There’s a darkness inside designer Yohji Yamamoto that radiates in the aesthetics of his clothing. Whether it’s crafting billowing womenswear that lacks the usual cheerfulness of spring blooms that other labels favor, or its unveiling Y-3 SPORT’s take on versatile and agile sportswear, many assume that his now signature “all-black everything” is the byproduct of form rather than feeling.
“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time,” he has said in the past. “Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious. But above all black says this: ‘I don’t bother you – don’t bother me.'”
Yamamoto is correct in his assertion that a black color palette can evoke both aggression and submission. Wearers can stand out like drops of paint on a blank, white canvas, or disappear into an oil drum. And perhaps above all else, his affinity for its usage seems to come from a personal tragedy that shapes him to this day.
Yohji Yamamoto was born an only-child in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo in 1943 to a mother who was a dressmaker and a father who worked in the restaurant business. At the time, World War II had been an active conflict for two years. In the Soviet Union, the Battle of Stalingrad had just come to an end, German forces liquidated the Jewish ghetto in Kraków, and Japanese aircraft again bombed Darwin, Australia.
Like other nations who were involved in the war, Japan decreed that all males at age 20 had to register for two years of service and remain in reserve status, subject to recall, until 40.
In a four-year period between 1941-1945, the size of the Japanese armed forces grew from 1.7 million to 5.5 million men as soldiers fanned out to regions like Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and British Malaya.
Fumio Yamamoto, Yohji’s father, was one of the millions of men who was drafted into Imperial service to fight against the Allies.
“He went against his will,” Yamamoto recalled in the 1989 documentary film, Notebook on Cities and Clothes. “When I think of my father, I realize that the war is still raging inside me.”
The very nature of Fumio’s death is still shrouded in mystery to this day. Although a 1982 profile on him stated that his father “died of undetermined causes on a transport ship en route to the Philippines,” Yamamoto’s own recollection is slightly different.
In his 2011 book, My Dear Bomb, Yamamoto wrote, “I remember that at some point after I entered elementary school, I think, my mother held a funeral for my father in spite of the fact that none of his remains had been returned to us. ‘Died in the line of duty during fierce fighting in the mountainous region east of Baguio, Philippines,’ said the notification of death. His remains have yet to come home.”
Yamamoto’s formative years ultimately shaped how he viewed the world – absorbing the ravages of war-like grief, starvation and despair – and ultimately interpreting them as commonplace as if buttons on a shirt.
“When I was three years old, four years old, I knew already that life must be very tough,” Yamamoto said. “I had to fight. I had to protect my mother.”
According to The Telegraph, after her husband’s death, Yamamoto’s mother, Fumi, learned to sew at the Bunka Fashion College and ran a dressmaker’s shop in what her son describes as the ‘seedy Kabukicho area’ of Shinjuku in Tokyo.
The trade was particularly buoyed by women who had lost spouses in the War and needed to provide for their families on their own. By 1955, Japan was home to some 2,700 dressmaking schools, up from 400 just eight years earlier.
Although Fumi excelled in her trade making dresses and designs with European influences, her husband’s death and the events of the war forced her to revert to foraging in the countryside for food to provide for her and her son.
“I grew up after the second world war, the only son of a war widow,” Yamamoto recalled. “This pushed me to see society through my mother’s eyes. I believe that seeing the world through a woman’s eyes was my destiny and enabled me to do what I do.”
According to the 1982 profile, Yohji was 12 when his mother transferred him from public school to the Ecole de L’Etoile du Matin (School of the Morning Star), an exclusive French Catholic school near the Imperial Palace where he would ultimately meet his future business partner, Goi Hayashi.
“I nearly became a lawyer but I decided I really wanted to help my mother with her dressmaking business,” Yamamoto recalled. “My mother reacted angrily when I told her. She said: ‘If you really want to help me, you must go to dressmaking school.’ And so I did.”
In his early 20s, Yohji Yamamoto began his career after earning a degree from Bunka Fashion College in 1969 – an institution that not only layed the foundation for his mother’s profession, but also cultivated and instructed the likes of Jun Takahashi, Junya Watanabe and NIGO as well.
“At the very beginning, I just wanted women in men’s style,” Yamamoto told The New York Times. “Typically Japanese women were wearing imported and very feminine things and I didn’t like it. I jumped on the idea of designing coats for women. It meant something for me — the idea of a coat guarding a home, hiding the woman’s body. Maybe I liked imagining what is inside.”
It seems clear that Yamamoto’s earliest visions for how women should carry themselves in Post-War Japan reflected a certain need for “masculine armor” given the over 2 million military casualties the country suffered. Rather than repeat the floral, European-style ensembles that reflected a cheery and hopeful future that his mother had been making, Yamamoto’s monochromatic designs told the story of children who were forced to see their mothers as both nurturers and disciplinarians.
Many journalists kept saying, “Yohji, why are you making such dirty clothing?” He remarked about his distressed and often black pieces. “But I was seriously thinking that those are beautiful compared to the established style of garment from other famous designers at the time. ‘Dirty is good.'”
While one can look at a Yohji Yamamoto collection and think “more black?,” it’s hard to fault his usage given his own personal history.
“She wore nothing but black mourning clothes and I would watch as the hem of her skirt fluttered,” he said.
Although he would never have to fight a literal war of his own, Yamamoto has prepared every day of his life like it was a possibility.
“My role in all of this is very simple,” he said. “I make clothing like armor. My clothing protects you from unwelcome eyes.”
- featured/main image: Nicolas Guerin