A yen for Yohji
When first Issey Miyake, then Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons showed in Paris in the early 1980s, the sensation they caused was quite amazing. Their clothes seemed to be the opposite of dress-making. Miyake was making living geometry, not frocks; Kawakubo's designs were frayed, deconstructed; while Yamamoto's were described by one critic as being "like leftover scraps from an atomic blast [and] call to mind the end of the world".
Dubbed "Hiroshima Chic", this Japanese "invasion" was greeted with equal measures of love and hate. Loved by intellectuals, architects, artists, it was a welcome antidote to the prevailing mores of Power-Suiting and high, high heels. Brenda Polan, then fashion editor of the Guardian recalled that Yamamoto's designs "raised all sorts of questions about conventional beauty, elegance and sexuality".
As the 1980s wore on, however, Yamamoto et al seemed a little irrelevant. The shock had worn off. They'd made their point, we got it, and now it was time to move on. The Belgian school was on hand to adopt the mantle of conceptual dressing, and that appeared to be the end of it. Phaidon's Fashion Book, published in 1998, describes Yamamoto as "legendary", a word that damns with faint praise in an industry that thrives on newness and re-invention. Yet it was in 98 1998 that Yamamoto was re-crowned King of the Catwalks. Perhaps it is our increasingly educated eyes that allow us to see Yamamoto not as an avant-garde artist - although undoubtedly he is - but as a warm and clever human, designing warm, clever and beautiful clothing. Perhaps "BeyondFashion", goes in cycles in the same way that regular fashion does, and it was just a matter of time before Yamamoto's work was re-assessed.
His triumphal return isn't just about rediscovery, though. It is also due to a new levity in his work, a playfulness that was lacking in earlier collections. In Wim s Wenders's documentary, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, Yamamoto says: "I don't trust the future. I cannot make a commitment to tomorrow." Nine years later in an interview with Vogue, he described the slump between 89 and 97 1989 and 1997 as being an unhappy time "and I suppose I wanted to make ugly things". Die-hard fans probably wouldn't use the word "ugly", but they might concede "difficult". Like the makers of Persian carpets who weave a tiny error into each piece, Yamamoto believes that if you are a human being, you cannot make perfection. His clothes have always been edgy, imperfect, but are now sexier and more feminine; more accessible than has been the case previously.
The past few seasons have been unanimously praised. His 1997 spring/summer collection was a homage to s 1950s Dior and Chanel, and effectively trounced Galliano's slavish copies. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reinterpretation is surely a more honest response: more true to the spirits of Dior or Chanel, who were after all, Moderns. Yamamoto's twisted asymmetric interpretations of old standards were surprising, colourful, romantic and fresh.
This season's collection is deceptively simple, consisting of two different but complementary silhouettes. One is a sort of orphaned New Look. While the bottom half is all fluidity and grace, tops are generally cut close to the body with shrunken sleeves and, despite the occasional smattering of embroidery, have an in-built raggedness, an unfinished quality to them. The alternate look consisted of vaguely s-1930s-style karate pants, loose tunics and dresses in drapey, slithery black satins.
Now, thanks to Nicky Creedon, owner and manger of Havana in Donnybrook, we can expect to see Yamamoto's trademark asymmetry and gentle flaws on these shores for the first time.
Yamamoto's influence can be seen this year in collections as diverse as Nicole Fahri and Calvin Klein, who have both experimented with a form of draping now commonly referred to as Japanese. Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani attended his show. One could argue that without the Yamamoto/Miyake/Kawakubo legacy, the newer generation of designers, Chalayan, Shelley Fox, Olivier Theyskens could not exist. Even Galliano's controversial Hobo Chic collection for Dior this year can trace its lineage back to early Yamamoto. But it is perhaps the sight of normally jaded fashion writers struggling to capture something ephemeral that most reveals the esteem in which Yamamoto is held. Armand Limnander, writing for Vogue.com, referred to him as a master of nuance. His collection this season has variously been described as lyrical, elegant, sinuous, poetic and, of course, that fashion fall-back: fabulous.
I cannot claim to be immune to the hyperbole myself. His spring/summer collection reminded me of William Norwich's epilogue to the 1997 book What Is Beauty?: "A rose is a rose is a rose until you see it fade. Summer is all beach traffic and heat until you feel the first chill of Fall. And these notions about beauty - that beauty results from your loss and desire? Nothing new, nothing new at all. You forget, and then you remember, and call it beauty."
Except that Yamamoto's clothes are not about loss, they are about finding something. They are about those moments, equally as fleeting, when you see beauty in something that hasn't yet happened. The first burst of cherry blossom, for instance, when all else is grey. Something transient, loaded with promise. He says: "I think people like my clothes when they have questions - a sense of doubt. They may want to find something else that interests them. That's when they may be drawn to my clothes. I want my designs to be like a person's face. People's faces change every day. What I am trying to create is something that is alive with human beings."
Yohji Yamamoto spring/summer collection, from Havana, 68 Donnybrook, Dublin 4, is available from March 20th 00.