Yohji Yamamoto Restrospective at the V&A
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FEELING THE FLOW OF YAMAMOTO
March 14, 2011
LONDON — Yohji Yamamoto is a man of many design facets — but few words. So when he spoke at the opening of his retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum last week, his main message was: “Happy birthday to my mother.”
A design by Yohji Yamamoto at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London
This was, of course, before the earthquake and tsunami devastated his country. Fumi Yamamoto, the designer’s mother, had come from Japan and was in London in person and on film in the multimedia timeline that enriches the display of 60 outfits, shown in stark white lighting against industrial metal scaffolding. As well as his training at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, Mr. Yamamoto had learned to tailor and drape from his seamstress mother.
The clothes, representing 30 years since the Japanese designer’s shows first came to Paris, are on display against a backdrop of white walls, with sketches of nude females, mostly from behind, drawn by the designer. The most striking thing about the exhibition (which runs until July 10) is that nothing is behind glass and each outfit can be touched and stroked, underlining the belief of the curator Ligaya Salazar that “fabric is everything.”
Well, not quite everything. A turquoise dress — one that fits so eloquently with Mr. Yamamoto’s signature hats — is visually striking even before you know it was made partly from Neoprene. That information comes from studying a floor plan list, since the pieces are not set out chronologically. That reflects the curator’s knowledge that Mr. Yamamoto wants his clothes to be worn for at least 10 years, so dates themselves are not significant.
But fashion shows that had a particular resonance are shown on the timeline screens: the inflated wedding dress, work with the modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch or the 1998 men’s collection with famous women from Charlotte Rampling to Vivienne Westwood as models.
The exhibit has quite a focus on menswear, starting with a velvet suit in an Art Nouveau print as an homage to the V&A. Powerful as bright plaids might be, there does not seem much point in displaying masculine designs without drawing some conclusion about Mr. Yamamoto’s gender play with women’s clothes.
Mr. Yamamoto, born in 1943, offers in the accompanying catalog a simple but quite aggressive message about the men’s clothes. “I was born in a very bad moment in Japan,” he said. “There was no food to feed babies, so my generation of people are very small. So naturally I am angry about my size, so I design big sizes.”
There is no reference in the show to Mr. Yamamoto’s Japanese peers. Much as he might wish not to be bundled into a group, a museum’s place is to inform and put an artist’s work in context. How many visitors will know that Issey Miyake has also worked intensively with classic Japanese and hyper-modern fabrics? Or that Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons was equally significant in producing asymmetric and “black crow” clothes that challenged the status quo?
As in the exhibition held in 2005 at Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Mr. Yamamoto comes out as a classicist rather than an iconoclast. And so he is. There is a gentility to much of the work, with a deliberate embrace of haute couture in the houndstooth tweed Edwardian suit from a 2003 homage to Christian Dior.
The advantage of seeing the clothes up close is to appreciate the workmanship of a “simple” asymmetric drawstring dress, with the designer’s signature way of leaving space between body and garment. Ms. Salazar has grouped some of the clothes in conversation: for example, as a dialogue between different dresses made with shibori and yuzen Japanese dyeing techniques.
With concentrated effort, a visitor could select a dress — say, a red asymmetric crinoline — and then find it in movement in its original fashion show on one of the many consoles on the time-line wall.
These visual collaborations include images from the designer’s photographer Max Vadukul through Paolo Roversi to Nick Knight, as well as the influence of the art director Marc Ascoli. The message conveyed is how much these artistic people helped to develop the Yohji Yamamoto image of feminism fused with romantic yearning.
There are also two other Yamamoto projects in London, as well as a new flagship Y-3 store on Conduit Street celebrating the designer’s longstanding collaboration with the sports giant Adidas.
In South London, there is an exhibition of photographs of “Yohji’s Women” (until May 14) at the Wapping Project Bankside Galleries, while the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station has the famous 1998 crinoline wedding dress suspended over water (until July 14).
The V&A also has more than the bold display by Mr. Yamamoto’s longtime collaborator, the scenographer Masao Nihei. Dotted across the museum, in “conversation” groupings with other artifacts, there are three of the designer’s men’s outfits among classic statues in the sculpture gallery; or red garments set against the intense richness of 15th-century hunting tapestries.
But the most beautiful combination is of a 19th-century piano, ornate with marquetry, and an apparently simple white dress made for Pina Bausch, shown rippling in folds from the back.
As Mr. Yamamoto defines his approach: “With my eyes turned to the past, I walk backwards into the future.”
Metal teeth of carousels.
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