Yohji Yamamoto: The poet of black
Yohji Yamamoto reflects on his thirty year career in fashion. In this 20-minute film shot in Yamamoto's Tokyo studio, the designer provides a laconic, engaging and sometimes passionate commentary on his career and design values. He considers how his work has evolved since his Paris debut and explains why he designs so differently for men and women and also provides a withering personal analysis of the current state of the fashion industry.
30 years ago you caused a sensation when you first showed your work in Paris. How has your work and attitudes changed since then?
My main focussing coming in Paris was just opening tiny shop. But that happens, I think, because I wasn' t the only one. The other designer, one more designer, did same thing. So for European people it was like a new movement arrived or a new army arrived. I think they accepted in that way. So I didn' t mean it, I just wanted to open tiny shop.
I have a double feeling maybe I have changed something else, even minor change. But at the same time I feel I couldn' t change anything at all. As you know, the market in the world became like ... fast, fast, fast, cheap, cheap, cheap, etc, etc, etc. It' s very far from me. That means I couldn' t change anything.
I' m strongly breathing in craftmanship and the human hand. For example, when I stick with Japanese craftmanship for weaving, for sewing, for cutting, maybe I' m touching a little bit of culture of the human being, human fingers ... strongly. Mentally I' m very far from mass production. So the meaning of American success, I' m not very successful designer. In America success means fame and money. I think myself maybe famous in Europe, but money? I don' t know. For me, comfortable profit is enough, to keep on going.
Do you design differently for men and women?
Designing men' s clothing is very difficult for me because I don' t like too much fashionable men. Do you like fashionable men? Very trendy, perfect fashion. So I think my rule about men' s designing is just take it easy from trends. The customer of my men' s creation, they are not wearing tie, not businessmen. Almost they' re working as a free something. In that case, they can look a little strange and funny. Designing menswear is quite easy - shirt and jacket and pants, that' s it. So we have to put some irony or joke or funny message. But for women, spiritually or philosophically, it' s the same - let' s be out, but women' s body is for me like a desert and the blowing of the wind and the mountain of sand is always changing. So I can have so many imagination on women' s body because it is always changing. Compared to women' s body, men' s body is already promised. We can only change sizes or length, width - that' s it. But designing women' s clothing is like a journey. I think that being strong a designer for women' s designer is more important than being a strong designer for men. Historically ... I think the reason is that designing clothing for women we have no roof, everything is possible. Sometimes I feel too free - it' s very hard. Freedom and duty is like a coin, surface and back and there always no answer for ever.
What motivates you to carry on designing?
I have still people who understand my thinking and buy my clothing. I have to answer to them and same time if I say this, this sounds maybe too arrogant, but when you say beautiful things are disappearing every day. I want to keep it back. I want to say don' t go too much, too far, too easy. Take it easy. I think this is my law.
What do you think of fashion now?
I think - it' s like thinking about the earth go to hell. We can' t stop. We think we can stop. I don' t think so. In my heart I' m always saying, go to hell, I don' t care. Very roughly, if we choose two big responsibilities. One side is our government people, government. They can change the way of going of people. And one side is artist. They can also change, they can also make people think, make people doubt what' s going on. But actually I' m not believing both of them because we went too far. So at least, like a very old man, I' m saying that, hey man, beautiful things are disappearing every day, look at them, keep them, be careful, don' t go too fast. Look back. This is like old man' s mumbling.
You can always look back can' t you really?
Yes, look back.
You have chosen to include your own paintings in the V& A exhibition. Can you explain why?
You gave me a chance to give me my dream, because my dream from childhood was being a painter. Now you gave me a chance, so I started ... go back to a real painter or real drawer, you need exercise, practise a lot, it' s not so easy. So I need to create time to exercise, to practise drawing and painting. So actually I have a chance which you gave me, but I' ll be so busy. Happy.
What makes you happy?
I' m often asked what is gorgeous for you? Then I answer, I don' t like too much about, I don' t care too much about the property, like a big house, private jet, big castle, I' m not interested in them at all. My most gorgeous moment is creating drawing. So in the meaning, I' m very lucky and a happy man.
In Conversation, Yohji Yamamoto
To coincide with the retrospective exhibition of Yohji Yamamoto’s work at the V&A, SHOWstudio.com showcases a unique discussion between three collaborators who helped shape the visual identity of Yamamoto in the 1980s. In this 50-minute film shot in the V&A's Norfolk House Music room, art director Marc Ascoli, fashion photographer Nick Knight and graphic designer and art director Peter Saville are in conversation with London College of Fashion curator Magdalene Keaney.
To coincide with the retrospective exhibition of Yohji Yamamoto’s work at the V& A, SHOWstudio.com showcases a unique discussion between three collaborators who helped shape the visual identity of Yamamoto in the 1980s. In this 50-minute film shot in the V& A' s Norfolk House Music room, art director Marc Ascoli, fashion photographer Nick Knight and graphic designer and art director Peter Saville are in conversation with London College of Fashion curator Magdalene Keaney.
NK: I think that to see the work that we did in context, you have to look at the fashion magazines of 1986 and see what was going on in those fashion magazines. It was about a million miles away from what we did.
PS: Unfortunately, it is the beginning of where it all goes horribly wrong. I mean the coherence and the cohesion between what Yohji was doing on the other side of the world and then Marc' s position in Paris and then the part of the UK culture that Nick came from and then the part that I came from is beginning of what you would call convergence, what we do now call convergence. But it was, in a way, a quite positive and utopian convergence at that time.
MA: That' s true.
PS: Nick introduced me into the system, that bit came next ... you do that bit ... Nick, just finish that bit.
NK: So I' ll do my version of the history. I completed a hundred portraits through a woman who ran a model agency, a very good model agency, called Z Models. She used to find all the most interesting models - not the mainstream models ... all the best models. She also looked around for different talent. Marc knew her, he asked her who was interesting in London at the moment and she introduced my work to Marc. Then Marc and I got on and he liked my work and I went across to Paris and Marc said OK, so do the photographs, I' ll art direct them, but who can create the - who can do the graphic design?
PS: Who said that? You said that?
NK: Marc said that. So I said well, there' s somebody who I' ve worked with over the past couple of years on and off, and I introduced Marc to Peter.
PS: So there was a convergence of mood between the three of us. All three on exactly the same wave length and it comes out in those first two catalogues.
NK: I knew a small amount about Yohji Yamamoto. He represented the beginnings of something very exciting but slightly away on the horizon. The world of fashion that I knew at the time - I was interested in the world of people like Lee Barry, Taboo, Michael Clark - very extreme. You' re talking about people who were taking almost performance art into fashion. So that was the sort of world that I was looking at and was attracted by. When Yohji Yamamoto first came along it really was a distant star, something exciting and appealing on the horizon. So in 1985 when Marc first came to see me, it was really a long way off, it hadn' t really quite got to London. It wasn' t really part of the fashion vernacular, it wasn' t what was going on, it wasn' t part of mainstream fashion. The reason I fell in love with it and the reason I ended up believing in it so firmly is it represented a very interesting vision of women. Previously in fashion women had been represented overtly sexually, especially in fashion imagery. You have got to think about what went on in the 1970s, with people like Wangenheim, Bourdin ... It was an overtly sexual way of behaving and that was represented in photographers who chose fashion photography to talk about their sexual orientation or their sexual desires. And that was the mainstream. And I always felt really uncomfortable with that. When Yohji arrived, here was somebody proposing fashion which wasn' t about women articulating their sexuality as a primary way of behaving and that was what attracted me to it. I thought this is actually to do with seeing women as intellectual beings and not seeing them as sexual beings. It was enormously different to what was going on at the time and I thought it was enormously interesting.
MG: So kind of starting to really hone in on the production of the catalogues and your work together. Again, we' ve talked around this a little bit. Can you describe the tension, if there was one or alternatively the joy of the kind of functionality of what a look book or a fashion seasonal catalogue is as a document.
NK: I have to stop you there, Magda. There' s a big difference between a look book ...
MG: OK, the functionality of the catalogue, so either the tension or the joy, the other end of it between the kind of function ...
PS: No joy - do you remember any joy?
MG: Between the functionality of the catalogue as a document or a commercial product, which it is in some way ... or it operates in a commercial way.
PS: I mean it' s a work, a collective work of it' s own ... this is a new way, not really done before. They were innovations in themselves.
NK: As I understood it, there was something that Yohji Yamamoto had created with Marc to send to the opinion leaders, to the actors, to the architects, to people at the top of industry and fashion. So ... there were only 300 made or 500 made ... there weren' t many. They were sent to the opinion leaders at the time and they were a pure vision of that designer' s, or Yohji Yamamoto' s, dreams, his aspirations, what he found exciting. So they were a pure communication of his desires.
PS: A catalogue or catalogues will have existed for all kinds of clothing makers, so ... exactly ... what Nick' s describing is another way to understand the purpose and therefore the existence of one of these catalogues.
MA: And also I think it' s another chance for the people who are interested by the designer, like Yohji or somebody else, but especially for Yohji, to see how interesting is his work. After the show you have something going out from the house to explain with another angle, the fashion of the season.
NK: But they were sent to very few people, weren' t they?
MA: Yes. It was not 500, you said 500, no ... 2,000 - 2,500.
MG: How would you contrast that to other catalogues ... the mainstream of fashion catalogues that were being produced?
PS: The only catalogues that would have been produced would be in the same way that you would get a catalogue for car parts or kitchen equipment or rainwear or footwear. Catalogues which were ' trade' catalogues - trade catalogues have existed for quite some time. But catalogues as a vehicle of purely an idea or image - I mean no-one was shopping from these catalogues.
NK: It' s a very specific and very inspired marketing strategy in terms now that you send your pure vision created in a very artistic way to the people at the top of the ... to the opinion leaders. Of course there were catalogues, Littlewoods catalogues ... those sorts of catalogues had nothing to do with it, but fashion houses were not using this way of communicating. They were taking out advertising campaigns printed in magazines, that' s not how Yohji decided to do it.
PS: Past advertising campaigns that attempted to do the work of advertising.
NK: So this is a different way of communicating ...
PS: Not the communication of ideas.
MG: So what was the development between the first and the second women' s wear catalogues - from the silhouettes and the little bit of colour into full colour - that' s one of the most obvious ...
PS: Colour? He made him do colour [points to MA & NK].
MG: I was talking about the need for development and different ideas from, as you said, you weren' t signed for Yohji ... so the ideas change.
NK: The point is that we had to re-evaluate. Marc' s big thing was that you have to kill off your darlings. So we felt we had a success ...
PS: ' Kill off your darlings' - I' ve never heard that expression before.
MA: I was trying to go further, not to go further, but to change the feeling of the pictures ...
MG: So I was noting to Nick that to me one of the most obvious, very obvious shifts between the first women' s wear catalogue and the second is the colour.
NK: Well done, Magda for getting us back on track!
PS: That' s definitely, an evident shift.
MG: There' s a few things around that I want to talk about. One is that I read that Yohji said ' We can see the colours in a black and white photograph, we don' t need any colour in photography' . Also he' s spoken a lot about the importance to him of shape and form and silhouette which I think is really important in the first catalogue. Can you just talk a little bit about the use of form and silhouette and then - so I guess the first catalogue. This is the first catalogue, obviously. The second catalogue looks quite different. I just want to talk about the tension between the use of colour and silhouette and form.
NK: Yohji' s fashion was very largely black at the time. There was some colour in it, but very small bits ... it stayed very largely black during our time working for him. But the first two catalogues - that' s actually the second catalogue - the first catalogue was a men' s catalogue and there was no colour in it whatsoever, so it was just black and white. It was square like a record. The idea was that if you want these highly composed, very structured compositions, we were turning - we were following the lines of his fashion, the very graphic elements within his fashion - we were trying to express them visually. The only piece of colour was on the women' s catalogue of that season which was a red bustle. As I was saying to you earlier, Marc would always say ' You' ve done this, so show me something new' . So the next season we purposely took the opposite point of view. So OK, let' s work with colour. The idea was that the men' s colour catalogue was all very beautiful, delicate, subtle, rococo-type colours ... very whimsical ... and the women' s catalogue, I' m right in thinking that went with that, was almost like, as if these men had created these paintings. It was done like - taking Yohji Yamamoto' s collection which actually referenced Christian Dior ... and having colour filled paintings - paintings that the men had produced.
PS: I think, Nick, that challenge that Marc proposed that season to continue but to go to colour, actually it was one of the most important challenges put in contemporary visual culture, because it set Nick a problem which led to that colour formula.
NK: So how to make colour as strong as black and white. Give me technicolour colour.
PS: It was technically radical - up a scale of radical. It was like a kind of quantum leap forward that was Nick' s response to Marc' s ' We need colour' .
MG: You' ve described your discovery of the process as an accident ...
NK: I don' t think it was an accident at all ...
PS: When someone first did it, it might have been an accident.
NK: It' s an accident in the way that Lee Miller exposing Man Ray' s film to light was a solarisation accident. This technique of taking colour transparency film and developing it through a colour negative developer produces a high contrast colour negative. That had been used very early in the 1970s in advertising a couple of times, but never taken off. And as I said earlier on, the overwhelming trend in colour fashion photography or colour photography in general had been seeking realism and therefore ...
PS: And transparency. In all commercial professional photography up until 1986 had become transparency. I was working as an art director doing a certain amount of work and I didn' t really know if there was anybody who even did colour negative any more. Everything was transparency. Nick' s shifting of photo culture across to colour print pretty much then - it kind of creates a new situation that runs - it actually runs right through - it takes you through to PhotoShop.
NK: If you' re looking at an almost accepted term of photography as a search for realism and a search for realistic colour, at the point where we start using photography and having prints made rather than colour transparencies, are looking for a manipulative way to treat the image. Then you' re back into a school of photography which does touch to Man Ray, to Blumenfeld and then later it turns towards the idea that a photographer or image maker can change the moment that he or she takes a photograph. And that' s what we have now with PhotoShop and other manipulative ...
MG: This again is the idea of not the literal ... sort of following on from that this is a kind of a formal proposition, I guess. I want to discuss with Nick and see what you guys all think. I love this book too - this is Penn' s ' Woman with Roses' one of my favourite fashion pictures of all time. John Szarkowski, the legendary curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York wrote brilliantly about this picture. And he says, ' Perhaps the essential nature of this picture can be more clearly seen if one covers with a sheet of paper the model' s beautiful and seemingly tiny head. It is possible that only a modern viewer would be able to identify what remains as representing a woman' s body rather than a silhouette of an orchid or a scarified tribal priestess in ceremonial headdress' . And he goes on to describe the true subject of the photograph as ' the sinuous, vermicular, richly subtle line that describes the silhouetted shape.' I just thought that was really important in relation to your ...
NK: It' s interesting that you' ve quoted him saying that. There' s a difference here. This is a picture taken by Irving Penn of his future wife. I would have thought the primary source of inspiration would be that man' s relationship to that woman.
MG: I think it' s fundamentally important in that picture, yes.
NK: Fundamentally important.
MG: Very much so.
NK: This, you can see, isn' t about my relationship to Sarah Wingate, who' s in the picture, it isn' t about that, it' s primarily about my relationship to Yohji Yamamoto and his oeuvre. Where I would take it slightly different from how Peter put it, I think the clothes do tell a narrative. I think the subject matter comes from the clothes. The narrative of a fashion photograph is imbued in the clothes and is given off by those clothes. So I' m following the narrative that the clothes are already dictating to me and I' m not wanting to personalise this in silhouette. I' m not one to enter into some sort of supposed relationship between photographer and model. I' m purposely negating that and there' s a very strong point when I started this - I didn' t want to have that presumption that I had any emotional relationship to the girl in the clothes. The relationship I had was between myself and the clothes. There' s a vast difference between those two photographs.
PS: The thing with the clothes was that some lent themselves to that more than other ones. That particularly lends itself to a sculptural assessment, but also it' s like notes to play at a particular time. I mean there isn' t ... art does not continuously re-invent itself in forms that art has never been. There' s a certain amount - like music - there' s a certain amount of elements and aesthetic expressions that we make and they rotate. It' s just that the order in which they rotate is never the same. Even when fashion repeats itself, it' s never quite the same, so that' s why that 70s coat that your mother had in the wardrobe isn' t really quite right in the 90s because it' s ... even fashion itself is never the same. There is a certain kind of palette of aesthetics that we re-work and re-work. From an imagery point of view, we can probably go and put several sculptures and paintings that precede the Penn, so Penn is only the accumulation of work until that point. Still the interesting thing is the difference between Irving Penn working in New York in a kind of rarified existence - whose dress is it? Is it a couture dress? Do we know whose it was? Is it Balenciaga? It' s kind of interesting because that' s so removed ... even Yohji' s work is the beginning of making that kind of spirit available to other people. You know you could walk into a shop in Paris and buy this. Anybody could. And interestingly, even there you couldn' t walk into Balenciaga - it' s not so easy to just do that. And people wouldn' t, even if they could, they wouldn' t. They would be afraid to walk in to the shop. So this is all part of a kind of, sort of socio-cultural evolution and the quotes and the references ... I mean, sometimes it' s very knowing. There would be times that we would do things and ... the reference is part of it, it' s a knowing reference, that' s the quotation. Sometimes it was to show something that you thought wasn' t known, but another part of it is also to show something that is in some way familiar - to say, we sort of see it in this world.
MG: Nick, I' m interested in what you said about this sense of not wanting to have an emotional connection to the model present in the images, but another thing actually I felt, particularly in the first catalogue, there is a kind of tension between a sort of poetic, intuitive quality and formalism. And images like this - the last picture of this model and her expression and smile and stuff. I felt, do convey a kind of ... like an emotional intuitive - that sort of balance of, in a sense, that some of the formality and the silhouettes ...
NK: There' s an interesting story - hopefully it' s an interesting story, but maybe it isn' t - we were onto the next season, the next catalogue. I photographed Naomi Campbell. Naomi Campbell was a young girl, 16 or 17 at the time. In all the pictures her face is in silhouette, all blurred or moved. After 3 or 4 days of photographing Naomi, she realised that actually I' m just taking away her personality every time. Because she' s a clever girl, she finds a way of reintroducing her personality. So for the last picture, I was photographing a dress from there down [indicates waist], Naomi clamps an apple between her knees which gives the whole picture her whimsicality, it' s her personality and she' s found another way of expressing her personality and that taught me a very interesting lesson on including her. I wasn' t including my relationship between the model and myself. I didn' t think it was appropriate, I didn' t feel confident to do that and it went against a lot of what we talked about, how I was reacting against photography at the time. So for me it was a lesson in this slightly kind of obstinate way of ' I' m not going to photograph the models, I' m not going to show their faces, I' m not interested in that, I' m interested in the clothes, the clothes are amazing' . Then suddenly Naomi forced her way into that and made me re-evaluate that position and it' s again how you change when you work.
PS: It' s a learning curve, isn' t it?
MG: I think perhaps in the ' Susie Smoking' ... Susie Bick ... there' s the page where she ... there' s kind of like a wink isn' t there, between her eyes closed and eyes open, there' s like a playfulness with the model ...
PS: I don' t know if he shot it for that, but that' s also partly when you have the material, another part of it is what the relationship is ... it' s Marc' s idea .. but it' s the fact that there were two pictures, so the possibility is in the entire process because there was no predetermined number of pages or number of pictures, there was nothing that we had to follow so therefore, even after Nick had done the pictures, and then he had all the opportunities through printing and colour to introduce more, other possibilities, then we had all the possibility of how many pictures we took and what we did with those pictures. The relationship between those ... you' re right the Susie one is a little bit of kind of animation, like a flip book moment between those two, but we did that because we could. No-one' s saying ' We' ve already had that dress, so we won' t give another page to it. None of this. You don' t see that in a magazine even because somebody will say, ' We' ve given a page to that' .
MG: We' ve talked in a really interesting way about the ethos of the collaboration, we' ve spoken in a really interesting way about that, but I think it would be nice to just pull into the discussion some of the specific images, of which you' ve done a little bit, but I' ve got a couple of points of reference that I' ll just bring up with you and if you' d like to ... so the third women' s catalogue, the Spring/Summer 1988. Again, as one point of departure, it' s shot against black. So can we talk about that?
MA: Let' s say the truth - the collection was really difficult in the timing of the fashion world, because we are not only doing only imagery, we are doing also what makes them interesting in this catalogue it was also ... I don' t have all the words of Peter ... we assume fashion also. And it was actually, the collection I think was very ... like paysanne with only dark colour. It was starting the explosion in Paris of Christian Lacroix, can you imagine? Colour ...
PS: There' s like a rural ... where did he come from? Provence ... Provencal? Like a ' compagne' kind of thing.
MA: Christian Lacroix is the starting of the fashion house. We go back, stop with the Japanese dark ... not stop with the Japanese, but the girl look, more girly. The show was not a big success, I remember. It was not like ... people said ...
PS: Also it was the beginning of couture being hip again.
MA: Yes, voila! Tu appelle tres bien. C' est ca. And we found the solution - it' s true. We did something where always me - and I' m sure Nick and Peter - had the feeling that we had a couturier on our hands and also Yohji is a very strong couturier. He has an incredible sense of cutting and we decide to do like couturier pictures in a modern way, not in a retro way. That was a departure in that idea, to react inside this big heart with flowers and we had big hats on this one. And we decided to show these hats in a very contemporary couture. The size was big, you don' t see hats any more. It' s incredible.
PS: It was a summer collection.
NK: It was two visions of summer, wasn' t it?
PS: Yes, well the oddest thing was ... the men' s thing was another thing which was in a way more like a kind of post-war kind of movie moment with the colouring, but for the women' s thing, there was more attention to detail for the objects - to look at the clothes and the hats as things, but then you shot it all ... the first fundamental challenge was that you shot it all - the two of you, both of you - you shot it all against black. And then they bring the pictures to me afterwards in London, I look at the pictures - they' re amazing, they' re fantastic. I said to Marc, ' These are beautiful, but it' s very black for spring/summer' . Then he looked at me and then he had a genius idea, a genius concept when then we followed. Do you remember what you said?
MA: I can' t remember.
PS: He said ' Yes it' s a summer catalogue, summer photographs, Peter, but during the eclipse. It' s summer, it' s a summer collection in the eclipse of the sun. So this was the idea. This is how we then made the cover - the cover was inspired by the corona of the sun. It was a nice idea.
MA: You forget sometimes!
NK: I remember it as being summer in space.
MA: Summer in space and also a very funny thing, we would like to put also dark eyes on the girl. Remember we put a lens, black contact on the girl, but we couldn' t make the picture because she looked too much like a zombie. At the end we stopped the idea ... too black.
NK: It was a Space 2001 reference, the idea of the sunlight in space, the black contact lenses, but we took out the black contact lenses. The men' s catalogue was the balloons catalogue - at the same time, was that the same season?
PS: The red shirt ... colour ... Gary Cooper ...
NK: If my memory' s correct, the corresponding men' s campaign ... I might be wrong ... that was sort of a Hollywood version of summer, a Hollywood musical version of summer. Everybody happy, everybody laughing. Of course that hadn' t been seen before in Yohji Yamamoto clothes - people didn' t laugh, it was very serious. This was a kind of laughing, sweating, all the things you hadn' t seen traditionally with Yohji Yamamoto.
MG: How does the making of the men' s and the women' s catalogue ... did you make the women' s first and then the men' s or were they done at the same time?
MA: I think we ... I don' t know ... I don' t remember ...
NK: It' s was always in reference to each other, but not necessarily ...
MA: We shoot five days for the men' s and five days for the women' s.
PS: The showing of the collections is at such different times, the original collection, so the mood can shift dramatically. Yes, this is what' s for men ... sometimes there was an evident correlation between some men' s clothes and the women' s clothes, but at other times there was no ... I remember, because Nick and I went to the show of the men' s collection and we were a little bit ' Oh, la, la' what is it? Afterwards Marc gave a brief, he said, ' It' s fiesta, it' s Yohji in fiesta' .
MA: Voila! We always find ideas. It' s true that the freedom we have with Yohji is to give you the opportunity to interpret his clothes in a way where it' s working. He was not like dictating. The modernity he has is like I do this collection, we show the show in this way, but after - make a good interpretation. Surprise me.
NK: He wanted to publish, out of the men' s catalogues ... he said, why did you publish the balloons, the cockrels, the still lifes and the flowers ...
PS: The voodoo picture, it' s a great picture ...
NK: So he was never saying it was just the clothes, it was about ideas - you show me my dreams or ...
PS: I think it' s fair to point out that even though there was like a dialogue in the work with Yohji, Yohji did not sit with Nick and Marc the day before a photo shoot and give them some kind of brief or direction. I think that Marc had some conversation with Yohji, but probably not much because a couple of years later when Marc wasn' t there and I had to do something for Yohji on my own, there was no dialogue. I said, ' Yohji would you talk about it?' and he said, ' No, I want to go home to Tokyo' . He' d go out of the room, turn back and say, ' Surprise me' and [clicks fingers] he' s gone. And that would be it. When Marc would go to Tokyo with the pictures, you didn' t know for sure what' s going to happen.
MA: It was the exciting part, that.
MG: Another image I really like is the men' s Autumn/Winter 1988/89. The front cover is a black guy and he has like a white face - and that was done with Linda Cantello, the make up artist. And I love also the image inside of the black model with the face painted. I just thought that was a nice starting point to talk about your work photographically, but also with someone like Linda, the collaboration and what that added to the production.
NK: Technically that' s a shift from medium format photography to 10x8 photography, which is a big shift. For a photographer it' s a big shift because you go from a camera that you can look through and see the image being taken to a camera where you almost certainly can' t move it. It' s like a big television on a lamp post, you really can' t work with it. So you tend to work in a different way ...
PS: And you never go back.
NK: No, you don' t. You set the bar as high as you possibly can and then ...
MG: That was the first that you did ...
NK: That was the first 10x8 catalogue. But it also starts to inscribe a different relationship between yourself and the sitter. So instead of sitting here having a camera between us, I' m looking here and you' re looking here, I have the camera here and I' m holding the cable for it and I' m looking at you, so there' s nothing between us any more, which is a much more personal way to work with somebody. So it' s a different way of working.
MA: Extraordinarily good for the clothes ... also, to be honest, this collection sold very well inside the store after this catalogue. Actually it was a very important moment for men' s fashion.
MG: And then working with someone like Linda Cantello ... you' ve also worked with incredible hair artists on the catalogues. Can you tell me about the idea of the streak, the white ...
PS: Yes, what was that all about?
NK: I can' t remember, no, to be very truthful, I can' t remember.
MA: I remember a funny story ... I remember the streak, the big white thing, he cannot move at all because if he moved ... it would crack. The last shoot he started to laugh, like crazy and everything went ... but I don' t know if you remember ...
PS: Nick, with people like Linda and others - did you and Marc or did Marc create also a little bit of freedom, a bit of autonomy for them to step into? Some guidance but then not absolutely this is what you have to do?
NK: No. I don' t think there' s any point in working with people in that way. In the same way that the relationship between ourselves and with Yohji, with the team of hair and make up you have a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of encouragement to let them indulge and to find ...
PS: The problem with so much of the work is that there' s no spaces for anyone to bring anything to it because it' s been predetermined and approved by a committee. On the shoot you can see a better way to do it, but you can' t do it that better way because it' s been approved this way and nobody can bring anything. The models brought something, everybody brought something to the work.
NK: These are sessions that happen over the course of five days and five nights. So you enter into the studio and you' re there for a week. And you might do nothing the first day or nothing you want to look at. And you might do nothing the second day. The catalogue with the cover of Susie Smoking, I think we worked for five days, maybe longer and we only produced the images at the end of the last day. So that freedom allows people to find something new and spontaneous. That' s what' s happening now - it' s a very different way of working now. Now shoots are reduced down to one day, it' s all pre-planned and it' s not quite the same. There are other times when you can take it back even further.
PS: There was very little prerequisite of what you had to shoot. I' ve been on shoots when you must do this bag, you must do this coat and yes we like it, but maybe not, but you must do all these things. There were one or two pieces that Marc would know were valuable to be in the thing ...
MA: But also I had the feeling that he' d done things that were relevant to show very well. He was the first to show that sort of trend and I think it was important, his fashion also, because it was like explaining ... because he was designing something important ... But if we don' t succeed on these important clothes, we don' t do it, at the end, because we want is the best picture. If the picture is good, we don' t think so much about the clothes.
PS: Sometimes all the way through the entire process, the whole editing, Marc would say ' I have to have this picture because it' s important ... I have to have this picture' . Finally, there would be a solution that didn' t really include this picture, but he liked this look so he said ' Tant pis - bye, bye' - forget this picture now which was so important ...
NK: It' s a different way of working. If you take it back a little bit further, take it back to the beginning of the 70s and how photographers and fashion worked at that time. Someone like Bob Richardson who as I understand it, would go away with stylists for two weeks to somewhere hot and sunny - so you had two weeks of models, stylists and photographer creating some sort of world to live in and that' s where the photographs come from. In the 80s we had five days in a white studio in Paris creating the world ... now you have a situation that you' ve got one day and a bag must take 75% of the picture. That' s a very different way to create imagery.
PS: It' s what we talked about earlier - it' s not about making a statement now, it' s about something else.
MA: Because it' s advertising. It' s not imagery any more, it' s advertising. That' s the point and it' s nothing more, the freedom of nothing.
MG: OK. I' ve got two more questions - do we have time for two more? The first is for you Nick and it' s about I guess what I think of as this being quite an extraordinary moment in the history of photography. Because if one thinks about the history of fashion image making, I often think that key moments are linked to technological innovation - smaller cameras, faster film and I suppose the most contemporary development is the digital revolution. If you think about that as being early 1990s, this is right before that. Now in one sense we' ve spoken about your use of colour and colour processing and so I think that in some senses you as an artist ... the digital revolution is irrelevant in a sense that you would have continued working in an experimental process-driven way. But I think, obviously, the digital revolution then became really important to your - not to your independent vision as an artist - but you' ve used that in a particular and strong way. So I just sort of wanted you to comment about that, if you could, about that moment right before this big change.
NK: In one way, Magda, it isn' t important. It' s a bit like asking you what pen you' re writing with. It' s what you' re writing that' s important, not what you choose. Photography largely comes from a world of people who love equipment and they love lenses and they love technique and they love all that. It' s never where I' ve come from with it, so I' ve never really cared very much how I get the image, whether it' s through a photo booth or a 10x8 camera. That' s one way of answering it and a lot of that' s very true. Actually it' s about the message, it' s not about the medium. Photography' s a strange medium, in that it defines itself by its technique. I would imagine the same' s not true of painting or sculpture or anything else. Photography is largely defined by that. On the other hand there is something that I think we mentioned before, there is inherent in what my work and the work that I did with Yohji, Peter and Marc, is that there is a degree of accepting that the moment that the shutter goes off isn' t necessarily the defining moment that the picture is created. You have the time before that and time after that. There' s particularly the time after that, where you can alter how that image is perceived, so in the post productive state. That' s become very obvious now in times of PhotoShop and how we can move things around. That' s always been the case. And what I' d argue very strongly is that actually is a whole process from the moment of conception to the moment of completion which is important. We shouldn' t focus on that particular 125th second, or whatever it is. It' s actually a point when a photographer doesn' t see anything, it' s when the flash goes off and you' re blinded by an over stimulation of the retina or it' s the moment where the shutter goes black. So actually that' s where we all concentrate and look for the decisive moment and everything. Actually it' s the one moment when we don' t see. So I would argue very strongly that we should look much more widely on the whole of the process, with the people we work with, the relationships we have are more important than the cameras we use.
PS: You used to do a lot in post production anyway, even before it was digital. The whole printing and development thing. You did that in a way that technology now works, but you did it by hand.
NK: Some of the printing techniques which were created at a lab called BDI - BDI Colour Labs - I spent many, many hours and days with Marc and Peter, many years of my life was spent there, but that was creating colour printing which is really quite amazing. By taking a colour negative and then printing it darker and darker and darker and darker, then taking selectively different areas and masking that print and doing effectively what we do now with PhotoShop, but as sort of an old fashioned printing technique. And a similar sort of thing with black and white. So a lot of that is expanding that moment and packing that moment into the image as it is recorded.
MA: Actually this picture would take 2-4 months minumum. With pre-production ... it' s incomparable, for example, with what we are doing now because the technique is different. Also people shoot very quickly and the change is like that [clicks fingers].
NK: As a season' s work, I would work for Yohji Yamamoto and for ID Magazine with Simon Foxton. They' d be my only two clients over six months. So I wouldn' t be interested - I felt completely fulfilled creatively, so I wasn' t searching to have 101 clients. Also I couldn' t find another client I wanted to work for.
PS: And also it' s worth pointing out that this body of work and us, the three of us in general, we bridged the transition from analogue to digital. All of the digital interventions and introductions we saw coming in. I mean I sat at a machine called a Sytex which is a computerised reprographic machine, in 1985. That was the first time that I saw an image that I had physically altered.
NK: It' s funny you should mention that because that' s exactly when I did it as well. With the portraits that we did for ID we squashed them on Sytex ...
PS: Nick and I did lots of projects through the latter part of the 80s, the whole plant power thing that we did on the Paintbox, do you remember that day when we had a refab picture? We had one of Brian' s prints and there was a screen and we found things inside the print that you couldn' t see with the naked eye. All of the innovations and developments that have come, we' ve kind of worked with them as they came in and we' ve sort of kind of anxiously seen the possibilities of what you could do with these things. All of the digital stuff came in to fulfill mechanical processes. The digital stuff was not introduced for creative purposes, it was introduced for mechanical processes. The one time Nick and I worked for several days on a huge Paintbox computer, we saw all of the creative possibilities of in a way hijacking the machinery, which we then subsequently put to creative purpose with some things. PhotoShop now works in ways very similar to how Paintbox worked. So we sort of watched it come in and saw the possibilities of it as we worked with it.
NK: That being said, Magda, the picture you put on the floor a while ago of the black silhouette with the red bustle - was exactly what the camera recorded. That was the transparency that ...
MA: It was exactly like that.
NK: There was no pre-production or post-production effect - that' s exactly what came out. So I' m not saying that therefore we must do that, I' m just saying that' s something one should feel is completely within the realms of creating an image.
MG: Thank you, that' s great. My last question and it' s kind of a bit of fun in a way, kind of maybe, well the first part maybe. Was there anything else that you thought you could or should have done at the time and in retrospect? And I suppose this is slightly ... humour me, but if you three were - if it was kind of happening now, if it was the three of you, what would you do? If you could do it now, if you had that freedom?
NK: Fashion film.
PS: Ten years ago we had that conversation and only this very morning I heard someone ... Ten years ago Nick and I sat and had a conversation about motion image and fashion and what the internet and what new media might offer to fashion.
NK: And you always said imagine Yohji Yamamoto' s red coats moving.
PS: And it' s taken ten years for it now to become ... it was a David James interview this morning where he says that the future of fashion is film. I read that this morning. I turned to Anna and said ' Not much point in being more than ten years ahead of your time ... ten minutes ahead of your time, as opposed to being ten years ahead of your time.' It took ten years ... I mean Nick has waited and pursued, patiently, the entire show studio project for a decade. To see it just begin to become evident and kind of realistic, it' s taken ten years. Can I just say one thing about a lady called Madame Ishikawa? In the realisation of these catalogues we received, and it' s pertinent to me because it was my studio that did the art work, in the creation of all of these catalogues we received 100% - 200% support from Yohji Yamamoto Company. Never, ever, ever did they fail on fulfilling the specification that we requested. Designers always go for what they hope for. They say let' s ask for this and we' ll settle for something less. We would ask for these things - I asked for the catalogues to be thread sewn, for them to have dust covers, for them to be this kind of paper ... and they always fulfilled it. There was only one occasion and it was with that black catalogue that we discussing, that I received a fax the lady that Marc referred to as Madame Ischikawa, head of production, she sent me a fax saying ' Peter Saville, thread sewn not possible this time' . And I turned to Brett Wickens who worked with me, and said ' they' ve finally realised how much this costs' . And I wrote back to Ishikawa and I said, ' I understand, is it a problem for the budget?' which it would be, thread sewing catalogues is crazy - thread sewing is expensive ... I hadn' t even thought of it, but Ishikawa wrote back and she said that ' No, it' s not a problem for budget, but black thread for sewing books not possible' . Then she said, ' But we source black staples' . I was just stunned by that. We hadn' t thought of it. The entire catalogue in black was then going to have white thread. They were amazing in their support. Yohji wanted it and so they did it. They fulfilled it, which was amazing.
MG: Thanks Peter. Aside from fashion film, was there anything at the time that you felt - I wish we' d done this or if we had another season?
PS: We talked about forming an agency at one point - do you remember that? Yes, we did. At one point in the late 80s it become evident ... because there was no agency in the world that could do fashion ... there' s still no agency that can do fashion. Agencies operate on interpreting the trends to the mainstream. It' s fashion that sets the trends. It' s very difficult for an advertising person to sit down in front of a visionary fashion person, but we thought it would be interesting to create an agency that to some extent understood the process of advertising for fashion. We talked about it, but we didn' t do it.
MG: Thank you. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts.
Processes and techniques
Yohji Yamamoto's custom-made textiles use a variety of traditional Japanese techniques and other more common weaves such as gabardine and tweed. All his fabrics are made in Japan to his own specifications, making them unique to his designs.
Video: Yohji Yamamoto - Embroidery
Video: Yohji Yamamoto - Screenprinting
Video: Yohji Yamamoto - Shibori
The part that you can see right now, this is the part that they are dyeing now. The part that they do not want to dye now, they just put in the pot.
As we see, there are several colours already dyed inside the pot. It seems that at the beginning to make sure to change colours after to see exactly which parts he has to dye in blue and red and ... We have also the seam that we can see in there. He has to remove a little bit at the end because of the form of the cloth.
Video: Yohji Yamamoto - Yuzen
The kimono - they need several steps to dye once and again, again, again. Then go to the embroidery phase and maybe come back to finish then send it back again. This is the kimono process for clothing. We had to reduce, to go a simple way. You put on the back side, only for the part he is working on now.
Q: What is the ink made from?
It's not made from plants, but it's a chemical product. And, of course, he mixes the colours to make the special colour for the kimono.
Q: How long has he been doing this for?
Q: So how old was he when he started doing this?
He was 18.
Q: OK. And why did he decide to do this?
It was natural because his father was doing also that.
Q: And his father, did he follow his grandfather?
No, his father started, so he's second generation.
Q: Has it changed since his father was doing it?
No, they are keeping the same way, but of course it depends on era ... periods, if changing a motif, they are changing, so he adapts ...
Q: Does he worry that this is something that is dying out or does he see it ... does it have a future?
Nobody is taking his business after this moment - nobody. He works ten hours (a day) at least, sometimes more to finish the kimono, because it take four dys.
Q: Working ten hour days?
Yes. As we see, he starts with a red colour to complete the kimono. He finishes one motif to go to another motif. He tries to put the red colour on all parts of the kimono to not have a difference of colour for one kimono.
Q: So it's all free hand?
Yes. Completely. That motif, the small parts, already he puts a glue ... on the space to not have colour - he does not want to put colour on that part.
Q: You can't correct a mistake ...
He has to be quick to dry, to put another colour on. The company is very strict with the colour balance - so each time it's done, he has to remake again. This is a very big piece for the women who will have ... a very big ceremony - this is a kimono for that. It's going to be very gorgeous and something very important for the life of women.
Written to accompany the exhibition 'Yohji Yamamoto', 12 March - 10 July 2011.