there are no rules: how yohji yamamoto is taking y-3 to the next level

After dominating the fashion sportswear arena since Y-3 launched in 2002, Yohji Yamamoto and adidas evolve their partnership with the critically acclaimed launch of Y-3 SPORT, the brand’s first dedicated sportswear collection.

by Holly Shackleton
01 June 2016, 1:20pm

Dressed head to toe in black you'd be forgiven for mistaking Yohji Yamamoto for a rock star, rather than a fashion designer. We meet at his Shinagawa-ku studio, a large industrial building next to the Keihin Canal in eastern Tokyo. Yohji smokes cigarettes and sips Japanese tea as we talk. His Japanese Akita, Lin, lies protectively at his feet: "She is the last girlfriend in my life," he jokes. Outside young men and women gather to smoke in the spring sunshine, while the warm buzz of creativity from Yohji's studio hums through the open windows.

Wearing a black suit and t-shirt, his distinguished grey hair tucked beneath a fedora, Yohji has a powerful presence. Now in his 70s, a calm mindfulness precedes his every move, inspiring the press to frequently refer to him as "sage" or "master." "Please, please, never 'master'," Yohji exclaims. "If you think you are master of something, you are finished. I am always fighting somebody, fighting power, money, a sense of mediocrity, common sense."

This spring Yohji Yamamoto and adidas joined forces to launch Y-3 SPORT, Y-3's first fully dedicated sportswear collection. Sleek, black and ergonomic, it's everything modern sportswear should be. There are no loud color palettes or confrontational logos; this is serious apparel for serious athletes, in a stylish color palette of black and charcoal grey. "Whenever I walk in big cities like Paris, New York, Beijing, or Shanghai, I notice people wearing very ugly sports outfits," Yohji says of the collection's inspiration. "They are wasting clothing, using cheap new fabrics, and mixing color terribly. It is very painful for me to see. I need dynamite! My desire for Y-3 SPORT is to make sportswear elegant and chic."

Y-3 enriches my creative life. I put every emotion and sensation I have into the clothes, so please feel them.

Yohji worked with Y-3's Senior Design Director Lawrence Midwood to bring his vision to life. "Yohji came down to the third floor design studio and said 'It's time to move, Y-3 needs to move,'" Lawrence recalls. "We had worked on small sports projects before, for the likes of Real Madrid, and often talked about how Y-3 could one day do real sportswear. But it was these words from Yohji that really gave the collection its reason to be."

The capsule collection that ensued is a groundbreaking feat of modern engineering and design. Garments are softer, lighter, and more durable than ever before. Seamless designs with bonded constructions enable greater freedom of movement, while advanced breathable technology across running tights, jackets, t-shirts, jerseys, and tanks allow the fabrics to breathe on the body like a second skin. Perfect for intense workouts. "We were absolutely adamant that our customer wouldn't be compromised on style, whatever sport they may do," Lawrence says. As for the shoes: hyped sneakers are a mainstay of the Y-3 brand and for Y-3 SPORT, this is set to continue. More like spacewear than sportswear, the limited edition Approach Primeknit hi-top sneakers feature tiny energy capsules that unleash bundles of energy every time your foot hits the ground. The Primeknit sockliner enables you to hug the road or track while protecting your feet like never before.

Protection is key to Yohji's aesthetic as a designer. He often describes the clothes he designs as "armor" — frequently black, sometimes difficult, but always beautiful — they offer security in our often challenging and unpredictable world. Yohji's deep-rooted and sincere desire to safe guard and cocoon those he dresses burns inside of him from childhood. "This has been my resume from the very beginning of my career," he says, taking a sip of Japanese tea. "I am a son of a Second World War widow. 35 years ago — in the city, in the town — women dressed as though they were wearing very attractive outfits for men, and not for themselves. I felt this was not right. They should be more independent. And I still feel the same now."

Whenever I walk in big cities like Paris, New York, Beijing or Shanghai, I notice people wearing very ugly sports outfits. I think I need dynamite! My desire for Y-3 SPORT is to make sportswear elegant and chic. 

Born in Shinjuku, Tokyo in 1943, Yohji was only two years old when he lost his father to World War II. His mother, a seamstress, worked hard to raise her only son, and witnessing her steely determination and drive in many ways shaped Yohji's life. "I have always had fire in my belly," he says. "It's hard, but that weight forced me to never fall into mediocrity."

Yohji briefly studied to become a lawyer, before deciding to follow his heart and study fashion, launching his own name label in 1972. Y-3 came to life thirty years later, after the designer — worried that he was losing touch with his customer base — contacted adidas to see if he could borrow some sneakers for his fall/winter 2000 show. "Fashion had become so boring," Yohji recalls. "I felt I had come too far from the street. I couldn't find people wearing my clothes anymore and I felt so lonely. At the time, New York businessmen were starting to walk to work in their suits and sneakers. I found this strange mix incredibly charming, a fascinating hybrid that completely inspired me." The resulting collaboration — a first between a fashion designer and a global sportswear giant — perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and created something game-changingly modern. "We created something that did not exist before and completely projected the future," Yohji says, and Y-3 was born.

Despite 45 years in the fashion industry — and a plethora of awards, accolades, exhibitions, and books to his name — Yohji Yamamoto does not like being called a fashion designer. "I hate fashion," he exclaims. "I hate the vocabulary of fashion, even the word 'fashion', it sounds like you have caught a cold — 'fash-un!' I am not a fashion designer, I am a simple cloth maker, a garment maker, nothing more." Yohji's anti-establishment approach to the industry, and the independent way in which he works has been integral to the longevity of his success. He has never followed trends, nor courted media attention or quick likes on social media. In an age obsessed with constantly chasing the new, he works with an honesty and integrity that is blissfully refreshing. "All these years I have been walking the sidewalk of main fashion," he explains, "the dark side of the road. I keep shouting 'anti-fashion', 'have a vision', 'be yourself', 'find your life'. I was shouting that then and I'm still shouting that now. The new generation does not have time to breathe. They should stop watching their screens. They think about the world through their computers, but they do not know."

All these years I have been walking the sidewalk of main fashion, the dark side of the road. I keep shouting 'anti-fashion!' 'have a vision!' 'be yourself!' 'find your life!'

In a world flooded with imagery, and other peoples' likes, dislikes and ideas, Yohji is more determined than ever to walk his own path and source his inspiration from within. "I never go anywhere for inspiration," he says. "I never go see a movie or to a museum. I do a dog walk every morning in Tokyo's cemetery garden, rain or snow, and exchange conversations with dead people. I sit down on somebody's grave and I smoke. Sometimes I feel very happy because the air is very refreshing, and there are many trees. It's my happiest moment. Other times I feel very isolated. Otherwise my ideas come while driving. I don't know why, but during movement the ideas flow."

Like a master conductor, Yohji works with the Y-3 team in Tokyo and Herzogenaurach, Germany, to bring his ideas to life. "Fashion is very close to cinema," he says. "It's a group job. I'm a director, and I have very experienced assistants for fabric, for cutting, for sewing, for accessories... I'm surrounded by professionals. I simply speak about next season's image and then they start. They show me the new cutting, the new silhouette and I love it. I love the fitting moment. Only then do I feel true happiness."

Next season will see Y-3 SPORT go "even further into sport," with a focus on racing, fighting and of course, soccer. "I am thinking about sport on the ground," Yohji says, "how fast you can go, how fast you can run, how high you can jump?" Rigorous testing permitting, 2018/2019 should also see the launch of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's highly anticipated commercial spaceflight operation, for which Yohji, Lawrence and the Y-3 team had the huge honor of designing the accompanying space wear: a ground-breaking exploration into the limits of performance wear if ever there was one. So, if the opportunity were to arise, would Yohji himself like to travel into space? "No, no I wouldn't. Why? Because I couldn't smoke!" he quips.

For Yohji, Y-3 is a personal inspiration he holds close to his heart. "It enriches my creative life," he says. "I put every emotion and sensation I have into the clothes. I put all my messages in there, so please feel them." Next year, Yohji will celebrate the 45th anniversary of his own name label. It is an incredible milestone for any designer, but one Yohji refuses to take too seriously. "I hate looking back," he says. "I only look forward. Otherwise I feel tired." So what are his greatest achievements as a designer? "I don't have the feeling of achievement," he concludes. "I know I became famous. But it is not my fault. It is their fault. I need to innovate. That rhythm, that momentum, that's what keeps me going. I'm never satisfied. The pursuit of better is my engine. I am always looking for a rival." Has he found one? "Not yet..." The gauntlet has been set.


Text Holly Shackleton
Photography Nathalie Canguilhelm
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Cim Mahony at Lalaland Artists
Make-up Francelle
Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Sydney Rose Thomas
Hair assistance Shelby Samaria, Brian Casey
Make-up assistance Takahiro Okada, Kuma
Casting Angus Munro at AM Casting (Streeters NY)
Casting assistance Liz Goldson at AM Casting (Streeters NY)
Models Sora Choi at Wilhemina. Lily Stewart and Londone Myers at The Lions. Christian Dion at D1. Noah Metzdorf at Ford
Models wear all clothing and footwear Y-3 SPORT

Yohji Yamamoto
fashion interviews
y-3 sport