Yohji Yamamoto Prefers the Side View

This sketch [from Yohji Yamamoto’s fall 1988 collection] (above) is a lie. It’s a woman, but she looks like a man. And in a way, that became my entire message. I’d always been a big fan [of the German choreographer Pina Bausch] because, in her work, she was proud and a bit angry. But when we talked, she was so gentle. While preparing for the 25th anniversary of her dance company [in 1998], she sent me a telegram: “Yohji, do something for it.” That was it. So I did the costumes for Pina’s show (below, right). Shortly before her death [in 2009], she said, “I suffer so much.” She’d never complained, and then one day she shouted.

From left: © Yutaka Yamamoto; courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto; Bernd Hartung/Agentur Focus/Redux

I love this picture of me and [the French Tunisian couturier] Azzedine Alaïa (above, left) from the mid-1990s. We were closer than brothers. When I started my men’s line [in 1984], he gave me his space to do the show. I respected him so deeply, but I never thought of him as a competitor. We had totally different ideas about how to dress. This is from my first women’s show (above, center) in Paris in 1981. At the time, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I decided to avoid color — to use only white, gray or black — because I was born in Kabukicho [a popular district among Tokyo sex workers], where drunk people went to pick up women in bright printed dresses. That many colors made me tired.

From left: courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto (2); Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York; Retro Adarchives/Alamy Stock Photo

When I was around 3 years old, I noticed that I had no father. He fought in World War II and didn’t come back. I remember my mother being pushed to plan a funeral. I was so angry at everyone for making her do that; she still believed he was coming home. I was raised by her and an aunt who didn’t have children of her own. My aunt encouraged me to start making music in my second year of junior high school. I produced this album [“Your Pain Shall Be Your Music”] (above, top left) in 1997 because singing only about happiness is boring. The same goes for art. This is one of [Francisco de] Goya’s ugliest paintings [“Saturn Devouring His Son,” 1820-23] (above, center), and I’m jealous of it. I asked myself, “Can you design an ugly thing?” But no, I can’t. Although he did ugly work, too, I didn’t like Picasso much. He used too many techniques until he finally found Cubism. This is the building floor (above, bottom left) where we do the men’s show. I used to be angry at my father for giving me my first name — “Yohji” is very difficult to write in kanji — but when I look at this, it has charm. I like Bob Dylan (above, right) because of his spirit of protest. He came into my shop once. I asked him, “Won’t you walk in my show?” He said no. He’s very good-looking, but not much taller than Paul Simon.

From left: © 1990 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, used by permission of Picador, all rights reserved; courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto

When I meet someone, I don’t want to see them from the front or the back. I prefer the side view (above, right). People call it a mental profile for a reason: The side view [seen here in a sketch for Yamamoto’s spring 1987 men’s show] has stories to tell, which is why I like to design that way. I started drawing and painting as a young boy because I was always alone. I preferred to read stories about sad people and, eventually, I arrived at [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880) (above, left). I’ve been really influenced by Russian literature, but there are so many people in this one. It’s hard to remember their names, and they speak a lot.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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