Yohji Yamamoto Is Living on His Own Terms

Louise Desnos/Agence VU for The Washington Post
Designer Yohji Yamamoto in Paris on Oct. 1.

At 80, fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto still chain-smokes, still dreams of gangsters and cowboys, still gambles like there’s no tomorrow.

“Marlon Brando! I loved him,” he says. He loves “The Godfather.” He grew up loving American movies and Hollywood stars. “I respected Clint Eastwood for a long time. I respected him.” But then he heard he was a gun enthusiast. “I hate him. Then I decided I’m done with him. He is tall and a very beautiful face for a man, but a gun club – I can’t accept.”

To relax, he gambles. A lot. “Because the job itself is a gamble. Ready-to-wear business is a gamble. You have to pay everything before you put anything into the shop. It’s a big gamble. So naturally, I started to like gambling.” He sometimes goes to Monaco or Cannes after a show to blow off steam.

Is he lucky? “I became strong.”

At one point, we’ve been talking for nearly 40 minutes and he’s smoked three cigarettes. He opens the package (Hi-Lite cigarettes, he smokes two packs a day) and glances up. “May I smoke?”

Billy Wilder couldn’t direct a better scene.

After 51 years in business, the name Yohji Yamamoto stands for humor, finesse and a wild pursuit of originality. His definition of beauty is like no one else’s – he seeks imperfection and obsessively tailors and cuts to hide the human body.

“The people who admire Yohji are a very, very specific group of people, and they have very specific taste,” says Max Vadukul, the black-and-white fashion photographer who has worked with the designer for more than 40 years. “You have to be quite bold and know yourself to wear it.”

This fall, he opened his first shop in the United States since his SoHo store closed more than a decade ago. His new space is around the corner, a slender hall with enormous windows facing Wooster Street, which make the shoppers inside look as if they’re part of some European avant-garde movie about shopping in the rugged metropolis.

On Wednesday evening, the brand celebrated the opening with a party, and the room was filled with fanatics in their all-black ensembles – layers of painstakingly cut black jackets, coats and pants, some with the tiniest hint of color. His customers are more like practitioners, layering themselves up in these plain but complicated clothes.

At the end of the evening, each attendee was given a rose dipped in black paint.

“I think he’s now, more than ever, highly, highly admired and respected for just doing what he does,” Vadukul says.

Yohji-san, as he prefers to be called, is a rapscallion. He’s a flirt. Mischievous and sophisticated but funny. A naughty dude. Refining and elevating his language year after year, questions of trends and relevance are beneath him. His spirit and creations celebrate ambiguity, contemplation and a passion for what seems niche or anti-establishment. And what is establishment in today’s world is what’s obvious, corporate and self-serious.

Sitting in a room in his Marais atelier with a defiantly sloped ceiling that feels like a medieval town hall’s secret keep, a few days after his Spring 2024 women’s show in October, he talks about his one true love.

“First of all, I have to say, I love women.” And because he loves women, he doesn’t like to emphasize the body. “I hide.” But he noticed, when he was in Paris for his men’s show in June, how many women were exposing their bodies, dressing with a new kind of freedom. So he decided to show a little skin, putting laces in his clothes and exposing midriffs under waistcoats and sheer paneling.

Yohji-san loves black, and wears nothing else. “Maybe blue jeans. That’s it. Never color,” he says. Today, he wears a black T-shirt, a black button-up, a black waistcoat and a black jacket with his sleeves rolled up. And his Borsalino hat – the brand sends him one every year. “So, I have many.”

Jonas Gustavsson for The Washington Post
Yohji-san’s Spring 2024 collection was like a seance with his couture forebears.

A fashion designer usually works to produce new feelings and designs, heaving themselves toward relevance through shapes and fabrics. Yohji-san has a different measure of success: He wants to make things more difficult for himself each season. He calls ready-to-wear “broken,” and thinks made-to-order clothes are more compelling. And like a couturier of the golden ages of the 1930s or 1950s, his clothes are experiments in tailoring, attempts to stretch the limits of cloth and imagination.

He often looks to previous designers – most recently, to Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga, all masters of the black dress – not to copy them or siphon off their glamour, but to converse with them, somehow. The final seven looks of the Spring show were a series of black dresses, which unfolded like a seance with those designers’ ideas about elegance and sensuality.

You can see in those garments why Yohji-san was a favorite designer of the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, whose subdued and cerebral style is the subject of a recently released book by fashion journalist Sunita Kumar Nair and has regained relevance as a source of inspiration for influencers and fashion designers. She wore his designs almost exclusively for the last three years of her life. “She adored his designs – how they fit her with the intricate detailed construction, and more importantly, how they made her feel,” Kumar Nair writes. “She wore what she chose to wear; no one ever told her what to do, especially at this point in her life.”

For designers who want to avoid the big machine of fashion, he is an icon, a testament to the pleasures of going your own way.

Kiko Kostadinov, a London-based Bulgarian designer with an acclaimed line of men’s and women’s clothes, has more than 200 Yohji Yamamoto ensembles in his archive. The level of the construction of the clothes is extraordinary, Kostadinov says – “there are so many pieces where you think, ‘This is Savile Row-level'” – but it’s also this relationship he has to the designers who came before him. “When you look at these OG designers, you think they work from blank paper,” he says. But they were looking obsessively at their forebears for new ways to interpret the language of fashion. “He was learning and he was pushing his language to another perspective. And the fact that he managed to make it his own without being so obvious is quite interesting for me.”

Perhaps his closest competitor and friend in fashion was Azzedine Alaïa, who died in 2017. “Only Azzedine’s designs I can touch.” It was like a friendly competition – who could turn out the best new dress? “I never touch another designer’s outfit. But Azzedine’s, I touched, because I wanted to check. We were so close,” Yohji-san says.

Yohji-san’s mind moves like no one else’s. He goes on tangents like a dare. “I was born in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is the most . . . bad taste town. So from when I was a little kid, I was ready to fight. I never lost a street fight.” He smiles. Is he proud? “I’m not proud. I’m just angry.”

As a young man, he moved through the streets hunting for violence, once wandering around swinging a baseball bat. He ended up hitting an American soldier. “He was holding his head like this” – he puts his forearms over his head – “and his face became red. But he didn’t attack me. So I said, ‘I like American people.'” He cackles.

His obsession is imperfection. Imbalance. Most designers are maniacal about the right shape, the correct thread. The social media picture-perfect version that looks like your clothes aren’t for living in, but for preening. Yohji-san has developed a definition of what’s beautiful that’s his and his alone – that your clothes protect you, sure, but in doing so, they hint at the soul within and insist on your humanness. You’re not a god or goddess.

When he arrived in Paris in 1981, people had no clue what to make of him – Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan’s Dior and Claude Montana, with their tightly tailored European swagger and socialite fangirls, were the toast of the town. Critics dismissed him and Rei Kawakubo, the Comme des Garcons designer who also arrived in Paris during that time, as “Hiroshima chic.”

Still, he remembers stepping off the train, smelling the Gauloises cigarettes. “So strong. And at the same time, people are talking so loud,” he recalls. “But I felt, ‘Oh, this is my town.'”

During the 1990s, the world returned the feeling. His shows during this decade were unmissable, and along with Martin Margiela and Alaïa, he asserted that fashion could be art, sure, but also that it had the potential for creativity and self-expression, for commentary and the creation of culture, on the level of filmmaking, writing and the visual arts.

His Spring 1999 show, a tribute to weddings, is widely considered one of the greatest fashion shows of all time. In the 2000s, fashion became much more corporatized, even sanitized, as the conglomerates LVMH and what’s now called Kering consolidated power, and it could be hard to see where the brand fit in. In 2009, he declared bankruptcy. Over the past decade, a new corporate structure and the continued success of his Adidas collaboration, Y-3 – which launched in 2002 as the first high-fashion and sportswear collaboration of its kind – have restored his brand.

He remembers growing up in Tokyo, a city that had just been destroyed by World War II. He spent his childhood trying in vain to please his mother, a dressmaker. He recalls passing a difficult exam and, rather than celebrate, she fretted about the expense of another school. He laughs.

His vision of beauty and his instinct to rebel comes from his mother, whom he worked for after graduating from law school. Her customers “liked color, print,” he says, and the clothes his mother created were exacting. “It was hard! Very hard work.” The things he made were pretty, he says, “But I got bored with making fantastic, colored outfits. I was tired.” In 1972, he started a label called Y’s, which still exists now.

Yohji-san pauses. “Ahh,” he says, sighing. After he showed the men’s collection in June, he says, he went home to Tokyo to visit his mother, who was staying in an assisted-living facility. He talked to her about the collection, how he tried to make clothes that were more difficult for him. “But I felt . . . she didn’t know if I was her son or not. I wasn’t sure. Because she always remembers me when I was young. I got too old.” He laughs. “I felt painful. Two days later, she’s gone. I rushed to the care house and touched her face. Her face was so cold.”

He sits with his cigarette. “But at the same time, I feel happy.” His father died when he was 7. It’s a kind of closure, maybe. He remembers obsessing for much of his childhood, without his father: “I didn’t know what kind of person, what kind of adult I’m going to be. I really don’t know. I really hated to become an adult. So in my heart, I’m still a child.” Yohji-san smiles.

Now, he must go. He has appointments and must return to Tokyo in three days. “My dog is waiting for me.” It’s a bear hunting dog, named Rin. “Rin means brave.”

Before he goes, does he have any pearls of wisdom? “I’m sorry to say this, because I . . . I don’t talk about this. I hate this word – success. I became rich. And I hate it. Very often, richness changes people. I don’t want to change. So I forget. He’s managing my money.” He gestures to a man he calls his business partner, who declines to be named. “All of my money. So I often ask him, ‘Do I have money? Okay, that’s good.'”

He smiles and looks up at him. “I’m rich?”

The manager looks up, nods eagerly. “Certainly!”

Yohji-san sighs with content. “My purpose, my dream of creating, is very high. Too high. I never arrive [at it]. That’s the reason I can continue. If I feel I have arrived, maybe I would die.”