There are few designers alive who can claim to be as iconoclastic and influential as Yohji Yamamoto. When his tsunami of noir first cascaded along the Paris catwalks in the early 1980s, it was as shocking as punk. Here was a radical, an intellectual in fashion with what many considered a menacing and uncompromising perspective. But that perspective would change the way we dress forever. At the time, wearing head-to-toe black was a serious statement rather than a default, as it is today. Yamamoto was its champion. Over the years, with each collection, he has reinforced and redefined his signature style of asymmetry, monochrome and volume – from sepulchral robe-like overcoats with an avant‑garde frisson to The Perfect Black Jacket and The Perfect White Shirt. This style is still uncompromising, but somehow always elegant. “We always have a sense of anticipation, both for the expected and the unexpected at Yohji,” says Sebastian Manes, buying director at Selfridges. “The codes are there each season, but rethought with focus on cut, wash and a monochrome colour palette – a thread that connects one season to the next.”
Given his aesthetic, it’s easy to picture Yamamoto’s Tokyo HQ as a cross between the Batcave and a Tadao Ando fallout shelter. The reality, sitting waterfront between the gleaming buildings, escalators and Starbucks of the city’s equivalent to the Docklands, is more upbeat – a big, bright space filled with vintage wooden chairs and racks of fabric samples, and humming with positivity and industry. Yamamoto arrives, his black layers flecked with dog hair. He lights a cigarette and laughs as I tell him about the coat I bought last season from his Conduit Street store – my most ruinous fashion purchase in years. “You think my clothes are expensive?” he asks rhetorically, with mock horror. “More expensive than what!? The fashion industry is walking off the edge of a cliff. People want to pay nothing for clothes, and throw them away quickly. I hate that. We keep on making our work by hand, and the human hand has become the most expensive thing in the world. These clothes take a long time to create. The price of my merchandise might not be cheap, but it’s… reasonable.”
The designer is on fine form, with good reason. While precise figures remain confidential, last year’s sales were strong, with operating profits the best they have been in the company’s 45-year history – double-digit growth. “Huge profits!” he enthuses. “We are seeing a lot of new and younger people buying from us. We have a much broader age range of customers. When I visit Shanghai or Seoul, I can’t walk down the street – so many young people run up to me and want to shake my hand and have a photograph taken with me.”
Today is markedly different from an afternoon I spent with Yamamoto in 2008. That day he told me, thoughtfully and slowly (his default setting for conversation), how he hated just about every aspect of modern life, including but not limited to “young people”, “being invited to dinner in Paris”, “the idea of wearing a tie” and “all property and belongings”. He was recovering from a lengthy medical condition and in low spirits. The few things he had affection for were karate, playing guitar and the classic Rolls-Royce that he drove off into the Tokyo twilight drizzle after our conversation. Not long after, it was announced that his company had filed for bankruptcy protection, and in his typically esoteric autobiography of 2011, My Dear Bomb (with black-on-black cover and black-edged pages), he revealed he had considered retirement. Despite a debt of Y6bn (£43m), he was rescued by a new investor with a 20-year business plan. Today, Yohji Yamamoto Inc is a commercial as well as critical success. The experience has made Yamamoto wary: “A boom terrifies me,” he says today, “because after a boom comes a bust. I’m being very careful.”
Yamamoto is busy as well as cautious. His menswear design duties currently incorporate his original mainline Pour Homme label, Costume D’Homme (a more tailored line, launched in 1991), Regulation (inspired by military apparel), which launched in 2013 and the Gothic jewellery range. There is also his ongoing collaboration with Adidas, Y-3 – a global phenomenon, with 83 standalone stores worldwide.
While Yamamoto is a household name today, there was a time when the idea of the rarefied master of Japanese design collaborating with a sportswear brand seemed absurd. In 1989, he was working with filmmaker Wim Wenders, who made the documentary on Yamamoto, Notebook on Cities and Clothes. He also worked closely with visionary choreographer Pina Bausch. Yamamoto was niche. Like many devotees, I remember buying a pair of trainers from the first collaboration between Yamamoto and Adidas in 2001 – the year before the Y-3 brand launched. I had to put my name down on a list at the London Yohji Yamamoto store and was called when they came into the country.The trainers, with a floral kimono print, sold out in a day. I still have mine. Adidas and Yamamoto working together is one of the most influential marriages in modern fashion – now every brand is hungry for a directional designer with which to tie its laces.
“From the very beginning, we were clear,” recalls Nic Galway, senior vice president of design, originals and style at Adidas, “we wanted to find the creative tension between Yohji Yamamoto’s avant-garde approach to pattern and craftsmanship and Adidas’s innovation in sport. We were pioneers in breaking down the boundaries between fashion and sport, which is central today in menswear.” Galway points to the Qasa trainer (£270), with its elasticated wrap-style bindings, which first appeared in 2013, as one of his favourite Y-3 designs to date. “Yohji told me that everything was starting to look the same and it was time to do something different. The Qasa defined the start of a new confidence for Adidas. This year, we have a taste of the future with the Kozoko Boost [from £250] and have reinvented the past with the Stan zip sneaker [£220].”
Yamamoto came to the attention of the international press at the same time as Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake – creating a triumvirate of black-on-black brands. Many have speculated that Yamamoto’s love of black comes from a very personal source: his mother, a seamstress, was a war widow and wore mourning dress for years. But it’s also about bringing a sense of democracy and simplicity to fashion. And when the fabric is black, the cut comes to the fore – as you can see in the current season’s gabardine “low crossover jacket” (£1,560), with peaked lapels and an asymmetric fastening. Then there’s a simple cotton and viscose jacket (£1,010) and matching wide-legged trousers (£1,010), light enough for summer, but with the texture of something akin to workwear – a mode of dress that has always been a source of inspiration for the designer.
For Yamamoto, black is also about the formal qualities of the dyeing process. “I sometimes meet fashion people and they are wearing an ugly, dirty black. My black comes from red, brown and mud. I have always worked with red black. And then sometimes, I use bright colour to elevate the black – to make it more black.” Other Yamamoto hallmarks include American 1950s-style collars, breast pockets on shirts, exaggerated stitching and the recurrent use of gabardine, cottons and boiled wools; a thigh-length black jacket (£1,790) for spring features a pocket on the right arm and a diagonal zip on the breast pocket. “I always think: when people wear my clothes, how do they feel? The fabric communicates with the skin.”
One of the most distinctive elements of Yamamoto menswear is its sizing. His designs are voluminous. “The sense of fit is so different from Savile Row,” he explains. “I prefer air between body and fabric.” Another defining aspect is the indefinable garment – is something a shirt or jacket? “The pieces that are hard to name are the most interesting,” he says. “They are the definitive pieces.” This season the indefinable garment is either a black cotton light coat (£740) or overlong shirt with a high collar, depending on your take on it. Many of the details are characteristically Asian in terms of inspiration – like the frog-style fastenings on an ivory flax shirt (£920) and long indigo jacket (£2,520).
If anyone embodies the Yohji Yamamoto aesthetic, it’s Yamamoto himself. Tellingly, his catwalk is often full of mature and bearded men, a world away from the teenagers that other designers use. John Cale has modelled for him, and he has designed collections inspired by August Sander and Bukowski. There is a weathered, hobo aspect to the aesthetic. As I’m talking to him about his Regulation label, he opens his jacket to show me he is wearing one of its narrow-cut jackets. “I created Regulation for me,” he says, “it’s clothing I want to wear.” Likewise, the Pour Homme white shirts (£490) with loop buttons often look best buttoned all the way up, without a tie – a look synonymous with Yamamoto since he sported it throughout Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Even the plain white shirts (€370), black blazers (€1,600) and matching trousers (€820) in the Costume D’Homme line, available at the Tokyo flagship store, feel special – for off-the-peg pieces, the quality is superlative.
It is the near-mythical qualities of Japanese manufacturing, and the channelling of something simple (that black suit, those white shirts) into something radical that has given Yamamoto a career that now involves signing autographs. And what an autograph he has… the Pour Homme woven label, with Yamamoto’s black signature on a panel of grey, has become the masculine, modern equivalent of the Chanel button. To find it in a vintage shop is to find treasure.
There’s a memorable scene, in the Wim Wenders documentary, in which Yamamoto repeatedly signs his name in chalk on the façade of his then-new Aoyama store, wiping the metal clean time and time again until the perfect graphic is achieved, ready for the metal to be etched permanently. In recent seasons, Yamamoto has started to put his writing on the outside of some of his work – this season there are white jackets (£2,520) with “Yohji is for hire” scrawled on the back, incorporating elements of paintings he showed at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery at the end of last year. There are also long blue jackets (£2,940) with his energetic sketches across the front panels. “It’s not about ego,” he says. “I am playing with my name. Younger people, especially in China, love the name being on the outside of the clothing.”
It is hard to imagine the Yamamoto brand without the man himself at the helm. But if one disregards the slim chance of another creative director taking over while he’s alive, there is still the issue of what happens when he is gone. Would he approve of someone taking over, as Sarah Burton did for fellow iconoclast Alexander McQueen? “I don’t care,” he laughs. “I really don’t care if the label exists after I’m gone. Life is interesting and funny and pleasurable, but when I die I won’t be here any more. And actually the idea of disappearing is… very nice.”
When Yamamoto does disappear – and may that not be for a very long time indeed – he will leave behind an incredible body of work. Many people have a genuine emotional bond to his designs and some wear little else. Since 2015, there has been a selection of archive pieces produced and sold each season under the Replica label. A selection of men’s pieces based on designs dating from 1988, from knitted stoles to black shirts (£330-£780), is on sale for spring. As Yamamoto says: “We have a lot of young customers who don’t know my past. So for them, it looks very fresh.” Likewise, a lot of men who bought them the first time around still cherish their qualities: stark, intellectual, comfortable and luxe, sometimes a little challenging, but with a simplicity and modernity that makes so much other menswear look a little ridiculous. Long live Yohji.