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Y-3 AW17Photography Virginia Arcaro

Yohji Yamamoto on how not to be a fashion victim

The Y-3 designer discusses contemporary fashion and why following trends is deadly

Yohji Yamamoto stretches out his hands.

The legendary Japanese designer is sitting in a white-walled studio in Paris’s first arrondissement, having travelled from Tokyo to work on his two shows during men’s fashion week – one for his eponymous label, and the other for Y-3, the collaborative brand he’s worked on with adidas since 1999. Paris, of course, is the city on which he, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake descended at the start of the 1980s, disturbing its traditions and established hierarchy with clothes that defied conventions of construction, gender and taste. Together, the trio of Japanese avant-gardists wrote themselves into the history books, forging an entirely new future for fashion.

“The fashion business, it’s based on human fingers” – Yohji Yamamoto

But back to the hands. “The fashion business, it’s based on human fingers,” he says in his signature slow manner, flexing his own in front of him. He’s 73, dressed (unsurprisingly) in his own dark tailoring, and his nails are slightly blemished – likely the result of many, many decades of smoking. An ashtray sits on the table nearby. “In recent education at fashion school, they don’t teach the value of touch and smell. They just draw, and put something on a prototype body. They call it design, which I hate” – he emphasises the word sharply – “Really hate. You have to enjoy smelling the fabric, the touch of the fabric.” He smiles. “This industry is the final industry which is done by people’s hands, which I like. I’m still (focussed) on how to cut, how to express how movement is beautiful. It’s very important – all the design of clothes is in this.”

Considering the sheer modernity of some of Yamamoto’s designs, the idea of craftsmanship on such an intimate, old school level might be surprising. Where his own brand label has its roots in tailoring, Y-3 has always been about creating something new, a new synergy between high fashion and high tech, a new fusion of sportswear with Yamamoto’s own silhouettes. “Think about human beings,” the designer explains. “(When people of) very far blood get married together,” – he gestures again, this time stretching his arms far apart – “the baby takes the best part of the parents. We are doing something like that, something hybrid.” The partnership began when Yamamoto began to feel the limitations of his own area of fashion, and that his Paris collections were too far removed from the reality of how clothes were worn on the streets (a mentality it seems people are still catching up with). “I became very confined,” he says. “So I made a phone call directly to adidas.”

Since the first show in 2002, Y-3 has presented collections which have included both straight up sportswear and wildly technical and futuristic designs (shoes like the Qasa and Kohna, which look fit for a sci-fi adventure set in another century, for example). Yamamoto has worked closely with Nic Galway – now Vice President of Global Design adidas Originals and Style – since the very beginning, when Galway had just joined the company as a Sports Performance Designer. His background was actually in automotive design – which might go some way to explaining the brand’s high tech vision. “There’s a tension between adidas and Yohji Yamamoto because we’re different worlds, but I think it’s a creative tension, not a personal one,” Galway says, having taken a seat next to the designer. “It challenges us to think differently.” Together, they’ve created a brand for which innovation is paramount, and pioneered the idea of a high fashion trainer, something we take for granted today. “Without noticing, sneakers became a very important item for fashion,” Yamamoto says sagely – almost as if he had nothing to do with it.

Yamamoto’s reputation is as an intellectual designer, and no matter how technical his work gets, that idea of the human element persists. How do the clothes relate to the body, to movement, to living today? Take this week’s show, which explored the line between nature and technology. For AW17, Y-3 proposed the idea of a future world which had been reclaimed by the organic, with the runway cast in dappled light, a digital projection of a forest which swayed softly, stirred by an artificial breeze. With models layered up as if to survive in the wilderness, the clothes (some riddled with holes) morphed from black to dark green, before climaxing in a bright, leaf-like print. Look closer, however, and you noticed its surface was one of digital distortion rather than foliage. While SS17 was about a dystopian scientific future, this season seemed to question our frenzied technology obsession, imagining a time when the machines have been overthrown.

“Don’t be one of a group. Be yourself. Stay a little bit monotone – walk on our side of the street, don’t walk the mainstream of fashion. You’ll be polluted by trends” – Yohji Yamamoto

Dramatic? Perhaps, but the takeaway is that we’d all benefit from unplugging every once in awhile, from going back to doing things like we did before iPhones, tablets, computers. It’s a point of view which has influenced how adidas works. “If I think about who I was, or my team, as designers before we started working with Yohji,” Galway says, “We were pure sport industry. Today, if I look at my studio, it’s as Yohji says – we really encouraged people to use their hands again. Put the computer away, work differently.” And in a world where collaborations drop daily (with Vetements even doing a show in which every garment was the result of a partnership) the continued success of Y-3 lies in its championing of originality, its conscious resistance of trends. When more and more designers seem to be following the crowd in a bid to stay relevant, that’s exceedingly refreshing.  

To Yamamoto, dressing can be a source of real pleasure. “You can play with clothing to become somebody else, other people. It’s fun, it’s joyful,” he says. But, after almost fifty years in the industry, in which fast fashion has replaced craftsmanship, and globalisation has promoted homogenous idea of what’s ‘in’ across the planet, he’s come to have a critical distance from our cycle of trends. “Casual fashion became like garbage in the world. There are so many cheap, wasting fashions. Young people look so ugly.” How can you avoid becoming a fashion victim? “It’s quite easy: don’t copy your friend,” he enunciates. “Don’t be one of a group. Be yourself. Stay a little bit monotone – walk on our side of the street, don’t walk the mainstream of fashion. You’ll be polluted by trends.”

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