Few moments in fashion history are truly game-changing. People might cry, people might be awed, but rarely do they witness a true shift. In 1981, when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (as Comme des Garçons) showed for the first time in Paris, Irene Silvagni, today creative consultant for Yohji Yamamoto, then a fashion editor for Elle (she has also been European editor for American Vogue and fashion editor for French Vogue), was in the audience. She recalls the feeling she had, witnessing the clothes. “I came out and I was under a state of shock, because it was something we had never seen. It was extraordinary, it was a revolution. Because the black was not the same black we had seen, for years and years. Centuries. It was another black,” she tells me on the phone from Paris.
Irene Silvagni wasn’t alone; the rest of the audience were in shock, too. She compares the scene to the brawl that happened outside the theatre when Victor Hugo put on his play Hernani in 1830. “It was exactly like that. I saw editors spitting on the floor, saying it was disgusting. Because [the models] had army boots, big hats, coats. I think the people who could not under- stand what a revolution it was were against it in a violent way, very violent,” she says.
The collection that Yohji Yamamoto showed wasn’t all black; there were also white outfits, for example. The models were hidden behind oversized coats, hats, scarves and boots, breaking with the mood for body-conscious or revealing clothes. Black wasn’t even considered a colour appropriate for high fashion, and it has been suggested that people attending the shows were uneasy because of the election of François Mitterrand, the first socialist president of France. Let’s just say they were not in the mood for anything dark.
Irene Silvagni’s editor at Elle hated it. And, when Silvagni went on to American Vogue she couldn’t do anything on Japanese fashion, because then editor Grace Mirabella also loathed it.
Soon, everything would change.
“When Yohji did his first show in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre [A/W 1982], people outside were fighting to come in,” Irene Silvagni says. “Some people were standing, applauding, some people were whistling. I never saw it happen in fashion before, and I never saw it happening after.”
The press famously called the style of the Japanese “Hiroshima chic”, a somewhat insensitive description, to say the least, and Women’s Wear Daily ran a story in 1983 where they featured several Japanese designers and crossed each out with a huge X. One exception among the fashion press was French Marie Claire, whose editor Claude Brouet featured the clothes early on.
It is, of course, easy to pass judgement with the benefit of hindsight. But Irene Silvagni mentioned to me that something else happened. The buyers loved it.
I ring up Gene Pressman, one of the heirs to Barneys New york, and co-CEO, creative director and head of merchandising and marketing for the store for more than 27 years (he was ousted from the company in 1998). He points out that he discovered Yohji Yamamoto in Japan during the late 1970s (Yohji had been showing his Y’s collection in Tokyo since 1977).
“Tokyo was such a cool place in those days,” Gene remembers. “We didn’t know what to expect, and we were shocked to see how new and different [the designers] were. While shopping we came across two I had never heard of: Rei Kawakubo, that is Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto.”
While Gene Pressman and the Barneys team were sceptical of the Comme des Garçons womenswear but liked the menswear, with Yohji it was the other way around: “The womenswear was very avant-garde. But the menswear was so classic it was like buying Brooks Brothers,” Pressman says. As another New York store – the now defunct Charivari – had bought the yohji menswear and had an exclusive deal, Barneys only carried the womenswear, for several years.
But why did the buyers take to the Japanese designers when the editors didn’t? “In those days there were lots of small boutiques,” Gene Pressman says. “And they were looking at fashion for art’s sake. They were willing to take risks. Today, it seems people don’t take the same risks they used to take. The boutiques that brought in Yohji and Rei appreciated them for what they were. Hanging in the shops, they enhanced their whole stock and merchandise, as being one-of-a-kind, unique pieces. And, as a buyer, you went to the showroom and you bought a mixture of some showpieces and a lot more of the classic pieces. The buyers didn’t go to the show with the same point of view that the press had.” Customers took to the clothes and, soon enough, Japanese style was synonymous with being successful, creative and interesting. Gene Pressman’s rationale for this sounds almost like a theory of early adopters: “Because their pieces were aesthetically inclined, they attracted more a bohemian type of people: artists, celebrities in cinema,” he says. “They attracted a creative cult that appreciated [the design] and viewed it as art in itself. And Yohji always made beautiful coats. But very wearable.”
In 1984 Yohji Yamamoto launched an international menswear collection, and the strangest thing happened: it was just as successful as the womenswear. When Wim Wenders did his iconic documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), the director chose Yamamoto as a subject because of his own relation to the clothes. The slightly oversized, loose black suit worn with a t-shirt had become the uniform of the creative man – the serious, intellectual alternative to business-like Armani and party-starting Versace.
For an individual designer to make a splash in one area is rare enough; for him or her to have a profound impact on the way people dress is even rarer. But a fashion designer changing the way both men and women dress is almost unheard of. Clearly, something incredible was going on – but is it still?
Want to read the full version of this interview? Check out the S/S 2015 issue of Bon, available in select newsagents.
Photography Dario Catellani (ArtList), Styling Marcus Söder (LinkDetails), Model Melina Gesto (DNA Models), Casting Jenny Friedberg (Creative Chaos), Hair Joseph Pujalte (Atomo Management), Make up Marie Duhart (Atomo Management), Digital operator John Chevalier (Imag’in Productions), Set designer Samirha Salmi (Magnet Agency), Photography assistants Marion Grand, Adeline Gauvain, Mattia Mirandola and John Chevalier, Styling assistants Malin Gustafsson and Maria Rocha, Production Gabriel Schauf (ArtList Paris), Studio Studio Rouchon Paris.