It’s more than 30 years since Yohji Yamamoto debuted his eponymous line in Paris and turned fashion upside-down with his voluminous, deconstructed tailoring and dark poetry, but the enigmatic Japanese designer continues to amaze and surprise. When Selfridges asked Yamamoto to design a skateboard for their spring 2014 Board Room concept store, he answered with a deck that breathes new life into the iconography of the human skull, using profile x-rays of his own skull done years ago which were then traced meticulously by hand.
It was a natural design process that tied in with his AW14 menswear, where drawings of Yamamoto’s skull adorn suits as bearded and long-haired versions emulating his own look, intertwined with bright red and yellow roses. We spoke to the 70-year-old designer about the introspective efforts of skateboarding, what role the street plays in his work and being a rebel to the core, and we also caught up with Tadashi Kubo, his right-hand man and head of planning and design, to get the inside details on how the skull motif came to life.
What did you feel like when you saw the x-ray images of your skull?
Yohji Yamamoto: Nothing much, but I thought my skull looked pretty handsome actually.
What was the process of designing the board like?
Tadashi Kubo: I was just having a chat with Yohji about various things, like we always do. Actually, a lot of our inspiration comes from those everyday conversations. At that time, we were talking about how tough it was for him to endure the pressure of what people would expect after he’s retired. Obviously, his name will be carried on, maybe just as a brand or a company name, but Yohji once said in another interview that he wasn’t like all the other long-established European family businesses that keep on going for generations. But that he was just a Japanese designer who happened to have a worldwide reputation. In a way, even after he will be gone and he will no longer design his own collections, he will somehow still be working, or existing as a symbol, a residual image. His spirit and soul will keep on being solicited in many ways. That is precisely where the whole idea came from. To represent Yohji as a living skull, still working hard, down to the bone!
What does the skull represent to you as a motif?
Yohji Yamamoto: I always thought it was tacky and blunt to think of the skull as a symbol or an emblem. After all, every human body incarnates an entire skeleton. It is western Christian culture that established the existing image of the skull as one of the symbolic representations of death or evil. I didn’t want to give it that usual ghoulish impression. I wanted it to be somehow expressive, possibly comical and lovable.
Have you tried out your skull skateboard? Or ever skateboarded?
Yohji Yamamoto: No, but I can’t wait to see it. And no, I have never skateboarded in my entire life. I don’t think I should start at my age – I could hurt myself.
What do you think of skate culture?
Yohji Yamamoto: I know there’s something anti-conformity in skate culture, some rebellious spirit. Just like surfing. Except you don’t surf on waves but you skate on hard cement. And I feel skateboarding is also about attaining the ultimate by improving your skills and techniques, and that process should necessarily involve an introspective effort.
Do you look to the street in your work?
Yohji Yamamoto: My work gets finalised when someone wears it in the 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. I like it when clothes are anonymous – not remembering what clothes the person was wearing when you pass by each other. I don’t create clothes to disturb people’s eyes. I always think about the city as a canvas for my collections. I don’t think the Yohji wardrobe is made to be worn in any countryside environment, but mostly urban places. The ideal for me would be that people wear only uniforms in big cities. That’d be so nice. But then, 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.
Is there anything that bores you about fashion right now?
Yohji Yamamoto: Even in Japan today, it is all about fast fashion. In a word, it is about how cheap you can go. A very consumptive fashion is overrunning the markets, while designers’ fashion gradually declines. Department stores are also having difficult times. These are facts. Young designers in Japan are losing their jobs. They used to get together and co-organise group showrooms in Paris to take orders from international buyers. But after the Lehman shock, it became really tough for them. The department stores in Japan have almost no interest in supporting them, and other multi-brand shops keep on promoting and prioritising the big European names. And on top of that, they pinch a large percentage from the sales. Then, we have to pay our rents and keep the production running with what’s left. It is obvious that young designers cannot survive that kind of situation. There was a time when fashion was really fun, to the point that people could spend all of their money on designer clothes, but living in tiny studio apartments without any bathtubs...
The word ‘rebellious’ often comes up in relation to your work. Do you consider yourself a rebel?
Yohji Yamamoto: I feel very grateful that you say so. But I guess the world is on the verge of a turning point, where many of the pre-established values are being questioned and re-evaluated. More and more people are being mindful of the origin and the manufactural context of the products they’re purchasing. That’s a natural tendency, and also necessary in a world where productive efficiency has become essential for competitiveness and market globalisation. I guess it’s just that people find that same essence in my creations – a very sceptical spirit, constantly questioning yourself and the things around you. Everything ends as soon as you sit back and rest on your laurels. For me it is natural for an artist and creator to go against the stream. Otherwise, I don’t know what is fun about it anymore. A heretic attitude has been my unchanging stance since I first started in Paris, and I will be living it out until the end. But at 47 or 48, when I looked around and realised I was considered a ‘maestro’, my rebellion became legitimate, and that somehow made me lose my vigour. Then, I needed to look for a new way to rebel again! ‘C’mon guys, even an old chap like me still gets his hustle on!’ That’s the message I want to deliver.
An edited version of this interview appears in the Dazed & Selfridges Board Games magazine, out now.