek. Others say it’s post-apocalyptic. In a way, the latter makes more sense. The apocalypse being WWII, and the uniforms of another form of totalitarianism, consumerism and commercialism, was not only homogenizing people’s aesthetic choices, but also confusing conformity with stability, and routine with security. When asked what he thought of today’s fashion, Yamamoto replies, “It’s like thinking about the Earth going to hell. Do you think we can stop? I don’t think so.”

“That so few dare to be eccentric marks the danger of our time,” John Stuart Mill forebodingly wrote. He was concerned about the trend of society encouraging its individuals to believe that stability required conformity. Adhering to trends and expectations, and knowing how to network and socialize were being taught as virtues. They still are. Individuality is a virtue too, but it is difficult and requires hard work to achieve. People are more welcoming to the idea that you can buy your essence instead of creating it. This is a mistake because individuality requires the person to make thoughtful decisions as to what constitutes herself.

© Yohji Yamamoto. Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, 2015


So lies the vice in commercial fashion. Here’s a shirt, a sweater and a pair of pants. Fewer people appreciate the potential for self-expression that fashion has. Instead, people like to blend into crowds, to avoid attention, and confuse a lack of opinion with a lack of hostility. People are also addicted to happiness. Happiness is the opiate of the masses. Businesses aren’t even subtle about it. Walk into a McDonald’s branch and see the word ‘happy’ plainly written on the wall accompanied by smiling children. Tune in to any commercial break and each advertisement is about ways to become happy. Melancholy causes anxiety because people refuse to cultivate this emotion. People initially think it is a disease.

Yamamoto sees it as a style. But his vision is as sharp-edged and violent as authenticity tends to be. In films, cathartic and climactic moments come from an explosion of violence. Look at Bonnie and Clyde and its famous ending, where the two bank robbers and star crossed lovers get shot by hundreds of bullets. Look at Dog Day Afternoon where Sonny, another bank robber, goes out to the sidewalk in front of the police and chants “Attica! Attica!” referencing a riot in Attica Prison in 1971 when prisoners demanded for better living conditions. The car suspending over the canyon as if flying in the ending of Thelma and Louise is perhaps the best freeze frame in cinema history.

© Yohji Yamamoto. Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, Spring / Summer Collection 2015


One would be hard pressed to find a popular film today about counter culture and the empowerment of repressed members of society. Perhaps there isn’t the same repression as there used to be.

Maybe, instead, it is more prevalent. Previously, the United States had the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the student movement that grabbed national attention and cultural and political debate. They reallocated concerns from an overwhelmingly white, patriarchal, and senior society to a diverse, heterogenic, and young population. Today’s American progressives have relented. The three movements listed above are not more or less irrelevant or moving backwards. Tensions between police and African-American communities have risen, feminism is looked down upon both women and men and is often accused, reasonably or unreasonably, of brandishing sexism against men, and student movements have disappeared as students are too busy with debts and acquiring degrees in a more and more academically competitive world. The LGBTQ community is flourishing as the Supreme Court this year will consider legalizing gay marriage in every state. However, the fact is that progressivism today is different from the progressivism in Yamamoto Yamamoto’s time in the 70s and 80s. Progressivism lost its activism from decades past.

© Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, “Yohji Yamamoto at work”, 2015


Is progressivism growing up or has it changed fundamentally? Perhaps, the reason for the lack of active activism is because activism in the 20th century has done its job. However, progressivism now seems to have a preference for organized, stable, and unthinking existences as opposed to eccentric and engaging lives. Comedian George Carlin once said, “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts, it will not be in jackboots. It will be in Nike sneakers and smiley shirts. Smiley, smiley.” As much as anybodyelse, progressivism ironically needs institutions, agencies, and an aesthetic to grow. Belief and dogma are effective instruments to unifying a people, especially when they are disenfranchised. When does cooperating turn into conforming? When or why is it the case that there is a trade off between a basic human need to socialize and one’s individuality?

Even if the movement has changed its ways, Yamamoto has remained. He still wears all black with long, combed, silver hair and smoks a cigarette, which, for some reason, is always half way done. His clothes inspire the same message and does not compromise his countercultural aesthetic for modern sleek look. Maybe just as how people saw anarchy, melancholy, and dystopia in his clothes, they now see cool and chic in them.
In his 71 years of life, Yamamoto has always felt the pressures between his creativity and his business. In the years immediately following the 2007 financial crisis, his company, Yhoji Yamamoto Inc. went through financial struggles until a private-equity firm in Japan came to his aid. His company was saved, but he lost ownership to compensate for his financial struggles.

© Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, “Yohji Yamamoto at work”, 2015


It wasn’t all bad. There’s a sense that Yamamoto either didn’t mind or even welcomed this change. “I did lose ownership,” Yamamoto said in a letter, “but on the other hand, I feel like I’ve been relieved of a heavy burden. There won’t be any family battles over money issues involving the inheritance or stock. Physically, too, I feel ten times better than I did last year. I consider this turning point the beginning of my final chapter.”

Known for his soft voice and quiet movements, Yamamoto still feels a battle inside of him. His father fought and died in WWII and the obligation he had for his mother felt more like a debt. Compensating for his father’s absence, it more than irked Yamamoto to see his mother appeasing her male customers. Moreover, the neighborhood his mother’s store was in was populated with housewives who were only concerned about fulfilling the demands of the household and the society that they belonged to. He was compelled to ignore society’s conceptions and expectations on gender and femininity and since then, has gone against the grain to most things he has been told. Yamamoto always needs a cigarette when he reminisces about those days.


However, individuality was not, and could not be a trend and is somewhat inappropriate for the fashion industry. He was prepared for a quiet career without the artistic compromises that seemed necessary under commercial pressures. “I just wanted to open my own small shop,” he said when talking about his first years in Paris, “That’s it.” He wanted to create his own essence, but also was disappointed at the people around him who seemed to want to avoid making their own original, authentic choices in their appearance. “You don’t waste clothing, but lie with it,” he said in another interview. “Please, don’t waste clothing!”

To say that Yamamoto is a father figure in the fashion industry is too much of an oversimplification. People may draw inspiration from him but he has no apprentices or cultish followings. He is more like an uncle, the recluse who comes to family dinners once or twice a year, but who creates his reputation in the family through his effects, impressions, and one or two anecdotes.

He would be the quiet relative who you barely knew but was somehow a big deal. He wouldn’t approach people and his dark exterior and wizened face wouldn’t attract attention. But when people do approach him, he would welcome them with a light, warm smile.


He is the uncle that has stories about the family that your parents and siblings would either deny or be ignorant about. Innovation was how Yamamoto made his name, so in a way he sees it necessary to continue to do the same thing. His message has been consistent since his debut in Paris, but it still seems more and more counterculture than ever. As influential as he is, fashion still seems to suffer from the same problems of an undeveloped conception of gender and shape.

Skin and flesh has been more exposed than ever, but it seems to target an aggressive, flashy, throbbing nightclub scene. Huge billboards in metropolitan cities of scantily clad supermodels have showed a modern kind of conformity. Conformity has changed from the housewife aesthetic to bright, sweaty, pornography. Even though he may be the only one with this message, the only one with an opinion different from the rest of the family, you could trust him.

However, his vision is one of an outcast. Fashion can still be a victim of consumerism. People generally don’t want to or can’t spend a lot of money on designer clothing and would opt to buy commercial brands. To Yamamoto, people are lazy about what they wear and are ignorant to the potential of their clothes. “[Businessmen] who only wear business suits proudly say, ‘I don’t know or care about fashion’. That’s because they consider fashion to be a perverse kind of self-expression. I’m totally against that way of thinking.”

© Courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto, “Yohji Yamamoto at work”, 2015


The misconception about designer fashion is that it is an intentionally exclusive club. However, Yamamoto appreciates good sales. “My work gets finalized when someone wears it in a city. When I see actual people in the streets wearing my pieces or if I hear about good sales in my stores, that’s when I feel the most rewarded.” Like any artist, even though it is a personal expression, he wants his work to be displayed and to be looked at, not hidden. There is nothing more satisfying and relieving than to see people agree with your subjective view about the world and artists are especially aware of this feeling.

Yamamoto didn’t predict his success and influence but he rarely thinks about the future. He does think about the youth and sees the struggle of young fashion designers in his daughter. He doesn’t think about his own future. He knows that anticipation is just a present thought and he cares about other ones more. Maybe there is not much to worry about his daughter despite a more hostile environment for other up-and-coming fashion designers.

Her career is rising and her work impresses. However, telling a parent to not worry about his or her kids is like telling a rock not to be so hard. If learn from Yamamoto, it is to never be astonished to see how one can live an unfulfilled, machine-like life, and to never settle for anything like it. He is a strange father figure indeed.


Special thanks to Limi Yamamoto, Tan Yuan, Yini.Ma (Foggy) at Yohji Yamamoto Inc.



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