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Unpacking Kansai Yamamoto’s contribution to beauty

A visionary who seemed to have rainbows of colour shooting out from his eye sockets, we explore the Japanese designer's lasting impact on beauty

Before Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo there was Kansai Yamamoto, the often-overlooked Japanese fashion designer who was catapulted into the international spotlight when David Bowie wore one of his designs. You’ve seen it before: the flamboyant wide-legged, bulbous bodysuit, all black PVC and psychedelic stripes. Bowie’s fiery shock of red hair glows against his pale white skin, added to which was a golden circle painted smack-dab in the middle of his forehead. It’s as iconic as it is characteristic of Yamamoto’s work, which is marked by loud patterns, avant-garde styling, elaborate prints, bold hair and theatrical make-up. In fact, while much has been made of his contribution to fashion, Yamamoto’s mark on beauty has been greatly underestimated.

At the cutting-edge of contemporary Japanese fashion during the 1970s and 80s, Yamamoto is a unique figure in the industry. Not just because his work flipped a middle-finger at the conventions of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic – a typically simple and straight-laced style – but because his shows are entertainingly theatrical, featuring fashion, fireworks, dancing and an exhilarating take on beauty. Always pictured with a smile, he injects a sense of fun and play into everything, while poking his tongue out at the solemnity of his Japanese contemporaries.

“When I think of my shows, they are defined by colour,” he told Dazed in a 2013 interview. “Before I came to London in 1971, I spent time in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and was influenced by images of bright birds.”

Yamamoto’s first show in the capital saw him become the first Japanese designer to showcase his work on a London runway – whether the Brits were ready for him or not. Here was an individual, an eccentric, a visionary who seemed to have rainbows of colour shooting out from his eye sockets.

On the catwalk at this landmark show, models marched in black boots and heavily layered jackets. One beauty look featured panda-like red smears around the eyes on a strikingly pale white face, with dark hair tightly pinned back. Another – the most striking – featured a bright red wig, knee-length, again with a pale white face.  Bolts of red highlighted the model’s cheekbones, popping out at you along with the deep red lips and dark eye shadow. The outfits, meanwhile, were sculptural in their use of layers and vibrant kabuki faces, leading Harpers to dub Yamamoto “a fashion architect”. The show was an explosion of colour, and soon after, he became known for his avant-garde collections with flamboyant designs, like a wild pop art painting come to life.

Seeing this colourful splash from a distance, David Bowie was spellbound. Yamamoto – who was born in 1944 and originally studied civil engineering – first met the singer in 1973. In an interview with Fashion United, he explains that the musician had got hold of a few of his pieces after that first London show. Then Bowie’s producer invited Yamamoto to New York to discuss a collaboration. The result, of course, was the iconic bodysuit, perhaps Yamamoto’s best-known work, with Bowie’s red and white make-up echoing Yamamoto’s London show. It was one of many bold looks that Yamamoto cooked up for the singer during the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour and the heyday of his Ziggy Stardust alter ego.

Another iconic Yamamoto-Bowie look was the “Space Samurai” padded satin jumpsuit, worn again with his bright red mullet, lipstick to match, his face painted the colours of the Japanese flag. Futuristic and androgynous, it represented two qualities Yamamoto saw and admired in Bowie. “[He] has an unusual face,” Yamamoto said in 1973. “He’s neither a man nor a woman. There’s this aura of fantasy that surrounds him.” Of his approach for Bowie’s clothes, he said: “I approached Bowie’s clothes as if I was designing for a female.”

Yamamoto amped up his futuristic designs further for his spring/summer 1980 collection. In it, he had models trot down the catwalk wearing white helmets that were part Roman chariot warrior, part Cyclops from X-Men. For their make-up, visible on the lower half of their faces, electric blue marks ran from their ears toward their deep-red lips. To match, again in hues of the Japanese flag, they wore big red bracelets with long white skirts and shiny red belts. Others had beautifully sharp and angular eye shadow, visible under scuba goggles worn with headphones. Naturally, for an 80s show, the look was topped off with red and white shoulder pads.

Following the 80s, Yamamoto took a 20-year hiatus from fashion. In that time, he was involved in branding eyeglasses and fancy tableware. He also ventured into what he calls ‘super-shows’ – shows that incorporate dance, music, and acrobatics on an epic scale (in 1993 show at the Red Square in Moscow, he drew a crowd of 120,000 people). But inevitably, after two decades away from fashion, he found his way back, realising that he could combine his love of entertainment with fashion. In a 2013 comeback show in Tokyo, for example, he had martial artists in samurai outfits leap and air-chop their way across the stage.

Against this background of spectacle and eye-popping looks, his 2013 pairing with Lady Gaga, the princess of pop, makes total sense. She posted a snap of him, tweeting “Me and Kansai Yamamoto. He is a genius.” She’s pictured with her blonde hair pinned up, geisha-style, with gold and white tassels dangling by her temples. On her Japanese tour she wore her giant hairdo down, together with dresses featuring in-your-face patterns and bright colours of a toy store. Not since Bowie had Yamamoto been so perfectly matched with a performer. In fact, when Gaga did her Bowie tribute at the 2016 Grammys she had her make-up done in the style of Bowie’s red thunderbolt, painted across her right eye. She also wore a red and white cape made in collaboration with Yamamoto, who designed Bowie’s original.

In 2018 Yamamoto was part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Fashion in Motion' series that touched on his 40-year career. The most striking beauty look was perhaps a girl in a kimono with a kabuki face, her dark hair slicked back, her make-up featuring a thick black line painted vertically down the centre of her face, with a red line painted above her eyebrows that curved round her cheekbones. Other catwalk looks were laced with echoes of the past, with Hokusai-esque prints of crashing waves, worn by a model with heavy yellow and green eye shadow and huge, crystal-like shards attached to the back of her head.

Today Yamamoto’s legacy is as the Father of Basara, a Japanese concept that could loosely be described as a quirky more-is-more aesthetic. With its loud colours and garish patterns, Basara – roughly translating to “to dress freely” – flies in the face of the subtle minimalism you might associate with contemporary Japanese brands. In 2017, he created a Basara world for Louis Vuitton in which models donned silver sequined dresses emblazoned with huge red faces of cross-eyed Japanese men. Their hair was pale grey-green and slightly scraggy, like Mariette in Blade Runner 2049. Their eyebrows were smeared thickly with the same colour. Like a Picasso painting, the moment you set eyes on it you’d instantly know who created it.

Yamamoto's approach to beauty has been echoed far and wide today. You could draw a line between his in-your-face colours and Moschino’s loud artificial green and red make-up in their Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. You can also see his influence, as Grailed noted, in Alessandro Michele’s 2017 glitter bodysuits for Gucci, and Valentino’s Pre-Fall 2016 collection which contained references to Mount Fuji and models with hair pinned up like Japanese cyberpunks from the 90s. Whether it’s bold and brash colours, trippy prints, or throwbacks to collabs with Bowie (like Kate Moss shot in Bowie’s Kansai boots for British Vogue), the designer’s presence is everywhere, even if his name isn’t.

And yet, as strong as his trademark is, this hard-to-pin-down designer is so much more than a few colourful collections. He deserves attention today for many reasons – not just because he had fans in everyone from Elton John to Michael Jackson, not just because he dressed David Bowie, not because he somehow found time to star in movies like The Blue Light. But because he was ahead of his time, having showed in London an entire decade before his Japanese contemporaries, at a time when Japanese fashion was still fairly unknown in the West. He’s a true visionary who, at 75 years old, continues to put your own creative output to shame, as he plans to build on his elaborate music and performance shows in Europe, Asia and the States.

But perhaps the most inspiring thing about Yamamoto is the fact that, for him, fashion is more than mere garments. “I put all my time into creating a place where I can get in touch with people’s souls,” he said in 2016. “It is clear that I don’t want to live unnoticed.” As if that would ever happen. Never stop being you, Yamamoto.