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M/M Paris x Yohji Yamamoto
Yohji Yamamoto AW00 cataloguePhotography Craig McDean, styling Alex White

Behind Yohji Yamamoto’s most iconic images

Fashion’s favourite art directors M/M (Paris) collaborated with the designer throughout the 1990s – one half of the duo reveals the story of their work together

In one image, all American girl Maggie Rizer steps out of a giant box that looks like a door to another world, a rocky beach devoid of colour. In another, decade-defining model of the 90s Amber Valletta frowns towards the camera, crinkled paper covering her face like a DIY superhero mask. These playfully surreal photographs are the work of art director duo M/M (Paris), created for Yohji Yamamoto in a collaboration that spanned several years in the late 1990s. The duo that make up M/M – Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag – were tasked with the realisation of the Japanese designer’s catalogues, publications released every six months that interpreted a collection conceptually, counteracting the flatness of runway photography. 

Taking their cue from what they saw Yamamoto representing for the world of fashion (in Augustyniak’s words, an approach “more like an art historian” that was “post-modern – looking at the history of fashion and combining all different kinds of influences”), they teamed up with photographers including Craig McDean, David Sims, Inez and Vinoodh and Paolo Roversi to translate the atmosphere of a collection into vibrant and unexpected new forms.

To celebrate the opening of Yohji Yamamoto: SHOWSPACE at Live Archives, we asked Mathias Augustyniak to tell the story of how M/M (Paris) created some of Yohji Yamamoto’s most iconic images.

WIM WENDERS SPARKED THEIR INTEREST IN YAMAMOTO

It was Notebook on Cities and Clothes, the 1989 documentary on Yamamoto directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders that first piqued the duo’s interest in the Japanese designer. “In college, when we were studying, Yohji Yamamoto had a really big influence because he had commissioned Wim Wenders maybe three years before to shoot a movie about his work,” explains Augustyniak. “For us students, it was one of the first movies that was contemporary to our generation that was done about fashion. There are really very few movies about fashion, and fewer that are interesting, but this was one of them.”

THEY MADE HIM RETHINK DAVID SIMS

After M/M (Paris) were first suggested by fellow art director Marc Ascoli to work with Yamamoto for the AW95 catalogue, they decided to go in a different direction to the designer’s past work. “The decision we made with Marc was to hire a completely new photographer for Yamamoto at the time, which was David Sims,” says Augustyniak – thus giving the photographer his first major job with a renowned fashion brand. “David Sims had shot things before for him, but they never used the images – I don’t think it was in tune with what Yamamoto was then; it was too grunge. When we worked with him it was a way to shake up the whole thing up, just wipe down the palette and start with a new approach, a youthful energy.”

YAMAMOTO LET THEM DO THEIR OWN THING

Yamamoto’s approach to the catalogues was laissez-faire – he invited the duo to a show, they soaked everything in and then went away and got to work, creating a proposal that was flown to him in Tokyo. “The clever side of Yohji was that, instead of being hands on like fashion designers nowadays, he was more like an art director overlooking things,” says Augustyniak. “When, after he made the decision to commission us, he was very trusting. That is why it was such a brilliant field of creative exploration – there were no other mediums that would let you translate what we saw on the catwalk with a publication. Also, there were no parameters of what the catalogue should sell: bags, a specific piece of clothing… it was more of a way to just archive the works of the master in itself.”

“When we worked with David Sims it was a way to shake up the whole thing up. Just wipe down the palette and start with a new approach, a youthful energy” – Mathias Augustyniak

THE MODELS WERE CHOSEN VERY CAREFULLY

Augustyniak and Amzalag were given full creative control – and that extended to the selection of models too. While “models who had previously worked with Yohji were more like this weird type of beauty, or had more of a character,” they decided to do the unexpected when it came to casting. “The idea was to bring in a more classical beauty that you would expect from a commercial brand, but make people understand that behind this there is some character. There was Maggie Rizer, who was becoming a rising model, and then when we were working with Craig McDean we specifically chose Amber Valletta. The collection was based on Native Americans, so we were saying: ‘Okay let’s cast a iconic American model’. The casting was very important in the message we were sending.”

YAMAMOTO’S WEDDING DRESSES INSPIRED THEIR SIGNATURE TECHNIQUE

M/M (Paris) have become known for their dessin dans l’image technique, where a photograph is transformed with illustrations. This was something that began with Yamamoto for SS99 – his iconic wedding collection. “The collection was kind of an exception to what he had been doing – if you see him as an artist constructing a stream of creation, suddenly out of this stream came this collection of wedding dresses. That, for us, was mind-blowing – it was like a master class in fashion,” recalls Augustyniak. “Which is why we came up with a new approach; we thought we needed to introduce something else onto the pictures. We needed to depict the unseen, something that dealt with the psychology of the woman – the thing that you can’t say, the thing that the photograph can’t represent. It was a good time to introduce a layer of drawings on the top to the images we were creating, which then would be describing the subconscious of the image somehow.”

“We needed to depict the unseen, something that dealt with the psychology of the woman – the thing that you can’t say, the thing that the photograph can’t represent” – Mathias Augustyniak

THEY GATHERED ALL THE WORK INTO ONE FINAL BOOK

In 2001, as a way to mark a self-referential collection by Yamamoto, M/M decided to collate their work together into one last publication. “We realised that not everyone had seen these images, so decided it would be great to publish a little book that would be called Rewind/Forward, collecting all the images that we produced for Yohji Yamamoto. That was a very peculiar side of this project – it’s rare in fashion that there is this continuity and that you are able to write a story, because fashion is about changing every six months. The idea was to close this project six years after by publishing a catalogue that would be a story for all the images that we were doing for this brand.” 

Yohji Yamamoto: SHOWSPACE runs until August 8 at Live Archives, 81 Mare St London

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