Yohji Yamamoto Off the Cuff

The Japanese designer sat down for an interview with WWD at his headquarters in Tokyo just more than a week before his Paris runway show.

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Yohji Yamamoto

Photo By Tsukasa Nakagaw

Y-3 RTW Spring 2013

Photo By John Aquino

Y-3 RTW Spring 2013

Photo By John Aquino

TOKYO — Yohji Yamamoto doesn’t believe in runway rehearsals.

“I choose models, the models meet the clothing backstage, the very first moment. It’s a kind of love romance. She likes the clothes, the clothing likes her,” he reasoned during an interview at his headquarters here in a warehouse district on the southern side of the city, just more than a week before his Paris runway show today.

Known for his rebellious streak, the Japanese designer takes a similarly direct approach to conversation, speaking in English — highly unusual among the Tokyo design community. That doesn’t mean he’s not thoughtful — quite the contrary. He’s pensive and adept at punctuating answers to questions with pregnant pauses and the odd sideward glance — so much so that it can be tricky to discern whether he’s done with a response or still lingering in thought midreply.

Yamamoto doesn’t hold back on a broad range of subjects. He’s no fan of the fast-fashion industry, for instance, nor what he sees as younger generations’ overreliance on Internet technology. He’s philosophical on Japan and China’s need to work together despite current political tensions, critical of Japan’s failure to fully atone for wartime aggressions, and he bemoans a lack of leadership in his country and its failure to embrace English as the international language of business.

And for those wondering, the 68-year-old designer doesn’t picture himself retiring anytime soon. He would prefer to drop dead while on the job. “My ideal feeling is that I suddenly fall down [while] I’m making clothing,” he quipped.

One of fashion’s most intriguing and influential figures, Yamamoto admits he’s not an astute businessman. His company filed for bankruptcy protection back in 2009 before Japan’s Integral Corp. took control of the fashion house. Yamamoto said he’s happy to have complete freedom to design, but he’s also quick to point out he doesn’t exactly consider himself a hired hand.

“If I stop designing, this company loses value. It becomes nothing,” he said, shortly before donning a navy Borsalino fedora and posing for a portrait while smoking a Hi-Lite, a retro Japanese brand of cigarette popular with gentlemen of a certain age.

The designer offered little in the way of explanation about the inspiration or message behind his spring show in Paris — or of his Y-3 show in New York earlier this month, which was the 10th anniversary of the brand — but did a drop a few clues about his mind-set this season, namely his prime ambition to challenge himself.

RELATED STORY: Y-3 RTW Spring 2013 >>

“Each time I’m trying my new invention, testing how far I’m creating. This is the challenge. So I can easily make mistakes. I don’t want to sit on the established style, the Yohji Yamamoto style, and make the same collection each season for continually 20 years. I want to break myself,” he said, adding that he could care less whether the majority of his audience really gets what he is trying to say.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Maybe 2 or 3 percent of the audience could understand what I am meaning…more than 85 to 88 percent of people don’t understand, but I don’t care.”

Here, Yamamoto’s thoughts.

WWD: After your Y-3 10th anniversary show in New York, you said that “in the world right now, fashion is s--t.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
Yohji Yamamoto:
Let me talk like an old man. Young people, be careful. Beautiful things are disappearing every day. Be careful.…You don’t need to be [shopping at fast-fashion stores], especially young people. They are beautiful naturally, because they are young. So they should even wear simple jeans and a T-shirt. It’s enough. Don’t be too much fashionable.…The brand advertising is making you crazy. You don’t need to be too sexy. You are sexy enough.

WWD: How are you finding life, working as a designer under your fashion house’s new owners, Integral Corp.?
Being a designer, it became easier mentally, because the business part became very strong. So I don’t need to take care about business like before.

WWD: So you feel more freedom to just concentrate on designing?
Concentrate, yeah, for creativity.

WWD: But is Integral pressuring you in any way to be creative in a certain way that makes commercial sense for them?
I’ve got total freedom. If I feel [like I’m in a] cage, I’m a little bird in the cage, I would quit.

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