Review by Tiffany Jow, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.
These days, it’s trendy to pay respect to Japanese fashion within an exhibition context. Last autumn, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York’s Japanese Fashion Now highlighted the region’s radical contemporary tendencies, while the Barbican’s recently closed Future Beauty surveyed the country’s fashion history from the 1980s to present. The pantheon of designers is as expected: Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, Takado Kenzo, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto are consistently embraced as group, effectively merging their individual talent into a single aesthetic intended to be representative of Asian avant-garde design.
The Victoria and Albert Museum responds to the grouping with its current offering, Yohji Yamamoto, the UK’s first major retrospective to focus solely on the Tokyo-born enigma. Designed by Yamamoto’s long-time collaborator Masao Nehei, the V&A’s Gallery 38 is transformed into a brightly lit industrial showroom, featuring vignettes of mannequins juxtaposed with video footage of runway shows, short films and interviews. Profoundly influential and tastefully provocative, the multi-talented designer used fashion to challenge conventions, defying expectations with his unwavering avant-gardism as expressed in collaborations with Wim Wenders, Pina Bausch and Takeshi Kitano.
Through a throng of multimedia, the exhibition explains Yamamoto’s career chronologically. Viewers learn of his mother, a seamstress, and his decision to leave a career in law for fashion. Following the debut of his women’s label in 1977, he and friend Rei Kawakubo show in Paris only to be met with hostility, epitomized in a WWD spread where photographs from their collections were loftily crossed out. Yamamoto’s innovation prevails, demonstrated by his work for the Bayreuth Festival’s Tristan and Isolde (1993), modern dancer Pina Bausch (1998) and his seasonal catalogues, in which he and art director Marc Ascoli evoked the feel of a collection rather than merely depicting each new look. The user-accessible look book showcased in the exhibition could easily be mistaken for a magazine.
Yamamoto’s hallmark themes of countering stereotypes and indulging in the androgynous lay bare in video footage of past collections. His fall 1998 Male/Female show comprised a menswear collection modelled by females, including Vivienne Westwood and Charlotte Rampling, while his spring line investigated tradition and rituals involved in marriage. Titled Playing with Tradition, the designer put his brides in geometric suits, sandal-like flats, oversized headgear and multi-layered gowns, which models theatrically dropped in pieces to the ground to reveal form-fitting evening ensembles. For his July 2002 collection, near the end of haute couture week in Paris, Yamamoto presented his ready-to-wear collection that would normally be shown in October in response to a press remark about the ‘couture-ness’ of his work, and the following season presented Men in Skirts, a menswear collection where trousers were obsolete.
Viewers can see looks from the videos across the room, where groups of Yamomoto-clad mannequins stand at eye level separated by the theme of their design. The craftsmanship, expert tailoring and couture influences of Dior and Balenciaga are made apparent by the intimate encounter the arrangement provides, which is curated in such a way as to show that black was not the only colour in the designer’s repertoire. Rich textiles and exotic fabrics, moulded and draped as they are, comprise creations that walk the line between fashion and sculpture.
The exhibition strives for a positive portrayal of the designer, editing out his declaration of bankruptcy in October 2009 (a Japanese company is currently working with Yohji Yamamoto Inc. to aid in its resurrection and resolve debt). Further, the looks on view are consistently extreme, standing in stark opposition to the fitted black suits and white t-shirts Yamamoto is known for. His work’s wearability is lost in the attempt to characterize the designer as a forward-thinking avant gardian. Surprisingly, the execution of the show’s design, with its messy wall painting job, blaring spotlights and hand-drawn ‘sketches’ on the walls, led to an overall unfinished quality of the presentation. Yet somehow, this ultimately mattered little. Once immersed in the wonder of Yamamoto’s world, his powerful genius speaks for itself.
Yohji Yamamoto continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 10 July 2011. For more information, please visit www.vam.ac.uk
Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London