NEW YORK — Yohji Yamamoto typically doesn't make it to New York more than two or three times a decade, but he certainly has an opinion about it.
Sitting in the spacious, high-tech Y-3 showroom and offices adjacent to the Adidas store on Broadway on Tuesday, Yamamoto said he doesn't like the city's fast pace, but on its flip side, "I like this city because people look dynamic and always change, and there is still this nostalgic scenery, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Empire State Building."
Yamamoto didn't have much time to enjoy the scenery. He arrived on Monday to put the final touches on the Y-3 presentation, which was presented Tuesday night, then left again on Wednesday. But the whirlwind trip renewed an appetite for the city.
"I was thinking I should come back to New York more often and I'd like to stay at least two weeks every year," he said. "Then I can see the changes and find inspiration for my designs."
New Yorkers can certainly expect to find him here twice a year. In a shift of strategy, Y-3's parent, Adidas, decided to move its show from Paris, where it launched the collection in 2001.
"We thought when we work for a sport line, we have to come to America, because the sport movement started here," Yamamoto said. "Twenty to 25 years ago, I remember Americans started becoming more interested in their bodies. They started to take care of their bodies, and the body culture started here."
Just as the move was favored by Yamamoto for creative reasons, it was steered by Adidas executives for business reasons. Since its launch, Y-3 has been somewhat misunderstood by many U.S. retailers who found the concept of a fashion line with activewear origins difficult to place. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue carried Y-3 in its early stages, but don't offer it any longer. It is now distributed in about 60 American doors, including Jeffrey New York, Alan Bilzerian in Boston, Maxfield in West Hollywood and the Yohji Yamamoto boutique here.
A retail executive noted that deliveries were always a key issue with Y-3. Stores that considered it a contemporary activewear collection were struggling to work with Y-3's delivery cycles, which were in line with designer sportswear collections. "That made it very difficult for the collection to compete with Nike and Puma," the executive said.The show on Tuesday aimed to clear any misunderstandings, and position the brand as a fashion collection.
"Y-3 is a fashion brand, and from the beginning we positioned it as a fashion brand, which takes some inspiration from sport, but out of the sport context in a clear fashion context," said Hermann Deininger, Adidas' senior vice president of global marketing. "You can see it in the dresses and in the wedges. This is the direction we are moving forward with. This is where the market is going and what the consumer expects from us."
The push toward fashion was apparent at Tuesday night's show, which, along with expected fare of jeans and all manner of T-shirts and sweatshirts, included pieces that might well appeal to a designer customer who knows her stuff. Some might even recognize Yamamoto hallmarks in full skirts gathered into a paper-bag waist and short, ruffled jackets. More likely buys, however, may fall into the vein of a black cutaway jacket, worn in the show layered over a white hoodie, or perhaps even a red sleeveless cotton dress with a subtly sculptural neckline. Nevertheless, nothing neared the level of artsiness at which Yamamoto usually designs.
"The concept is that fashion meets sport, and modern people try to do both every day, so this is one typical type of street fashion," Yamamoto said. "I like hip-hop. This is a brand of a marriage between French fashion and American hip-hop."
When asked what he wanted to bring into the mix this spring collection, Yamamoto said: "I wanted to put some romanticism into it, that's it."
That includes heels. Yamamoto has never been known as a man of heels, but the collection surprisingly featured sandal wedges, many of which had the triple stripe run across the heel. The triple-stripe motif, in fact, was rife at Y-3's mammoth production. Held in the imposing space of the former Cipriani Regent on Wall Street, it opened with a mock security guard opening a gigantic vault door. Then, the models started streaming out of the vault and onto three runways made up of connected silver segments in a shape reminiscent of the classic gold bars. Watching each look whiz by felt a bit like playing "Where's Waldo?" as the triple stripe turned up on flower corsages, newsy caps, epaulettes and belt buckles. Another, less-expected motif was money, as seen in a print featuring Japanese currency, and the recurring tune was Abba's classic hit, "Money, Money, Money." Money certainly had something with the decision for Adidas to move its show from Paris to New York."The show gives us the opportunity to explore business opportunities in the U.S. market and to further develop the business here," Deininger said. "I think we are at the beginning here. There is a huge potential for us here. I am confident with the spring collection, we will make a big step forward."
Y-3's largest markets are Asia and the U.K., and the label is available in about 500 doors outside the U.S., including Colette in Paris, Selfridges in London, D-Mop in Hong Kong and Isetan in Japan, as well as select Yohji Yamamoto boutiques.
In order to better serve retailers, the company has created three distinct divisions for Y-3, beginning with the spring collections: Sport Style, Sport Jeans and Sport Luxury.
"With the three-collection structure, we can use it as one brand and still have it in different types of distribution channels," said Michael Michalsky, Adidas' global creative director in charge of all Adidas product.
Sport Style offers casual, everyday pieces and has a suggested retail price range from $220 to $370 for sneakers, and $105 to $435 for apparel. Sport Jeans, meanwhile, is a small collection of classic denim and knitwear pieces from $270 to $450. Sport Luxury is Y-3's most avant-garde line, with more tailored fashion pieces, including the heels and wedges that retail from $470 to $530, though its special crystal-detailed wedge, a collaboration with Swarovski, retails for $670. In apparel, Sport Luxury is in the range of $150 for a tube top to $5,635 for a crystal-studded tank.
"The structure of collection will help us to develop the distribution opportunities we have further — better than in the past," said Deininger, adding he expects to step up the U.S. distribution to 150 doors within two to three years. "It's a careful business development. It's not about fast growth."
That should mesh well with Yamamoto's philosophy. "America is a huge country, and we don't want to sell Y-3 all over America," he said. "It's very limited ... New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Fashion can only exist in modern cities. I cannot be possible on the countryside of Ohio or Missouri. This is a key point in fashion."Adidas also has agreements with designer Stella McCartney, as well as Missy Elliott. Deininger declined to give sales information or disclose the percentage Y-3 represents of Adidas' total volume. In 2004, Adidas-Salomon AG had sales of $8.3 billion. The company had a volume of about $1.9 billion in the U.S. Adidas has since sold its Salomon business.
It remains to be seen if American retailers will accept Y-3 as a fashion line rather than an activewear collection.
David Rubenstein, buyer for Jeffrey New York, said, "I can understand why they want to intensify their fashion direction. They need to evolve the collection. I loved the new fitted shapes, and really liked the shoes. They are trying to make it more into a lifestyle collection, not just an activewear line."
A market source, however, seemed more cautious. "There is an enormous leap to be made from an active company to designer clothing at designer price points. The only way in which it will be successful is if the product is so outstanding from its design concept to its execution, so that the customers are going to be drawn into the store to buy the clothes."
Yamamoto is currently in the process of relocating his business from Paris to Milan and Florence because of Italy's manufacturing capacities. He will continue to show his main collection in Paris, though. He plans to come back to New York in six months, not just for Y-3, but also to source inspirations for future collections. It wouldn't be the first time he's found inspiration here.
"We had read in the newspapers that American businessmen go to the office wearing sneakers and then change into shoes," he said. "About 13 years ago, I made a fashion show in Paris presenting silk dresses with Nike sneakers."
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