Before Yohji, There Was Another Yamamoto

Orbituary | The master of using bold kabuki graphics on his clothes, Kansai Yamamoto, has died

 

Kansai YamamotoKansai Yamamoto with signature “shout” expression. Photo: source

One of Japan’s less-known fashion exports has died. According to Japanese media this morning, Kansai Yamamoto succumbed to leukemia and passed away last Tuesday. He was 76.

After thirty years of fashion and costume design, and not doing much of the former in his later years, Mr Yamamoto was brought back to the spotlight in 2017, when he collaborated with Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton’s 2018 cruise collection. At that time, Mr Ghesquière told Dazed that Mr Yamamoto “was the first Japanese designer to show in Paris (1975)*, so I thought it was really interesting to celebrate that and ask him to design a few things for the show.” There were no reports then that the 73-year-old was ill. His contribution to some of the LV pieces, including the accessories, brought back memories for those who remember Mr Yamamoto’s signature looks of the late ’70s and much of the ’80s, which eschewed the eras’ hippie predictability and the subsequent ‘power’ aesthetics. His work was theatrical and, at the same time, projected an attitude that we today would call street.

Although not always credited, Kansai Yamamoto influenced many designers through the decades, from Jean Paul Gaultier who, for spring/summer 2013, re-interpreted the one-shoulder, one-sleeve, one-leg knit union suit that Mr Yamamoto designed for David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour to Alessandro Michele, who created similar, large graphics (including their placements) that bore uncanny resemblances to the Japanese designer’s. Much of the oversized shapes we have been seeing this past seasons, and the use of immense illustrations placed in the rear or over shoulder of the garment, as seen at Raf Simons, for instance, can be attributed to what Mr Yamamoto produced for his Paris shows in the ’80s.

Kansai Yamamoto outer

The striking yakusha-e graphic applied on contemporary geometrics, typical of Kansai Yamamoto. Photo: source

Designers were not the only ones who could not erase the indelible impressions left on them by his work. When hairdresser-to-the-stars David Gan wore and posted pieces from the Valentino X Undercover collaboration from last fall on social media, and expressed his love for them, not many of his followers were aware that his preference for strong and conspicuous graphics can be traced to the early days of Passion, when he had a near-obsession for Kansai Yamamoto, alongside his fashion designer pal Francis Cheong. That Mr Gan is, in recent years, partial to Dries Van Noten’s ‘Marilyn’ shirts and jackets, and the London label Qasimi’s oversized denim shirt with the sew-on patch of ‘Kabuki Kiss’ by the American artist Mel Odom indicates that he has never quite pulled himself away from those dramatic images that are larger than he, the wearer.

In the eighties, when Japanese fashion was the rage on our shores, what Mr Gan and Mr Cheong wore stood out because Mr Yamamoto’s designs were not predominantly black, the preferred non-colour of the Tokyo designers showing in Paris then. As one fashion writer told us, “You could spot any one of them a mile away because of their exuberant Kansai jackets.” Of the couple or so retailers at that time that carried Japanese labels, Scene One (at the Meridien Shopping Centre) gave Mr Yamamoto’s kabuki-inspired clothes considerable attention. The shop was opened by the Malaysian (former) designer, Christopher Choo, who was himself a fan of Kansai Yamamoto, as well as the equally attention-grabbing designs of Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, which were all stocked in his store.

Bold was often associated with what Mr Yamamoto did in his early years. But many of his followers saw more than just the upsized graphics and the dizzying colours. One major fan told SOTD, “Others will say the joie de vivre of his early ’80s Paris catwalks, or the exoticism. For me, it’s the opulence, the beading, the riot of colours, the embroidery, the use of metallics—for 3 to 4 years, it was entirely ME!” Yet, much of what is known of Mr Yamamoto’s work is his collaboration with David Bowie following his debut in London in 1971. According to the designer’s own telling, he did not know the singer then. His stylist Yasuko Hayashi, who was working for the rock star as well, had lent the singer some clothes from Mr Yamamoto’s debut London collection. He liked them enough to wear them for a performance in New York’s Radio City Hall. The rest, as convention would have us say, is history,

With Sayoko and capeThe vivid colours: (Left) Kansai Yamamoto at a 1982 fitting with his favourite model Sayoko. Photo: Kyodo/Dpa. (Right): A 1971 cape appliqued with images of kabuki characters and those of mask kites. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Despite showing in Paris from 1975 until the early ’90s, it seems Mr Yamamoto would only remain in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than fashion. Or, be known as creator of costume, rather than clothes. While his work for Mr Bowie launched him to a wider international audience, his ready-to-wear shown in Paris was to be slowly overshadowed by the unusual, un-Parisian collections and shows of first, Issey Miyake and then, the two behind what was called the “Japanese invasion”, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. While his compatriots tapped into their cultural heritage to set themselves apart from the French, Kansai Yamamoto made it his forte. His designs that were loved drew from Japanese theatre, in particular, the kabuki. He was gleefully using images of old yakusha-e, woodblock-printing of famous actors of the day, known in the West as “actor prints”. These, he juxtaposed with delineations seen on mask kites and then employed them against modern patterns in the spirit of his favourite Momoyama period of Japanese art, which is thought to be dynamic and opulent. Fittingly, the results were electric.

Kansai Yamamoto was born in Yokohama in 1944, a year before the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The eldest son of a tailor, he lived a good part of his formative years in a children’s home after his parents divorced. He studied civil engineering, and even English, but gave both up for dressmaking. Mr Yamamoto was largely self-taught although he did apprentice at Junko Koshino (one of three designing Koshino sisters) and Hisashi Hosono, a designer of lady-like clothes. In 1967, he was awarded the prestigious Soen prize (that launched many designers, including Kenzo Takada) at the equally reputable Bunka Fashion College. Four years later, still-swinging London beckoned, and he moved to the English capital, staging his first runway presentation there in 1971. Harpers and Queen describe it as “The Show of the Year….a spectacular coup de theatre.” He would continue to show in the city until 1975, when he debuted in Paris, possibly after hearing of the success of Mr Takada’s Jungle Jap, a store in Galerie Vivienne. Two years later, Mr Yamamoto opened his eponymous boutique. In the autumn/winter season of 1992, he presented his last collection.

It is hard to say when Kansai Yamamoto fell out of favour with the trendy set—hairdressers and fashion designers too. By the time he presented his swan song, his designs had lost their theatricality, perhaps as reaction to the preference for more practical clothes in the ’90s. The inventiveness and the playfulness of his early years seemed to have waned. In retrospect, his work in the ’70s was prelude to everything the fans liked about him. To them, his output of this period was modern in a way Issey Miyake’s designers would prove to be enduring. He didn’t go all out with the kabuki stuff; he showed mastery of cut, shape, and proportion too, which reflected the Japanese ideal of not restricting the body. Yet, for all the inventiveness he clearly offered and the subsequent influence that reached others, Kansai Yamamoto, in death, would be, as The Guardian’s headline showed, remembered as the “designer and David Bowie collaborator”.

*Kenzo Takada showed his label Jungle Jap in his small boutique in 1971 and Issey Miyake presented his first pret-a-porter collection in 1973. It appears that Mr Ghesquière was mistaken about Kansai Yamamoto Paris debut

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