Yohji Yamamoto’s work is beloved by all, infinitely influential, and yet difficult to dissect— where is the narrative? Not that there has to be one, but without a clear narrative, pulling apart exactly what makes each of his runway shows special, becomes more difficult. When he debuted in the ’70s, he created a bubble with his contemporary and later partner Rei Kawakubo, a power couple comprised of the two most important designers of the 20th century. Kawakubo’s all-black distressed clothes broke the mold of commercial ’80s fashions, with models that didn’t strut, instead gliding robotically along the catwalk. Since then, Kawakubo has ventured far from this starting point into other realms of wild anti-fashion, and Yamamoto has remained in his intense and dark comfort zone. I don’t use the term “comfort zone” pejoratively—his work, as I’ve hinted at, is consistently beautiful and emotive, masterfully tailored. But it’s hard to get a grasp on just what makes it so good.
Perhaps it’s strange to begin a critique of a work by announcing that the subject is impervious to analysis, but Yamamoto wants it that way. The aforementioned “anti-fashion” label is not stylistic, it is conceptual, as it denotes the author striving to work against trends. It’s a label that started when Yamamoto and Kawakubo began designing, except Kawakubo’s work usually has a storied theme, something to latch on to. Yamamoto purposefully leaves designs uncompleted. As he explained in an interview with The Talks, he leaves some “five, seven, or ten percent [which] we call empty or in between or uncompleted in Japanese,” clarifying that, “It’s when you go to shut a window or door and leave a space. We need this space, so I design space.” He’s referring to the Japanese concept of “Ma”; the transliterated definition would be “negative space,” which is both effective and destructive in its simplicity.
It’s easy to see how this might apply to painting or architecture, but the implications for fashion are more convoluted. Does this concept refer to the silhouette of the garment? Not really, as every other designer is also constantly working with silhouette. That “unfinished” quality of the garment? This would be slightly paradoxical, in the sense that the pieces are by definition “finished” in the hands of the consumer and are finished even by normative construction standards. To contrast, Kawakubo often leaves pieces categorically unfinished (by those same standards), though these do not fit into “Ma” terms because they are designed in such a way that they refer to the production process itself, in a very reflexive Martin Margiela kind of way. Their conclusion is explicit. Or is Ma perhaps an ideology that transcends the composed look, and instead moves the garment from the abstract runway into practical, wear-it-on-the-street terms? Therefore, it is not the space itself as it is directly represented, but the perception of space outside of the presentation.
Another way of thinking about his design ethic is as being viscerally self-evident. In the act of looking, it becomes understood. This conflicts with usual methods of analyzing fashion, since the typical method of doing so relies on literary-based techniques: deconstructing and comparing references, relying on show notes for elaboration and even thinking of each show as a narrative in the first place. For Yamamoto, each show is a variation on a theme, not a new concept. It’s always black and white, always an evolution in layering, texture, sculpture and drape, always strict and fierce and loving all at once. With his womenswear shows in particular, all he has ever wanted was for women to wear men’s clothes, and in doing so, to “protect the woman’s body from something – maybe from men’s eyes or a cold wind.” This collection exemplifies the latter sentiment, moving from thin white togas in the beginning to spiked black gowns with exposed and twisted copper crinolines jutting out, not only to designate the space around the woman as her own, but also included here as a reaction to the six feet’s worth of distance that we all hold around us nowadays. This protective and reactionary sentiment frequently reappears with the model wearing a single glove, horizontal belt loops placed twice along the upper body that constrain the wearer and sickly white lipstick that screams “don’t kiss me.”
The only complication with Yamamoto’s work is that you could probably take any of these looks and mix them with past collections, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to tell the difference, such that their intent is ultimately dependent on the time of their release. This is the best kind of complication, as it’s refreshing to see a show that isn’t codified, with a lot of his contemporaries making painful meaning in obvious ways. Examples of this include Jun Takahashi’s uncharacteristically terrible FW18 collection, as its shoehorned substance depended on awkwardly printed stills from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The same can be said of Raf Simons’ FW18, a lifeless collection propped up with two crutches: stills from the film “Christiane F.” and an obscure play about drugs. There’s a difference between making a reference by an intrinsic property of a garment—the crinoline, the glove, the spike—and copying and pasting your favorite movie onto a t-shirt. Maybe I’m contradicting myself, since a graphic is technically part of the garment; nonetheless, it feels cheap and lazy.
Which is why, even though there’s little to be teased out of Yamamoto’s SS21 Womenswear collection, one could never call it cheap or lazy. Just because a show doesn’t explode with hidden text doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable; in fact, I’d say that the lack of emphasis on fabricating narrative is a reflection of his rare approach to fashion, one that nearly leans into the stereotype of being an airy medium. Yamamoto’s creations exist to be gazed upon, appreciated for their superficial beauty and worn. That’s it. He emphasizes the act of wearing, not the act of storytelling. If I were to recommend a tactic for someone looking to understand Yamamoto, I would say to avoid understanding. Sit in silence with the images, and focus solely on the emotion that it may or may not produce. Relish in the absence of holistic purpose: the “Ma.”