Tender Buttons

Yohji Yamamoto: My Dear Bomb BY edited. Ludion. Paperback, 192 pages. $45.
Yohji Yamamoto BY Ligaya Salazar. V & A Publishing. Hardcover, 192 pages. $60.

The cover of Yohji Yamamoto: My Dear Bomb The cover of Yohji Yamamoto

One might expect a fashion designer—that creature specially adapted to the vainest of industries, and, next to perhaps film production, the industry with the fuzziest math—to avoid mentioning a bankruptcy whenever possible. Diane von Furstenberg gets cagey when asked about her tour of duty on QVC after her dress line went bust, and Roberto Cavalli cried when he had to announce the cancellation of his Just Cavalli line after the licensee folded. Not Yohji Yamamoto. The Japanese designer mentions his bankruptcy on the first page of his memoir, My Dear Bomb, reprinting a letter of condolence from his friend Wim Wenders. “I went through the same thing a while ago myself, losing the rights to all the films I have produced to date,” writes Wenders, “including Notebook on Cities and Clothes, that adventure we shared. Anyway, that’s life, I guess.”

How, exactly, the acclaimed avant-garde fashion house Yohji Yamamoto Inc. accumulated debts of sixty-seven-million dollars against annual sales of eighty million in the winter of 2009 is not really the story of Yamamoto’s book so much as its situation. What unfolds is more a meditation on the uneasy coexistence of creative and commercial concerns. My Dear Bomb is composed of a series of brief reflections on Yamamoto’s childhood in postwar Tokyo, his relationships with women, how he wants to die (at an advanced age, at his desk), and his feelings about buttons. “One dons a jacket and buttons it,” Yamamoto writes. “The relative weight of the jacket gathers at precisely that point. . . . The life—or death—of a garment depends on finding the point of rapture for that button.” These texts are interspersed with lyrics, sketches, artifacts like Wenders’s letter, and essays from other contributors, including the fashion critic Irène Silvagni, who writes about Yamamoto’s Paris runway shows, and the author Seigow Matsuoka, who assesses Yamamoto as a Japanese artist—and describes his own experience of modeling in a Yamamoto menswear show.

Yamamoto was born in Tokyo in 1943. The son of a seamstress and an Imperial Army conscript whose remains were never found, Yamamoto spent the 1960s obtaining a law degree and then studying fashion design. He worked in his mother’s shop, which she sold in 1972 to fund the launch of her son’s business. The effect of Yamamoto’s first Paris show in 1981 on the wider industry can hardly be overstated. Although a handful of Japanese designers, including Kenzo Takada and Hanae Mori, had been working in Paris in the 1970s, their aesthetics were less alien to prevailing European tastes than was Yamamoto’s. Though his approach to design is fundamentally romantic, Yamamoto has always favored asymmetrical cuts, undone hems and seams sewn facing outward, and fits that swoop away from the wearer’s body. He has dressed men in soft, unlined suits with trousers so wide they are practically culottes and put women in dresses made out of felt as thick and stiff as carpet underlay.

Wim Wenders and Yohji Yamamoto, 1989.
Wim Wenders and Yohji Yamamoto, 1989.

That such elements as deconstruction, asymmetry, androgyny, and lots and lots of black are now fashion commonplaces is testament to the extraordinary influence of Yamamoto—and of Rei Kawakubo, whose Comme des Garçons label made its Paris debut that same season in 1981 (Yamamoto and Kawakubo were romantically involved at the time). This impact is one reason why Yamamoto is the subject of a major retrospective this spring at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “It was like I was reading an entirely new sort of book,” writes Silvagni of that show thirty years ago. “It felt like everything else in the history of fashion just didn’t matter anymore.”

In Japanese, the space between the body and the cloth is known as ma, and the consideration of ma is as much a part of fashion design in Japan as the consideration of white space is a part of poetry. “It’s about how to put air between cloth and body,” Yamamoto says of his work. But he also resists the press’s efforts to classify him by national origin. (After a Yamamoto show in Paris, critics derided his aesthetic as “Hiroshima chic,” and Le Figaro asked, “Is there a ‘yellow peril’ on the horizon?”) Matsuoka writes, “In the fifty years since the end of the war most of the top Japanese designers . . . have vehemently objected when foreigners label their work ‘Japanese.’ I imagine they react negatively because they think the label is based on some superficial understanding of the nature of Japan. Ironically, none of those designers . . . has ever stopped to consider what lurks deep within this Japan.” Despite the fact that Yamamoto has voiced precisely those kinds of objections, Matsuoka holds the designer distinct from this group. He sees in Yamamoto’s work—particularly in his use of color—the influence of Oribe pottery and of the Edo-period polymath designer Kobori Enshu , as well as of Westerners like Wenders and Andrei Tarkovsky.

It is interesting that for a man who creates clothing that aggressively undermines the idea of gender, Yamamoto comes across as unusually invested in his own very traditional masculinity. He drinks—especially whiskey—and writes a lot about drinking, and bonding with other men while drinking. He smokes. (“Ah, nothing better than the first smoke in the morning!”) He gambles. He has observed many differences between men and women. (“A man cannot accept anything that surpasses him.”) He plays music and has released three rock albums in his native country. (His lyrics are interspersed throughout My Dear Bomb.) And he has a black belt in karate.

But perhaps it takes a man who is in touch with certain clichés of manliness to intuit that, to many women, contending with heterosexual male desire in public space is a real imposition, and that clothing can be a kind of armor. “My starting point was that I wanted to protect a human’s body,” Yamamoto explains to the curator Ligaya Salazar in the monograph produced for the Victoria and Albert exhibit, which also includes insightful critical essays and interviews with several of Yamamoto’s longtime collaborators, including the photographer Nick Knight. “This is about sexuality, about protecting it.”

And then there is sex itself. Yamamoto has led a libertine and unabashed sex life, and he recounts it with frankness. (There is one memorable passage where he describes in an offhand kind of way the circumstances of his teenage son’s conception. First, you see, Yamamoto had to end things with “each and every other woman I had been seeing.” He adds, “They all readily agreed.”) What he doesn’t mention is his relationship with Kawakubo, which endured into the 1990s. Nor does he write of his older children, Yuji and the designer Limi Yamamoto, who were the products of an early, also unmentioned, marriage.

When Yamamoto wades into philosophy, he can sound a little like a dramatic freshman who has just been deeply impressed by The Republic—or maybe like Renton in Trainspotting, mocking those squares who choose a life, a career, and a fucking big television. “It requires an extraordinary spiritual strength to live one’s life grappling with the most fundamental questions,” Yamamoto laments. “The creation of a single garment is accompanied by all sorts of pain and suffering.” It’s funny that a man who conceives of himself as such an outsider in the fashion industry—and who, in many ways, actually is—in this instance echoes the industry-authorized way of conceptualizing the work of the designer: that is, as the beleaguered, solitary artist who is made to suffer for his creativity. What this conception misses is that fashion design is a team sport—creative directors at large brands oversee dozens of full-time designers and pattern makers—and that people who don’t work in fashion probably roll their eyes when men like Yamamoto call their work “Hell,” as he has in interviews.

But when Yamamoto begins to talk about his work with more specificity and less grandiosity—finding that exactly correct place for a button or pondering what sets Comme des Garçons’ and Sonia Rykiel’s necklines apart from those of other designers—My Dear Bomb sings. Here he is, on setting the sleeve:

The shapes of the human shoulder are as numerous as the types of faces. Ready-to-wear clothing must somehow squeeze them all into a single appealing form. . . . Attaching the sleeves is like working with fixed verse poetry, from within the infinite possibilities there is only one option that is just right. Find it and use it.

“One should think,” he concludes “of the slope of the shoulder, the armhole, and the peak of the shoulder as three lovers destined to remain locked in a tumultuous relationship.” There is also a brief, fascinating digression about the impact of military history on sleeve design. (Raglan sleeves were named for a British general who lost an arm at Waterloo. Trench coats possess the advantage of having no seam on top of the shoulder, which increases water resistance.)

Yamamoto referred in a recent interview to My Dear Bomb as “half creation, half truth.” It is rarely clear which half is which. And although Yamamoto does not conceal or downplay his financial distress, this is a book in which the urge to know what came next for his business is more honored in the breach. As it happens, following the bankruptcy filing, Yamamoto’s thirty-year-old company was acquired by the Japanese private-equity fund Integral Corp., leaving Yamamoto only a minority stake. He remains creative director of the company, for now.

Few designers today approach each new garment as a problem to be solved from first principles, as Yamamoto does; in truth, few ever have. It has always been easier to choose some references, dash off a few doodles inspired by such-and-such time period, pick among the Pantones forecast to be hot next season, and get the samples sewn up in a lower-wage economy. Like all members of the avant-garde, Yamamoto isn’t so much influential in the sense that others copy his creations, as they do a Balenciaga handbag, as he is useful because he enlarges our conception of what’s possible in fashion. “As I watch the fashion scene . . . today it strikes me that there is no place for me,” writes Yamamoto, who is now sixty-seven. “And I often feel like retreating.” When he does, our creative world will get a lot smaller.

Jenna Sauers is a writer in New York who blogs for Jezebel.