Byline: Jessica Kerwin

NEW YORK — During fashion week, it seems there’s always room for one more, and perhaps this season’s biggest surprise addition is Yohji Yamamoto.
Known for his avant-garde collections and cultish following, the designer will show here today the fall collection he recently presented in Paris.
In the midst of probably the quietest, most subdued preshow chaos New York’s ever seen, Yamamoto pauses to talk about his trip here and his collection.
“I’ve felt absent from New York for about seven years now, so I wanted to come and show people that I’m still alive,” the designer says.
“I’ve been working with Charivari for about 10 years,” he adds, noting, “They were the first buyer of my career, but the kind of exclusive relationship we’ve had has made us…not lazy…but it’s kind of routine.”
And while the designer concedes “this kind of fashion isn’t very open to everybody,” he has gradually added to his U.S. customer list over the years, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Maxfield, Ultimo, Alan Bilzerian and his own shop in SoHo.
“It has to be presented to people who have enough experience with fashion to understand it. So naturally, our clientele is limited here to the larger cities,” he points out.
Yamamoto’s business consists of his women’s collection; his secondary line, Y’s; an evening line, Yohji Yamamoto + Noir; licenses for eyewear; men’s suits and ties, and his Yohji scent, which is being launched in September. “From the beginning, my things have been very unique, so ordinary people don’t wear them and don’t buy them,” Yamamoto continues. “Fortunately, our business has been growing slowly and steadily for the past 20 years. And now in Japan, the students who are 17 to 22 years old have been buying my things — it’s beyond my imagination because it’s so expensive that I can’t understand how they manage to pay for it.”
Yamamoto seems a bit uneasy about seeing his clothes on too many women. “If everybody started wearing my type of clothing,” he admits, “I would be dispirited. I would just lose myself.”
He designs for another kind of woman, and an elusive one at that. “She’s living in my mind as a dream,” Yamamoto says. “She is my ideal woman, so she doesn’t exist in reality. Sometimes I feel close to her and sometimes I feel far, but that’s it.”
For this phantom lady, Yamamoto says, he attempts “to invent a sense of elegance by making very constructed forms in mannish styling.”
“When I started in fashion 30 years ago — especially in Japan — women were wearing very traditional, sweet dresses. So since the very beginning I’ve made a mannish look my basic style. Maybe I’ve become more skillful and less wild, but my feelings haven’t changed. I find tailored jackets and trousers for women very sexy.”
Ironically, Yamamoto’s aversion to traditional tailoring was what got him into the fashion business. “After I graduated from college, I didn’t want to wear a business suit or tie,” he says. “So I went to work at my mother’s neighborhood clothing shop, but she got very mad because I had studied law, and graduated, but I still didn’t want to work. She said, ‘At least you have to learn how to sew and cut properly,’ and I was happy because I got to be a student again. Every day I hoped that I wouldn’t meet reality.
“For 20 years, my mother never said anything to me about my work,” he adds. “I know she said something to somebody about it, but just not to me.”
When it comes to fashion reality, burning issues like lengths and hemlines simply bore the designer. “I don’t care about length,” Yamamoto says. “My most basic way of looking at a woman is in profile — the undulation of the back and then the hip is what I begin working from.” Another idea that intrigues him is the “border between ready-to-wear and haute couture.”
“I’m trying to create some kind of new haute couture feeling, but by still using the ready-to-wear methods,” he says.
Possibly more than anything else, Yamamoto is known for his somber palette. “Every season I try to use a little bit of very strong color,” he explains, “like the way you use lipstick, but then I get very tired of it. I get bored and I go back to the monotone.”
For now, any plans to move his shows completely to New York are still on hold. “I want to find out for myself where I’m going because I can’t imagine what will happen after the show,” Yamamoto says. “It’s very exciting because it’s like I’m taking a gamble. But I’ve also noticed that it is very hard to do a double showing, so I need to make a choice. I really don’t know if I’ll come back to New York next year — or ever — but I feel that things are moving here.”

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