yohji yamamoto chooses women over fashion in the boys ll men issue, 2008
We look back to one of i-D's most interesting interviews - with Mr Yamamoto in The Boys II Men Issue, February 2008...
Photography Mitchell Sams
We meet up with Yohji Yamamoto, smiling, joking around and doing martial arts after his daughter Limi Feu's debut catwalk presentation in Paris. Having produced a sublime spring/summer 08 womenswear collection for his main line - a modern, dark romantic show of voluminous skirts, sculptural silver crinoline, with unexpected flashes of floral dragon print and erotic half-bared backs - it is clear Yohji is having fun reinterpreting his men and women's' classic oversized silhouettes. The Yohji collaborations too are working well, most recently including Dr Martens, Mandarin Duck and a new Stormy Weather pearl collaboration with luxury jewellery line Mikimoto. With his award-winning Y-3 collection now in its fifth season, the first freestanding Y-3 monobrand store opening its doors in Miami last November, and Y-3's participation in Art Basel 2007, the fun looks set to continue. For the spring/summer 08 Y-3 collection, Yamamoto staged a surprise catwalk show in New York. Set beneath the disused rail track running between the West Side gallery streets, Y-3 Producer Etienne Russo and his team organised a thirty-minute simulated cloudburst complete with ominous thunderclaps and the clatter of heavy rain on rooftops (as temporary relief from the autumn heat wave), showering the models in a refreshing downpour as they premiered a colourful collection of wearable basics, wind-breakers, cropped trousers, and buttoned up dresses in Yohji's classic black and white silhouette. Tongue in cheek prints, inspired by bootleg Y-3 rip offs, added to the theme of an urban customer ready to battle the elements. Yohji's mother was shopping in the organic farmers market on the weekend of the show, on witnessing first hand the light in her eyes as we greeted each other, I recognised the true sparkle that is also in the eyes of her son. She definitely adds to the secret of Yohji's success.
Your mother has always been very important to you, what was your upbringing like?
Life was very tough; it was always going to be very tough. After my father died my mother made up her mind not to get married again, she decided to start working. It was very difficult with just mother and son.
How did that make you feel?
As a child I watched my mother working so hard, I was scared. I understood very quickly that life is not easy, and at that moment I decided I should finish my life as soon as possible. That was my dream for so long. Even as a child I was already mentally very old. I didn't want to hit the reality of life or society; I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to work. It was very tough and my mother was working everyday, while her son was staying at home doing nothing.
Do you see yourself as her protector or provider?
Maybe as protector. Sixty years have passed since my mother started working. Japanese society is naturally very unfair to women. In Japan, women are not human beings, for example when my mother wanted to borrow money from the bank, because she is a woman the bank people didn't treat her well. So I started to watch the world through my mother's eyes and naturally I realised I needed to protect her.
Are there any other iconic women in your life besides your mother?
Let me say I have three femme fatales; firstly my mother, secondly… the situation is very complicated so I cannot name her, but you can imagine...
One woman is not enough?
Not enough, not enough. I have no desire for anything else. I have no taste for property. The story is more interesting when I talk about art. When I was a boy at primary school my teacher and my mother realised I was very good at drawing and painting. It came very naturally to me. So when I stand up in front of art, whether painting, sculpture or architecture, I feel simply this is doing … In that way I don't like to be influenced by art. I will always be interested in people.
You never knew your father, but there are people who've definitely influenced your life… Who has impressed you or changed your life the most?
I think my father did influence me. Sometimes when I am very tired or when I feel lost, I can feel him there. I have no memory of him but he's there. When I read the work of the famous Japanese writer, Ango Sakaguchi - he's not famous in the rest of the world because his Japanese is hard to translate - who is exactly the same age as my father, I found he was the father I'd been imagining. He became my Bible. He inspires me.
Which is more important to you, fashion or women?
Women are important. First comes women, and fashion just follows.
Why are women so special?
My mother is always there, I think it's important for a boy's mother to be there, always punishing, always checking. I always want to come back to the mother's body.
Do you give advice to your daughter?
Oh my daughter. Our connection is very special because I deserted her mother when my daughter was three or four years old, so we have about thirteen lost years. Then one day I had a phone call from her grandfather, 'Hey Yohji, why don't you come, we can't handle her, it's almost impossible.' So I say 'Ok I'm coming'. It was very far; it took two hours by car. But I went right away. When I arrived my surprise was that she was twelve or thirteen years old and already a young woman. She had done some very wrong things, and had been arrested by the police so I took her to Tokyo. We started out again together, just the two of us, and she didn't complain at all about my absence. We lived together for four or five years. The only times she was not happy was when I introduced my girlfriends.
Was this a problem?
Yes, but it depended on the type of girlfriend. When my girlfriend was her type, she thought she was very nice. Then my daughter would tell me "Father she's beautiful".
Did you listen to her advice?
I would do the same to her. When she had a new boyfriend she would call me at the office and say 'My new boyfriend is waiting to say hello to you, what time are you back?' In that way our connection was unique.
It sounds like your family dynamic is a very special dynamic.
Very special, yes.
Would you say your dreams have come true?
My situation now was never my dream. When I was younger I wanted to be nothing. My ideal life was just to be a man or a husband. My mother had a very small dressmakers shop, and from that money I graduated in to a very famous person in Tokyo. When I was a third year university student I'd already decided I was not going to work for a famous company, or be a businessman at a big company.
You never wanted to be a corporate man?
No, no way.
Did you ever think about being a musician?
Oh yes. Most of my friends did something with music; sometimes together we made a band.
Did you do karaoke?
Back then we didn't have karaoke. Karaoke only started about 20 years ago.
But you like to sing?
Depends on the time, depends on my mental situation.
Do you have a soundtrack for your life?
Yes, I have. It's not very melodious; it's kind of a poem. It's always numbered in my brain. I tried to write lyrics, but I found that I have no talent.
I know you're a Bob Dylan and Tom Petty fan?
Yes, but early Bob Dylan, early Beatles, early Rolling Stones… when I was a university kid I was always listening to jazz, The Monks, Miles Davies, a friend of mine Harvey Hancock, Oscar Peterson…
We're the same generation. Did you ever see John Lee Hooker or any of the great Blues bands play?
Never, I missed them. I've only seen them on DVD. Back then American people didn't accept black peoples music, only European people accepted it.
Did you ever see the movie Vanishing Point?
I have no memory of it. I know the title. Last week I saw About Schmidt on TV with Jack Nicholson. It was one of his great films.
What car would you drive if you were in a road movie?
For me a movie has to be a road movie. I used to love Mercedes 280 SE, but on my road trip I'd drive a Harley Davidson. I'd drive it across the United States, from East to West. Hopefully I'll do this in two years time. This is my dream.
So you have the car, now you need the woman and the soundtrack.
Three elements, yes. When it's my birthday, people ask me, 'What do you want as a present?' and I tell them I have no interest in property, so I have to think and think, and decide maybe old gifts from 1945. So when I drive in the United States, in the backseat I can bring a guitar.
Did you teach yourself or did you have a teacher?
Half and half. With designing I started out by myself and had no teacher. But I created a very small music company about 15 years ago, and made three or four albums, at that time I took lessons from professional artists.
You were in a band?
Yes. People call me a designer, but when I'm surrounded by designers and artists I don't feel very relaxed. Musicians, such as guitarists, are the type of people I feel most comfortable with.
If you find playing music so relaxing, what keeps you designing?
There are happy moments in my job, for example the moment just before starting the next collection. I start imagining and looking for ideas, and by the time we start the first fitting I feel very happy because something very very beautiful and exciting is taking place. When my team are in a very good condition they create something very, very fresh and exciting to me. At that moment I feel this is a gift. It can be totally different from my first idea, but I don't care if it's something I've never ever seen in my career before, the fitting moment is my most happiest moment - 'wow'.
Do you enjoy working with people?
It's like making a film, designing is a team job so cooperation is very important. It's very similar to being a conductor or a film director.
Do you have many women in your team?
Yes, of course. Men love women, but he cannot create a masterpiece for her, because he is not a woman, so he doesn't know the real soul of a skirt, or a dress. Only gay men can imagine that. In my studio I let boys make only men's clothing, all tailoring.
Who do you have in mind when you design?
I make clothes for real women, not for professional fashion models. For women who make love, work hard, do anything, it doesn't matter. I want to step in to a woman's spirit and soul, like the famous quote by Freud, "Despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, I have not been able to answer... the great question that has never been answered: what does a woman want?"
What women want is a life pursuit… it has to remain a mystery. Do you believe in reincarnation?
No, we have one life. After dying there is nothing. For example when I am staying in Paris and my mother is in Tokyo, if something happens to her I feel it. It is in this way that I believe in spirit. No zombies please. If this moment is very exciting and I'm having a lot of fun, I don't care about tomorrow or yesterday. I simply enjoy this moment.
Do you think the life we lead today, is driven by all things commercial?
Yes we get worse and worse. Beautiful things like culture are disappearing everyday.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have been invited by the Chinese government to make a fashion show in Beijing in April. It's a very official request, and the first time the Chinese government have invited a foreign artist to put on a fashion show, so I accepted. We're going to work with Sotheby's and sell all my collection at an auction, and then with that money I'm going to make a Yohji Yamamoto Foundation which will help young Chinese students go abroad to art colleges. This is a very tiny thing, but for me it means double because back in my father's generation the Japanese army did terrible things to Chinese people, and we didn't apologise properly yet. So it's my patriot concern, which my young studio people don't understand. Recently I started to think European people created the EU; maybe Asian people should make the AU. Only artists can make it.
Text Terry Jones
Photography Mitchell Sams
[The Boys II Men Issue, No. 284, February 08]