What makes a Yohji Yamamoto summer season? Absence of socks. An open collar exposing neck. Visible toes too, in a glimpsed sandal made, tellingly, like a blown-out leather shoe. In a show of mostly black tailoring, including wool jackets and overcoats, these are minor seasonal cues evident only to the initiated, the converted, the already incarcerated. A school child bolted to a desk noticing with the turn in weather a schoolmaster’s unfamiliar tie.
And there is a drowsy school day afternoon’s familiarity to these pieces. An opening tailoring lesson is a pageant of the label’s evergreen standards: black suits with fitted breast and embellished shoulder (strap, contrasting material) widening to a just overlong hem meeting beautifully draped baggy trousers. Second, a review lesson on print. A series of hazily figurative drawings blown up against an eerie green background, others disarmingly pair theatrical blood reds with corpse greys. These bruised renderings, applied to soft yet structured leisure suits, recollect aged, no longer distinct tattooing. Yamamoto’s conception of beauty is of colour, figuration and form in the process of becoming or unravelling. It is a dialectic of gestation and decay. The beautiful adolescent, stealing around to a loading dock where perfect cheeks concave greedily around a cigarette.
Another revisited lesson is Yamamoto’s brilliance with the men’s collar. The designer’s career could profitably be reduced to a study of his collars. In this show we have a simple silk/viscose elegantly parted to reveal neck; endlessly foldable high collars which permit the wearer any number of sober, extravagant, and ornamental flourishes; a soft, almost Elizabethan standup collar like an aged garden border; and a series of incandescent indigo contrasting collars paired with black fabric. There is in this diversity alone, in these closures, the germ of dozens of fashion careers.
Finally, these themes are combined to produce the most covetable looks of the collection. For example, a long beautifully collared heavy blue coat in silk with asymmetrical fan skirt. A sportier look combines those gooey art colours with patches of contrasting solid colored fabric. Elsewhere a striped black and white jacket and parachute pant combination suggests animal hides or a vintage automobile seat. Elegant, beautifully cut and as formal (or not) as one likes.
Fashion today reflects our present age of “resistance.” Faced with unwonted legacies of supremacy and underrepresentation, American fashion media has promoted new, diverse, and historically excluded personalities and narratives. These efforts are evident from marketing to staffing, including, and especially, the models in our lookbooks. And yet, still we have just a handful of signature “super” models, and still, they are siblings. This is the product of an industry’s collective corporate strategy for global and social change: a hungover boardroom’s approval for a charity measure.
Meanwhile, Yohji Yamamoto, an old punker making self-plagiarising clothes in runway shows which appear at first glance so similar that this reviewer supposed the video stream to have accidentally presented archival footage. What on earth could a stubbornly unchanging designer have to say to us now, when our futures depend on a radicalism of consumer novelty?
A great deal, it would appear, given the evidence of this runway show. Continuing a look from the previous men’s season, the models appear para, sub, or just-post human, with greyed hair frozen askew, the just distressed fabrics those of a Georgian era bohemian after a night under a bridge or a zombie’s debut. There is in this play with the down-and-out nothing new. But in that unique way of a solitary artist of genius, uninflected by the tides of commercial and political pressures, Yamamoto’s doggedly individual vision offers infinitely more hope for a human future than the gestures to sustainability from other fashion houses, which offer a dry collective vision in the service of private profit.
The inspiration is most evident in the construction of the show itself. The models are the first indication of a radical rethinking (though for artists of Yamamoto’s quality these are always and forever an initial step, an original orientation that never fades. Audiences are simply obliged in the course of the years to catch up to it) of the runway. They represent a remarkable diversity, from the young and beautifully jawed to, in a most successful departure, a series of non-traditionally aged models, these a roll call of influential Japanese film and television stars. Stepping on the runway these actors were met with eager applause.
As they proceeded in their circuit they halted to leer with confusion or unfriendly recognition at the audience before proceeding to a camera at the end of the runway where, staring menacingly into its lens, they offered us at home a similarly intimidating assessment. This interactive element is surprisingly powerful. The actors provide an additional dimension for the show’s message, one necessarily absent from a traditional model’s medium of clothes and make-up. Stopped mid-walk, these swaggering (or swaying) men transform a linear runway route into a global stage, in the process creating a community: of fans, of the suspicious, or the besotted. For what is more tempting than the image of the gangster or dandified thug, represented here in white, Prohibition-era suiting with matching tie? We are reminded of a young adolescent’s first play at dissent by wearing a coat on a summer’s day. Likewise the gangster takes strength from eschewing seasonal dress. Contemporary of course, too, is a series of suits of varying levels of distress and fit, a gesture to past eras of hope and extreme privation: the American Depression; urban blacks photographed in suits during the Great Migration; Southern sharecroppers in sturdy overalls.
Yamamoto’s preoccupation with individual resistance and freedom insists on the importance of self-cultivation and study, on the deep countercultural research of the uncool youth who develops a provisional position before stepping into the world. On the street they are prepared to recognize and embrace others, just as these models, worse-for-wear from some experience, make a connection with the audience, a naked gaze of appeal which no PR department’s set of values could possibly inspire.