Yohji Yamamoto at the V & A

Yohji Yamamoto’s retrospective at the V&A is the first major UK solo exhibition of this enigmatic designer, following a furore of recent interest in the influence of Japanese fashion, notably the Barbican’s fantastic ‘Future Beauty’ in which Yamamoto featured prominently.
Exploring Yamamoto’s substantial contribution to the aesthetic of the Asian Avant-garde, the V&A’s exhibition charts thirty years of his prolific career. A controversial figure since he first opened in Paris in 1981, Yamamoto is  recognised for challenging the conventions of fashion, both with innovative asymmetric cuts and unfinished edges (although these are often attributed to embodying elements of the traditional Japanese philosophies of wabi-sabi, the adherence to imperfection) and countering gender stereotypes.
Indeed, Yamamoto’s work is wonderfully androgynous. He gained notoriety for presenting his 1998 Autumn/Winter menswear collection entirely on female models, including Vivienne Westwood and Charlotte Rampling, and then five years later famously showing an entire menswear collection without a single pair of trousers, each model wearing instead a version of skirt, kaftan or kilt. This exhibition, the first ever to include his menswear, seems keen to emphasise the way he plays with gender in his designs.

Designed by Yamamoto’s long-time collaborator, scenegrapher and lighting designer Madao Nihei, the installation-based curation comprises of a single room main space;  transformed into an industrial showroom, replete with scaffolding and bright halogen lights showcasing over 60 pieces, as well as complimentaryexhibits throughout the museum and further satellite events at the Wapping project sites.
A multimedia timeline of reproduced catalogues, soundtracks, photographs and video archives including interviews, behind the scenes and catwalk footage and choronologcail documents his work from his inspirations to his background to his infamous collaborations, providing a fanastic contextualisation for the garments on display.
The eye level mannequins displaying Yamamoto’s creations generate an ambience of accessibility despite the labelling being as enigmatic as the designer himself, named only numerically with no explanatory signs. Items are arranged thematically, informally grouped to display the key attributes of the designer’s work since he graduated from Keio University in Tokyo in 1966. With space enough to allow visitors to walk through them, this encourages visitors to inspect the intricacies of the designs closely for themselves; unusually visitors are even permitted to touch the fabrics, although this is perhaps not surprising considering that fabric design and manufacture is central to Yamamoto’s design practice and often considered the trademark of his work.

Despite his signature black being a prominent theme, show pieces provide splashes of colour  – such as a stunning yellow, strapless, silk dress with matching oversized hat and a red dress in wool felt with a crinoline skirt; perhaps symbolic of his colourful career.
Nevertheless, in the attempt to emphasise the designer as forward-thinking and progressive, the wear-ability for which Yamamoto is equally famous is lost in this exhibition, (menswear wise – think relaxed black suits, sharp shirts and loose fitting, but crisply cut white tees).  That said, the drama makes an impact, mirroring the impact Yamamoto has had on the industry as a whole . The exhibition feels fresh and dynamic, perfectly capturing Yamamoto’s dynamism.
As simple in its approach as you would expect from a designer famed for his minimalism the exhibition, too, is just as effective. Catch it at the V&A until 10th July.

Categories: Artist Focus

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