Yohji Yamamoto’s signature style makes you stop, blink owlishly and ask yourself the question: is he kidding? His clothes often look over-sized. Seams are flagrantly exposed. And flaps of quilted or felt fabric that would look more at home in Heal’s than in a prêt a porter collection, look tacked on by safety pins. You turn up to a menswear line (like Fall 1998, modelled by Vivienne Westwood and Charlotte Rampling, amongst others), there isn’t a man in sight on the catwalk, and the female models are wearing flat Japanese shoes, long skinny skirts and swathes of chiffon. So, is he kidding? A little, yes. Is he ever serious? Yes, probably. In a kooky, ironic, finger-at-the-establishment, po.mo. kind of way, he is poking fun at the deadly seriousness with which the fashion world treats clothes, collections and bodies. Well, maybe. No one really knows.
Following hot on the heels of the Barbican’s Future Beauty, the Victoria and Albert’s retrospective of Yamamoto’s career spans thirty years, and mixes standard issue mannequin displays, with multimedia installations that tell you about Yamamoto’s life and work, and show the timeline of his collections. Peppered throughout the museum are further displays that share secret liaisons with the museum’s more traditional exhibits, from Trajan’s Column to Rodin’s writhing sculptures. In the main exhibition hall (which is for some reason lit and heated like a furnace) a quilted and be-furred Victorian-style jacket and long skirt nestles close to a sumptuously simple asymmetric red felt dress sewn together in skewed blocks. A gray-and-red chequered, two-tiered dress stands next to a canary-yellow frothy confection, shaded by a hat the size of
. The gray-and-red strapless dress could be a mad person’s take on a business suit, but features instead in Yamamoto’s 1998 Sp/Su wedding collection called Playing with Tradition, where models walk with eye-popping solemnity down the aisle in their lampshade dresses, holding foamy bouquets made of net, quirking an eyebrow at the stereotypical sentimentality of wedding rituals. Honduras
in 1943, Yamamoto lost his father in the war, and grew up with his widowed mother, which some critics like to link to his penchant for using the deepest, darkest of blacks for his collections, ironically referred to as “post-Hiroshima” chic. He completed a law degree, then switched his attention to the fashion world, and launched his fashion label Y’s in the 1970s. He quickly became notorious for making garments that looked oversized and unfinished, and that too in the 1980s when everyone else was having an orgy with undersized Lycra. Over the years he has collaborated with filmmaker Takeshi Kitano and photographer Wim Wenders. Pina Bausch’s dancers wore Yamamoto’s clothes for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dance company, and Yamamoto appeared on stage in a rare appearance as a karate aficionado. Both Bausch and Yamamoto’s work is inspired by the harmony between what should and should not be seen. Keeping with the wabi-sabi theme of his life and work, his company was declared bankrupt in 2009, a detail that the V and A exhibition chooses not to harp on. Tokyo
Yamamoto is a designer whose clothes are often admired for two things. For being sensationally wearable (like his 2002 collaboration with Adidas to launch the Y-3 line), and intensely avant garde. The V and A collection is an effervescent selection of Yamamoto’s life and work, but it tries hard to highlight the deconstruction and theatricality of his clothes, often at the cost of the starkness of his style. It tries so much to be full of what Levi-Strauss would call “floating signifiers,” the glam and pastiche of post-modern clothing, and the lavishness of Yamamoto’s disregard for the fashion establishment, that it gives the retrospective a slightly un-tethered, pupils-dilated, frenzied look.Read short review on London Festival Fringe. Longer article coming up in Radia magazine. http://www.londonfestivalfringe.com/indexposttag.php?slug=amita-murray
Exhibition, Till July 10, 2011, V and A