PARIS — For all its apparent glamour and gloss, fashion is a messy business behind the scenes.
Consider the office of Yohji Yamamoto. His desk is piled high with paper, Adidas sneaker boxes, stomach medicine and other detritus of his chosen profession.
Or consider that of his studio chief, Madame Shimosako. Her work surface is scarred by X-ACTO knives and cluttered with packets of cigarettes, Japanese animal cookies and, of course, a gigantic pair of scissors.
Offering a rare glimpse of the creative process of a fashion great, the Yamamoto exhibition that bows at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles at the Louvre here today displays everything from paper patterns to complete rooms replicated from the designer’s Tokyo studio. Even rejects — dresses that never made it onto the runway or into production — are given a rare moment in the fashion spotlight.
“I wanted to show everything and there are naturally many mistakes,” the designer said with a shrug.
At turns hectic and poetic, the exhibition marks the first time the museum will allow visitors to touch some of the garments on display, from an unfinished, double-faced coat to a dramatically fringed umbrella.
“Touch is the most important thing; the most important value of the clothing,” Yamamoto stressed in an interview Monday. “Sometimes, I start collections by saying touch is very important: soft touch, hard touch, strange touch.”
Upon entering the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 28, visitors encounter nothing but large, industrial shelves containing bolts of fabric. “Yes, it will stay like that,” interjected curator Olivier Saillard with a chuckle. “It’s to give the idea of the back rooms of a fashion house.”
And how. The designer was given carte blanche and his exhibit designer, Masao Nihei, opted for a busy, DIY feel on the first floor, with catalogues displayed on ironing boards and backstage photos hung with hunks of masking tape.
Yamamoto laughed knowingly when asked why his clothes are so minimal and his office such a — how shall we say? — disaster area.
“I’m working in a studio, where there are so many craftsmen working around. They bring so many things into my room. Naturally, it becomes a mountain of trash,” he said with a chuckle. “I simply wanted to show the reality and the working space is not always clean.”
Loosely biographical, the two-level show displays Yamamoto’s penchant for ethnic costumes and everyday clothes over high fashion, and spotlights famous friends like Pina Bausch and Wim Wenders. A touching photo of Yamamoto fast asleep while seated at a worktable — his head resting on his arms — shows how grueling fashion can be.
Several cases document how Yamamoto’s way of working has evolved over the decades: one scattered with ink drawings, another documenting how he tests new silhouettes directly on the fabric, rather than inexpensive cotton.
But one is struck by his low-tech approach. Even patterns are drawn by hand. One large guide for cutting fabric resembles a Cy Twombly canvas.
Yamamoto explained that his way of working is intuitive and collaborative, and the chaos of the exhibition is meant to convey the excitement of the creative process. “I give a few points about the next collection by talking, just a few words,” he explained. “Then I walk around and I say something: ‘Oh, you better change that’ or ‘You better change everything.’ [My collaborators] have their own way of finding new ideas. Sometimes they surprise me.
“I set a goal for each collection which I never reach….Still, the collection itself is going to have a character.”
The second level of the exhibition showcases Yamamoto’s final creations in more minimalist glory. Some outfits, in homage to Chanel, Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli, are shown next to designer originals.
Also unusual for a fashion museum — prone to displaying delicate, centuries-old creations, is that the lighting here is almost blinding, reflecting the designer’s taste for extremes.
“I don’t use medium colors because medium colors have some sentiment,” Yamamoto said. “I simply use black or white or flashes of red or yellow — all strong colors. If the color has some story or sentiment, I don’t want to use them. They’re like background music.”
A helter-skelter arrangement of television sets, some propped on chairs, broadcast a chronological retrospective of his fashion shows, from 1981 to the present. Saillard said the display proves Yamamoto developed a consistent signature. “The clothes are difficult to date,” he said.
Yamamoto has been on a museum kick lately. Last January, he opened an exhibition titled “Correspondences” in Florence sponsored by Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery, which wrapped up last month. And in tandem with the Louvre show, titled “Just the Clothes,” the Joyce gallery in Palais Royale is staging an exhibition of Chiso kimonos, six designed by Yamamoto, through May 6.