yohji yamamoto holon museum
The lower gallery of the Holon Design Museum hosts 38 mannequins dressed in a variety of Yamamoto designs. Photo by David Sarna Galdi
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About a month ago, hundreds of guests crowded in the lower gallery of the Design Museum in Holon among 38 mannequins draped in colorful fabrics in a variety of styles, waiting for renowned Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. Some of those present spoke of Yamamoto with the bright eyes and enthusiasm reserved for living legends. But their luminescence darkened when they learned that the guest of honor would not be arriving. He had canceled at the last minute.

The weekend prior, Yamamoto had been in Paris, presenting his collection of men’s wear for the spring/summer 2013 season. He bowed out of his visit to Israel citing exhaustion, which, though vague and unoriginal, only added to the aura of mystery that surrounds him.

All well-known fashion designers cultivate an image or personality to complement their clothes. For Karl Lagerfeld, it is a sharp eccentricity. For Alber Elbaz, it is the human touch, which reminds us time and again that behind the most magnificent, magical gown lies a living, beating heart.

For Yamamoto, it is mystery. The monumental simplicity of his work, the dominance of the color black, the blurring of gender lines, and the deconstruction of accepted design principles have won him many admirers. But the exoticism and enigmatic nature of Japanese culture in Western eyes are still major factors in his appeal.

Yamamoto does not help to dispel this enigma. Always clad in dark clothing and topped off with a hat, the usually silent 69-year-old appears closed-in, providing cryptic explanations for the traumas that formed his unique sensitivity and the effect constructs an aura of myth around him. Just as his restrained sense of drama allows him to give a unique and sophisticated take on ordinary Western clothing like the black suit and white shirt, his withdrawn presence nurtures his contemplative legacy, if it can be called that.

The exhibition at the Design Museum as a whole and the 38 samples in the entrance hall in particular, which draw from 30 years of creation, attempt to portray a different side of Yamamoto, whose work is on view d in Israel for the first time.

“It’s not the Yohji that we have come to expect, with his black clothing and dramatic statements to the media,” says Galit Gaon, the chief curator of the museum, “but rather the man who is used to working with color and creating for people.”

A major concept of the exhibition, which informed its planning and construction, is exploring the gap between Yamamoto as a myth and the actual display of his clothing. The acknowledgment of this tension is vital to understanding the exhibition, largely because the show offers no other explanation for his work.

Gaon, who curated the exhibition with Masao Nihei, a fashion-show producer and designer of Yamamoto’s exhibitions, says that initially the museum considered staging a comprehensive historical overview of his work. But that idea was nixed early on due to the large scope and complexity of Yamamoto’s body of work.

Yamamoto himself chose to include a small number of designs in the exhibition. In an interview with Haaretz over email, he said that his original plan had been to put a single gown in the upper gallery.

“Does an exhibition need to show many works because the space is large? Should creation be judged by number?” he asked. As enigmatic as ever, he called the 38 samples in the lower gallery “flowers crazily blooming in the flowerbed.”

Asked whether the exhibition was meant to evoke Tokyo, the landscape of his childhood, Yamamoto at first said none of his work can be linked to a particular place but then qualified his statement.

“Unconscious as I am, I wonder whether the landscape was rooted in my born-and-bred experience in Tokyo,” he said.

Bomb and revolution

Yamamoto’s wartime childhood is important in understanding the process of his work. He grew up in Tokyo in the shadow of World War II. His father, who had been drafted to the army, was killed in the line of duty. In “Notebook on Cities and Clothes,” a documentary about him by the acclaimed director Wim Wenders, which is being screened at the exhibition, Yamamoto says of his father, “He went against his will. When I think of my father, I realize that the war is still raging inside me.”

The title of his autobiography, “My Dear Bomb” (2010), reflects the anger that is the motivating force behind his desire to create. He sees black, his preferred color, as a non-color that focuses attention on the garment’s cut. But black was also the color that surrounded him as a child, when his father died. Shortly after graduating law school, he had to go into fashion in order to help his mother, a seamstress, manage the family business. According to him, the post-war food shortage is responsible for his small size, which he compensates for by creating garments that are large and loosely cut.

Yamamoto established his fashion house, Y’s Company Ltd., in 1972, but the first collection to bear his name wasn’t presented in Paris until 1981. Together with his partner at the time, Rei Kawakubo, the young Yamamoto took Paris by storm and caused a fashion revolution among the French elite. He cast aside basic Western fashion fundamentals such as separation by gender and the exposure of the body, offering instead innovative patterns that rejected close-fitting cuts and presented a more abstract relationship with the body.

In the exhibition catalogue, Dr. Shoshana Rose Marzel explains that the roots of his style go back to the mid-14th century, when the West adopted the idea of replacing a garment because styles had changed, rather than discarding it because it had become faded, torn or otherwise unwearable. Since non-Western cultures did not adopt this idea, their fashions remained stable for centuries. In addition to playing with this concept, Yamamoto’s sizing was unusual as well. At the beginning of his career, the Japanese women who wore his black, draping creations were called “crows.”

In the years after he broke into the international fashion scene, and after a critic called his collection “post-Hiroshima chic,” Yamamoto continued to challenge the fashion establishment. He inaugurated new concepts of beauty, blurred gender distinctions by dressing women in trousers, suits or military-style dresses, and men in elegant skirts resembling caftans.

In the cult-classic film “9½ Weeks” (1986), Mickey Rourke takes Kim Bassinger to a dimly lit boutique in New York and buys her a Yamamoto tailored black blazer, pencil skirt and man’s white button-down shirt. The designer’s well-known tendency toward discretion and his avoidance of what he calls “doll-like” femininity perfectly embodied the mix of power and sensuality at the core of the film.  

Yamamoto’s approach was quickly accepted as an alternative to the prevailing language of Western fashion. Yamamoto’s own attitude has softened somewhat, but he continues to cater to women and men uninterested in displaying wealth, power or bourgeois status in their fashion. Yamamoto’s garments aim to please the wearer rather than the observer. They draw attention to the wearer’s face, which is the real catalyst for sexual temptation.

The experience of loss

In addition to the display of garments in the lower gallery, with its army of mannequins and a soft, truncated soundtrack, the exhibition is divided between two other major spaces.

The projects room is dedicated to tailored men’s suits; the upper gallery hosts a modest selection of women’s gowns, most of them red, in red lighting. The entire exhibition was conceived and designed to create an experience of the senses. In the modest projects room, for example, the viewer is led into an interrupted event. All the mannequins stand with their backs toward the entrance. To make one’s way to the center, a visitor must walk slowly among the models. This slow progression forces the visitor to look closely at the details. But that is not the sole purpose of the room’s design. It represents the designer’s yearning to slow time. It also highlights one of the most important aspects of his work: the view of the back.

“When we talk about Japanese style,” Yamamoto says, “we cannot miss the concept called ‘loss.’ For example, after big celebrations, usually there are fans and bottles left on the road. When we see this kind of scene, we realize that the celebrations have come to an end. An emotion of loss will arise. When I see a woman walk toward me, I will feel like escaping. Meanwhile, when I see a woman walk away, I will feel the sense of loss and will have the desire to chase after her. For me, a woman walking away is more charming than walking toward me. Therefore, I always begin my design process from the back. After finishing the back, then I will start thinking about the front look. This order is my way of design. Women’s backs reveal their sexuality perfectly.”

The items in the exhibition are not displayed in chronological order, and their selection reflects Yamamoto’s desire that his garments should be worn for at least a decade. In 2003, during a conversation with the art critic and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, he asked that people not treat his creations as consumer items with a limited shelf-life.

Shelf-life, and the shelf itself, are daunting things for Yamamoto, who is wary of arranging exhibition space as if staging a clearance sale. Since, as he says, clothing cannot express the full intention behind its creation, the gap must be filled in the creation of space.

“Exhibition or, in other words, space creation, is totally different from fashion or… clothes-making,” he says. “Clothes-making is about making things. However, space creation is not only about making some form, but creating situations… If someone only focuses on how to show things, no matter how hard he tries, the exhibition will not work. Space creation aims at ‘how to exit’ rather than ‘how to show.’”

Despite all these fine-tuned definitions, the exhibition suffers from a major problem. It does not succeed in conveying how important Yamamoto is in the fashion world. In fact, the exhibition does not even hint at his importance. The viewer sees only items of varying degrees of beauty, but does not understand the design principles that guide the designer in his work or the milestones of his process – such as, for example, his rejection of the forceful clothing styles of the late 1980s and the glorification of men’s work clothes – or the influence that he had on a new generation of designers.

Why were these specific items chosen for the exhibition? What aspects of Yamamoto’s work do they seek to illustrate? These are only a few of the questions that are not dealt with sufficiently. Even a more fundamental issue, such as the reason for Yamamoto’s greatness in the world of fashion, remains unanswered, and the myth around him is presented to the viewer as an accomplished fact. The high regard that Yamamoto receives today, which stems from the fact that he is a wizard of time, receives no expression in the exhibition.

Thus in a certain sense, this is not a fashion exhibition, but rather an artist’s exhibition. It does not elevate Yamamoto’s work to the status of an art form, but rather elevates his image. For many, Yamamoto is a legend, but because of that, only few people try to understand his influence on high-end fashion.

This approach is evident in the texts that accompany the exhibition, from Gaon’s introduction, to the catalogue, to two other pieces – one, an article by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, editor of Vestoj, describing Yohji as a magician, and the catalogue foreword by Ron Arad, who recounts his experience designing Yamamoto’s flagship store in Tokyo, describing him as the ideal client.

Illustrations such as these are vital for the general public. But they are also important for Yamamoto’s admirers who lack familiarity with his work, even if only because it has been a long time since it caused a lot of commotion. In response, Gaon says that the exhibition’s purpose is to stimulate the viewer to continue studying the designer and his work.

“To understand, one must read and deepen one’s knowledge. An exhibition is not a book,” she says. “The exhibition should give you the feeling that you are standing in front of something significant, and make you want to read more about it.”

But because there’s such a large gap between local appreciation for Yamamoto and the lack of basic information needed to understand his work, one might fear that the exhibition could be taken as a splendid exercise in ambiguity.

In the absence of information that could arouse the viewer’s curiosity, the experience of viewing the exhibition might only confuse and frustrate those not in on the secret.

Yamamoto himself believes that of all the exhibitions dedicated to his work, this one gives him the freest expression.

“Design Museum Holon is not a boutique,” he says. “Therefore, we hope visitors can view all the clothes as a whole group. Although this exhibition includes three spaces, it does not necessarily mean that every space is detached from others. It is like Mr. Yamamoto’s encephalain the skull made by Ron Arad [who designed the museum]. One can take every space as a part of the encephala. How about naming the lower gallery as ‘cerebrum,’ upper gallery as ‘cerebellum’ and project room as ‘medulla oblongata’?”

Yohji Yamamoto at Design Museum Holon. Design Museum Holon, 8 Pinhas Eilon Street, Holon. Until October 20, 2012.